A community of optimists hosted by Melinda French Gates

Malala: We need a reset, not a recovery

4 min
An illustration of a woman wearing a headscarf, looking toward you with binoculars while young women walk over a bridge of books floating in the sky in the background.
Illustration by Hailey Coral
In honor of International Day of the Girl, we turned to one of the world’s leading champions for girls, Malala Yousafzai, and asked her what kind of world she wanted to see for women and girls as we rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s what she wrote.
Two young girls wear colorful dresses and head scarfs in a classroom. They are smiling and have their arms around each other.
Girls in Malala Fund programs in Pakistan
Photo by Insiya Syed for Malala Fund
Right now, many people are wishing for a return to normalcy, to our pre-pandemic routines, to not having to worry about seeing friends, eating in restaurants or planning a trip.

In quarantine, some of us lost important moments in our lives that we can never recreate – graduations, holidays, meeting a newborn grandchild. Some lost so much more, from jobs to loved ones.

And though things look better in parts of the world, we are still living with uncertainty. When will children go back to the classroom? When can I visit my family? Will I be rehired? Will the vaccines work?

I understand this feeling. Taking my college exams in my bedroom and graduating at home were not my plans for 2020. I’ve missed my friends and traveling to visit education activists and girls in other countries, as I did in the previous six years. Like many people my age, I feel suspended in time, ready to start my adult life but unable to leave my family home.

Yet I don’t want to return to “normal.” I believe this crisis has offered our world a chance to change for the better.

I don’t want to return to a world of accelerating climate change or racial injustice. I don’t want us to resume our lives while we continue to ignore discrimination and violence against religious and ethnic minorities. I don’t want us to finally leave our homes and neglect more than 70 million refugees, forced by conflict or persecution to leave their own.

We know that the pandemic has only exacerbated many of the problems women and girls faced before this health crisis. Before COVID-19, 129 million girls were out of school around the world; Malala Fund’s research estimates that 20 million more girls might never return to the classroom after the pandemic.

In too many communities, gender norms limit girls’ ambitions and increase their exposure to violence and exploitation. Girls are told they don’t need education because their value lies merely in marriage, motherhood and domestic labor.
Malala sits at a classroom desk among a group of young women in an Ethiopian classroom.
Malala in Ethiopia in 2019
Photo by Malin Fezehai for Malala Fund
Even in the midst of a global health crisis, we can see how gender discrimination creates barriers to progress: CARE reports that women make up only 24% of national COVID-19 response teams and too few governments are implementing measures for gender equality in their efforts to address the pandemic.

We need a reset, not a recovery.

We need economic systems that work for girls and women – not against them. We need to reshape the outdated curriculum that still defines what girls and boys learn in the classroom and take into the world. We need more women in decision-making roles on education policies and budgets.

To accomplish a reset, we’ll need leaders to mobilise a substantial financial stimulus for education. There are many ways to do this, through debt cancellation, aid budgets and tax reform in low-income countries. Let’s try them all!

And we’ll need advocates to push for policy change, at local, national, regional and international levels. Malala Fund supports educators and activists doing this work every day through our Education Champions Network. I will add my voice to theirs anywhere and everywhere it makes a difference.
Young women sit in a classroom in groups on blue chairs.
Girls working with Malala Fund Education Champion Paula Ferreira de Silva in Brazil
Photo by Yasmin Velloso for Malala Fund
I often say that my goal is to see every girl in school in my lifetime. But imagine that COVID-19 is a turning point, a time when we invest in education like never before in human history, a time when we finally make good on so many years of promises. Imagine that thousands of education activists around the world do not spend the rest of our lives fighting to get all girls in school. Imagine that millions of girls complete their education and help their economies grow, improve public health, slow the effects of climate change and strengthen democracy. Imagine that this goal isn’t a lifetime away.

The pandemic offers us an opportunity to speed up progress, to work together around the world – not to return to normal but to take a leap forward.