Standing up for Canberra

Malala Yousafzai Motion

It is a great pleasure and honour to speak on this motion tonight and I commend and congratulate the member for Casey for bringing it forward. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl the Taliban tried to assassinate, is thankfully recovering albeit slowly and is in relatively good health.

On 9 October 2012 when this young activist living in the Swat district of Pakistan was attacked by the Pakistani Taliban on her way to school, Malala grabbed worldwide attention when she began to tell her story online, a story of the Taliban's repressive regime. In the period following the dislodgement of the Taliban, Malala persisted in informing the world about the situation and in particular the difficulties confronting young girls striving for an education.

Malala was one of five nominees for the International Children's Peace Prize in 2011 and she was awarded the inaugural Pakistan National Peace Award in December 2011. After the attack on her bus, Malala was evacuated to Birmingham where she underwent major surgery. After being discharged, Malala is reported as saying that she will be an advocate for the right for 'every girl, every child, to be educated'. Malala is an inspiration to us all because she has taken a very brave and public stance against repression by the Taliban of women and the rights of women to be educated.

When the mujahideen and later the Taliban took control of regions of Afghanistan in the 1980s and early 1990s, they set about burning thousands of schools. The Taliban and their allies murdered thousands of teachers. They destroyed the education system and created a fear of learning in the areas they controlled. From the mid-1990s the Taliban began a campaign of violent repression aimed at preventing school-age girls and boys from obtaining an education.

In some quarters it is fashionable to oppose the work that we are doing in Afghanistan. Yet over the past decade there has been a recognised increase in children attending schools and getting a much-valued education. There are media reports highlighting how parents in Afghanistan and Pakistan are desperately trying to get their children into education. Parents in these countries quite understandably want their children to be taught to read and write and learn science and maths so that they can get good jobs and support their families. I read one account from an Afghani woman who said of the Taliban:

We supported them for 10 years … And what have we got in return? They’re not letting us send our children to school or to the provincial hospital. I guess their next idea will be to bury our daughters alive to make sure they never go to school, work in an office, or walk around without a veil.

It is not just Afghanistan where the Taliban's repression is suppressing young people seeking an education. According to data from UNICEF, only about one-third Pakistani children aged between five and nine are enrolled in primary education and UNICEF reports that two-thirds of girls and almost half of the boys in Pakistan do not complete primary school.

In Pakistan there exists a thriving market for private education because there are parts of that country where it is almost impossible for young girls and boys to attend school. Both the Pakistani government and opposition leaders widely condemn the attack on Malala and they have vowed to continue to fight against extremism. Yet it has taken the bravery of Malala to bring to the fore the situation that exists in her country and also in Afghanistan. The Taliban's education policy is pretty straightforward: they oppose reading, they oppose books, they oppose kites, they oppose public education and, most of all, they oppose girls being educated.

The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is improving—and I saw it firsthand on my visit to Afghanistan two years ago—but it is only happening in certain areas. The Australian government has provided education assistance for female students in some of Pakistan's most remote and marginalised communities. In Afghanistan, I understand that a million girls are now going to school, which is an extraordinary and dramatic achievement in such a short period of time. When I was there I enjoyed seeing these girls skipping along in their uniforms with their little friends, heading off to school or coming home from school at the end of the day, having had a wonderful experience of learning and being educated and working to build their nation.

Prime Minister Gillard has stated on the record our resolve to continue supporting Malala's work and to pursue measures so that young girls like Malala can be free to go to school to learn and to have the opportunity to be educated in a safe environment. I wish Malala a full and speedy recovery and I wish her and her family a safe, happy and educated life.

Download a copy of this speech.