Academics welcome US proposed Malala Scholarship Act

Pakistani academics have warmly welcomed proposed legislation in the United States senate that aims to provide special scholarships for Pakistani women to pursue higher education.

US senators Barbara Boxer and Mary Landrieu on 23 January introduced the “Malala Yousafzai Scholarship Act”, named after the Pakistani teenager and women’s education activist who was shot in the head in October last year by the Taliban.

She was shifted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham in the UK for treatment and survived the assassination attempt.

Yousafzai is from the Swat valley, where by 2009 Taliban activists had taken control and banned education for girls. The 15-year-old publicly opposed the ban and her advocacy of the rights of girls to education captured global attention through the international media.

The Taliban destroyed nearly 400 of 1,576 schools in the Swat valley, and 70% of them were schools for girls.

In May 2009 Pakistan’s army conducted an operation to purge the valley of Taliban, in which 1,200 militants and 90 military personnel were killed.

Afterwards, students returned to schools. Yousafzai’s advocacy for girls’ education continued, evoking Taliban remnants in the valley to want to silence her voice forever.

“Who is Malala, or I will kill all of you,” said a Taliban gunman, pointing his weapon at schoolgirls in a van that was dropping them at home. Yousafzai identified herself loudly to save the other girls, and was shot in the head.

She received treatment in Pakistan’s military hospital before being moved to the UK.

“I am proud to introduce the Malala Yousafzai Scholarship Act alongside Senator Boxer and to dedicate it to Malala and the millions of other girls and women who risk their lives every day to gain an education,” Senator Landrieu said.

The Boxer-Landrieu bill suggests a 30% increase in the existing USAID scholarship programme for Pakistan, with new opportunities to be exclusively for higher education access to young Pakistani women from poor families.

Professor Sabiha Mansoor, vice-chancellor of Lahore College Women University, told University World News: “The new US legislation for increasing Pakistani women’s access to higher education will prove a milestone towards achieving the objectives Malala advocated but the Taliban resisted.”

Mansoor said her university was the first to introduce 15 local scholarships in Malala Yousafzai’s name, announced on 10 November last year, the day United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared ‘Malala Day’.

The vice-chancellor of Rawalpindi’s Fatima Jinnah Women University, Samina Amin Qadir, told University World News: “The Boxer-Landrieu bill is a welcome initiative for increasing Pakistani women’s right to higher education and it should get maximum support from US senators when it comes to voting.

“This bill not only recognises Malala’s incredible courage, but will ensure that more young women in Pakistan are able to pursue their dreams through higher education.”

“Malala Yousafzai bravely advocated for the education of women and girls, something that should be a basic human right,” Senator Barbara Boxer said in a press release on 23 January.

The legislation aims to expand the USAID Merit and Need-Based Scholarship Program in Pakistan, which is already sponsoring academically qualified but financially needy students to pursue university study in agriculture and business administration, and enhancing the institutional capacity of partner universities and the Higher Education Commission.

So far 1,807 merit and need-based scholarships have been awarded to talented but disadvantaged Pakistani youth under the programme, and of those 850 recipients have completed undergraduate or graduate degrees.

Senator Boxer said that only 25% of the recipients of the scholarships had been women, and proposed a 30% increase in the number of scholarships for the next four years – to be awarded solely to women. The legislation would also expand the range of academic disciplines.