Malala Yousafzai on how the pandemic could put millions of girls out of school: 'We need to act sooner than later'

The Nobel laureate appeared virtually at the 2021 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace prize laureate Malala Yousafzai attends an event about the importance of education and women empowerment in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on July 9, 2018. - The event is promoted by a private bank and the Malala Fund, that aims to build a global movement to ensure girls at least 12 years of schooling. (Photo by Miguel SCHINCARIOL / AFP)
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Even when the Covid-19 pandemic begins to wane, and students trickle back into classrooms, there is still a risk that many girls will not be able to return to school.

"We need to ensure that we act on this sooner than later," Malala Yousafzai said on Saturday at the 2021 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. "We need to treat it as an emergency. This pandemic has affected jobs, affected our daily lives and it affects our education."

A research conducted by Yousafzai's non-profit organisation, Malala Fund, during the start of the pandemic found more than 20 million girls in developing countries were at risk of dropping out of school due to the pandemic.

“The reasons for this could be because many girls are pushed into forced marriages or because they have become financial supporters of their families and since they now have extra work, they won’t be able to return to school,” said Yousafzai, who only last year received her bachelor’s from Oxford University, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics.

Yousafzai, 23, said she hopes governments, teachers and activists will all play their part in making sure girls in developing countries return to school in the wake of the pandemic.

"We also need to ensure that girls are learning from home at this time," the Nobel laureate said.  She added that the Malala Fund started projects that focused on education during the pandemic, including distance learning and online classes.

The fund also helps empower activists in eight countries, including Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and Brazil, in their fight for the education of young girls.

“In Nigeria, they started doing radio lessons because people listen to the radio a lot in the northern states,” she said. “In Pakistan, they worked on a mobile app and provided lessons through the national television. So there are ways to make sure children continue to learn but the next step is making sure they return to school.”

Speaking of the current changing times, “this has been a time of awakening for me because it’s just a reminder that things are not always as you perceive them to be,” Yousafzai said. “We need to be aware of what the impact of such disasters could be on the progress we are making.”

The education activist's dream for the world "is simple but big", she said.

“All girls should be in school and they should have the right to receive safe, quality and free education. They should have the right to complete 12 years of education. Every girl should have the right to dream and then to fulfill those dreams.”

However, Yousafzai acknowledges the road to fulfilling that dream is a long and arduous one. The gender disparity in education is great with more than 130 million girls are currently out of school, Yousafzai said. But the problem is not just about girls who are not able to attend school but also those who are not receiving quality education.

Yousafzai added that we should all try to do what we can in our capacity via the resources and opportunities available to us.

“That could be highlighting something on social media or donating to a cause,” she said. “To writing a letter to your local political leader, your government and asking them about the issue.”

Asked by the session’s moderator Alia Al Mansoori, an Emirati teenage pupil who won the 2017 Genes in Space UAE competition, whether she gets demotivated reading some of the negative comments posted online, Yousafzai said she tried her best not to pay attention to “the trolls.”

There will be those who will stand against the change you'd like to bring on to the world, Yousafzai said. It was important not to be deterred, she added.

“The change that we are bringing, that is what scares the trolls,” she said. “The change of women taking the lead, of becoming astronauts, political leaders, scientists, CEOs. That is the change that scares some people. That is the change they don’t want to see. Rather than replying to their comments, I think all we need to do is continue our work.”

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature continues until Saturday, February 13. More information is at