A Message from Rizwan Tufail
Education transforms lives. Growing up in rural Pakistan, my father had to walk three miles each way to school every day. The vision that inspired him was his desire to help people, to save them from the early death that had visited his own mother. When an antiquated education system stood in his way, he chose his dream over community and family, traveling abroad to study and become a doctor. Because of his efforts, my siblings and I have had lives full of limitless opportunities.
My father was the lucky one in his family. His sisters were never schooled, and in turn, never supported their own children’s educational ambitions. Three years ago, my cousin, who, with little educational opportunities available to him had made his living as a laborer at a chemical factory, died of asbestos poisoning, developed over 20 years of working there. He was 37 years old.
After nearly a decade of living and working in Africa leading Microsoft’s education-focused work, I am all too aware of the sad fact that there are still too many children in developing countries that are denied the opportunity to learn and educate themselves. UNESCO estimates there are still 61 million children of school-going age not at school. Even for those at school, the dream of a better life still forces many to leave their homelands. I dream of the day when schools within our communities become the springboards of hopes and dreams for our next generations.
My work gave me the opportunity to travel widely within the Middle East and Africa region, visiting schools and universities. The work I undertook with the Ministries of Education was focused on helping them in their drive for quality universal education. But in every country I went to, I was struck by the gender imbalance of the classes, schools and colleges I visited. The female children were conspicuous by their absence; their countries seemed to be leaving the girl-child behind.
In many respects, it is the little girls of today that we need in the schools the most; Amartya Sen’s research, amongst many others, has highlighted the multi-generational effect that comes from educating girls. As the mothers of tomorrow, they will nurture and mold the values, personalities and beliefs of our coming generations. In countries that have encouraged gender-parity in their educational policies, or at least have not actively discriminated against girls, we see women playing active roles leading industry, government and the civil sector. Entering a critical phase of our collective economic history, we just cannot hope to succeed by ignoring the potential, creativity and intelligence inherent within 50% of our human race.
As a father of two young, bright girls, I have a personal interest in ensuring that girls get access to the best educational opportunities. I am pleased to see Gordon Brown take up the issue of universal access to schooling. In my view, the Education First initiative by the UN is our best – and maybe last - chance of the nurturing and supporting each child’s dream, within his/her own community, irrespective of gender or race. I don’t think we can wait any longer.
Rizwan Tufail is an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at the Harvard University. He was previously the Regional Director for Africa for Microsoft, and served as the Regional Education Head for the Middle East and Africa region