LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistani teenage rights activist Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban, told an international summit that getting girls into class is crucial for ending child marriage.
Contrary to some perceptions, she said Islam positively encouraged girls to get an education and those who thought otherwise should study the Koran.
The 17-year-old spoke on Tuesday at Girl Summit in London, a conference aimed at galvanising a worldwide movement to end child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) in a generation.
“Education is the best way we can fight all the problems we’re discussing now,” Malala told delegates from 50 countries.
Worldwide, 700 million women alive today were children when they married, some were as young as eight. Almost half of child brides are in South Asia.
Malala said child marriage in Pakistan was fuelled by poverty, tradition and lack of education, but to loud applause she told the summit that traditions were manmade and could be changed.
“Traditions are not sent from heaven, they are not sent from God. (It is us) who make cultures. We have the right to change it and we should change it. Those traditions that go against the health of girls, they should be stopped.”
Child marriage deprives girls of education and opportunities and puts them at risk of serious injury or death if they have children before their bodies are ready. They are also more vulnerable to domestic and sexual violence.
Malala was shot by the Taliban on a school bus in 2012 after she campaigned for girls' education. The Taliban had periodically shut down schools in northwest Pakistan where she lived.
She said those who thought Islam opposed girls' education were wrong: “In Islam girls are allowed to get education. It’s the duty and responsibility of every person, whether a boy or a girl, to get education and knowledge… I think there are some people who need to read the Koran again and do a little bit more study.”
BANGLADESH TARGETS CHILD MARRIAGE
Malala, who now campaigns for worldwide access to education and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, recently visited Nigeria where more than 200 schoolgirls have been abducted by Boko Haram, a militant group inspired by the Taliban whose name means "Western education is sinful".
She met the parents of the abducted children and girls who had escaped capture by throwing themselves from a truck.
“Those girls were telling me they were still not getting education and no one is supporting them. I was really sad when I heard those girls don’t have any protection. No one has even taken them to see a doctor,” Malala said, explaining they had been injured as they jumped.
She said she had decided through the Malala Fund to give $200,000 to start projects to provide education, safety and healthcare for the girls.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also emphasised that Islam was not incompatible with girls’ empowerment, pointing to the fact that in her country’s parliament, the leader of the house, leader of the opposition, deputy leader and speaker were all women.
She said Bangladesh had brought down high rates of child marriage in the last 20 years.
“By 2021 there will be no marriages taking place in Bangladesh below the age of 15. That I can assure you,” she said, referring to the year Bangladesh will celebrate its 50th anniversary, by which time it aims to be a middle income country. Child marriage below 18 will end by 2041, she added.
(Editing by Alisa Tang: firstname.lastname@example.org)