• Says Malala Fund has given nearly $10m for girls’ education in Pakistan
• Insists she will remain engaged with flood-hit communities; reveals plans for shows on Apple+

LAHORE: Once dubbed ‘the bravest girl in the world’, Malala Yousafzai has grown into a poised young lady of unwavering vision.

I first had the pleasure of meeting 16-year-old Malala in London, barely a year after she was attacked. I am Malala had just been released and she and her family were slowly adjusting to life in the UK.

A little over 12 months later, I found myself in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, shaking the hand of the youngest-ever Nobel Peace laureate, moments before she was to be conferred with the honor.

On both those occasions, Malala had looked me in the eye to say, “I will return home”.

I had my doubts, but she had none.

The campaigner for girls’ education is now on her second visit to Pakistan this year, and I caught up with her on a cool winter evening in Lahore to discuss her work, new partnerships and her plans for the future.

The Malala Fund has so far invested $9.6 million in projects aimed at improving girls’ access to quality education in various parts of Pakistan, while $700,000 has been allocated by the fund towards flood relief activities, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai said.

In a wide-ranging interview with Dawn during her visit to Pakistan, Ms Yousafzai revealed that the fund is currently working with the federal and provincial governments to ensure that around 13,000 government girls’ high schools have science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) teachers and a state-of-the-art environment.

Photo by Umar Farooq
Photo by Umar Farooq

In her view, investment in education will prove to be the key to addressing two Pakistan’s biggest problems, i.e. economic challenges and climate-related disasters.

“If you look at all the research on climate change it tells you that you have invest in gender equality, you have to invest in girls education — you have to address these problems, it helps us create more climate resilient economies, so I hope that going forward we will ensure that we are preparing ourselves against such calamities,” she said.

The Malala Fund, which commenced its operations in Pakistan in 2017, invests in education advocates and activists who are “challenging the policies and practices that prevent girls from going to school in their communities”.

“These are the activists I support through the Malala Fund… on a local, federal and provincial level… because I believe their activism can actually make a change. We are always open to ensuring an exchange of knowledge and expertise,” Ms Yousafzai said.

She believes that in order to see a change in the country; in policies, social norms and perspectives; all stakeholders need to be taken on board.

“You have to be able to talk to civil society, you have to talk to the experts, to the educators, to people who are doing research work but also you have to open to be able to work with the government as well,” she said, acknowledging that Pakis­tan was currently facing many challenges.

“[Pakistan] is vulnerable to climate change disasters… resources are limited and there are additional external challenges as well… but people here are passionate about seeing positive change.”

Flood relief

In October 2022, following the devastating deluge that inundated more than a third of the country, Malala’s visit to meet with flood-impacted communities across Sindh made international headlines. In an effort to rebuild lives, the Malala Fund initiated rehabilitation efforts in Dadu and its surrounding areas.

Photo by Umar Farooq
Photo by Umar Farooq

Recounting her whirlwind trip to the flood-affected areas earlier this year, Ms Yousafzai said: “We saw how many villages were completely covered in water. I had the opportunity to go Dadu where I visited a camp, met with families and some amazing girls there who were at the secondary level of their education. A lot of them were not in their schools because their schools were either under flood waters, or they had been displaced.”

When asked whether she plans to make a follow-up visit, Ms Yousafzai said she makes sure to stay in touch with the communities she visited and would continue to provide support for girls’ education.

Oxford Pakistan Programme

During her time at university, the Oxonian said she felt that there was not much content on Pakistan — a lack of scholars from Pakistan and of opportunities for Pakistani students. According to her, some of her friends came up with the idea of starting the Oxford Pakistan Program­­me, which provides scholarships for students from her home country.

Photo by Umar Farooq
Photo by Umar Farooq

“Alongside the financial support system for students faced with challenges to… [continuing] their studies… we also initiated the Allama Iqbal Lecture Series. We want to bring attention to the Pakistani and South Asian perspective; to our culture, our history and the diversity of thought and philosophy that comes from our region.”

Ms Yousafzai said she would personally be supporting the scholarship of one Pakistani female student who comes from a difficult background.

In addition, she said, the Malala Visiting Fellowship “is very definitely the first of many fellowships to come. I hope more and more people will support this fellowship programme, the scholarships and all the academic initiatives we are doing”.

Foray into showbiz

While she continues to don many hats as an activist, Ms Yousafzai’s recent foray into the world of television and cinema has been an unusual detour, even for someone whose interests are as diverse as her’s.

With her newly-minted venture Extracurricular Productions, Malala has joined hands with Apple TV+ and claims currently to have six or seven projects in the works, with several more concepts awaiting approval in the pipeline.

Photo by Umar Farooq
Photo by Umar Farooq

“Two of our upcoming shows are based on books: one being an adaptation of Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie — a heartrending coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s quest for acceptance in post-World War II Japan. The other is Disorientation, the witty tale of campus chaos by Elaine Hsieh Chou for which we are working with Adam McKay. Another is based on a matriarchal society of fisherwomen who live on Jeju Island in South Korea,” she divulged, before stopping herself from revealing any more spoilers.

“Often we think of activism, from the lens of the NGO sector, but we have to ensure we explore other means as well. That is why I am focused on writing as well as producing television content. I know it is a lot of work, but I enjoy it because I believe it can have an impact,” she said.

Earlier this year, Ms Yousafzai turned executive producer with the critically acclaimed Joyland, that faced much opposition at home, despite being slated to be Pakistan’s nomination for the Oscars.

When asked what prompted her to become part of the project, she explained: “Joyland deserves all the praise and positive attention it is getting. For me, the movie was deeply moving and I have personally learnt so much from it.”

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2022

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