Malala Yousafzai speaks before the United Nations Youth Assembly July 12, 2013 at UN headquarters in New York.

Editor’s Note: Gordon Brown is a United Nations Special Envoy on Global Education. He was formerly the UK’s prime minister.

Story highlights

Brown: The courage of a wounded girl to force an entire army of terrorists onto the back foot

Pakistan cannot achieve its full potential until girls and boys are educated, Brown writes

Illiteracy will hold Pakistan back for decades unless something is done, he says

CNN  — 

The Taliban is now on the defensive after admitting that their attempt to assassinate Malala Yousafzai has been counterproductive.

It is a remarkable twist of history that it has taken the courage of a wounded 16-year-old girl to force an entire army of terrorists – with all their guns, bombs and grenades – onto the back foot.

Malala at U.N.: The Taliban failed to silence us

Gordon Brown

Reeling from adverse comment worldwide, Adnan Rasheed, the Taliban commander who spoke out on Wednesday, tried to suggest that all that the Taliban opposes is western education. But in trying to extricate the Taliban from the charge that they oppose girls’ schooling full stop, his comments reveal that the only education they favour is indoctrination and the only form of government they embrace theocratic.

Rasheed’s protestations are at odds with the reality of 1,000 closed schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan because of arson attacks - and threats of the same. Indeed schools have been shut hundreds of miles from any Pakistani army presence, undermining the claim that only schools used as army bases are attacked.

In the last few weeks alone, 14 young women were blown up when the bus carrying them from college was firebombed; a school principal was shot dead and his pupils maimed in broad daylight at a prize giving ceremony held in the playground of an all-girls school in Karachi; and a teacher was gunned down in front of her son as she drove to teach at another female college.

These atrocities testify to the continued war against education. Not a word the Taliban utter about the right of girls like Malala to go to school will be believed until they stop bombing schools, killing teachers and massacring girls.

Malala’s journey from near death to recovery

But Malala has shown it is possible to stand up to Taliban intimidation and, emboldened by her courage, two million Pakistanis have signed petitions supporting the right of girls to go to school, part of four million signatures worldwide. This includes a million signatures from out-of-school girls and boys in Pakistan, who supported – in some cases by putting thumb marks on the petition – a plea for universal education delivered to the Pakistani President and Secretary-General of the UN.

As I found when I visited Pakistan only a few months ago, the silent majority is prepared to be silent no more. With girls openly wearing ‘I am Malala’ headbands and t-shirts and identifying with Malala’s demands, they are defying Taliban threats - and Pakistan cannot ever be the same again.

A modern civil rights struggle is now underway, led by young people and influenced by online information about what is happening in other countries. Young people are insistent that education is a universal right, demanding that all the barriers that stand in the way – child labour, child marriage, child trafficking and blanket discrimination against girls – are pushed aside.

The recent revelations of both Taliban weakness and the strength of public opinion for education should signal much more than a set of petitions: it should be the start of a determined Pakistani effort to speed up the delivery of education to every girl and every boy. Pakistan cannot achieve its full potential until girls and boys are educated, for employment and for citizenship.

Today there are at least seven million girls and boys out of school in Pakistan – and most girls will never complete their education. Even in 2050, only one in five young adults will have had the chance of college or university on current trends.

Malala’s global voice stronger than ever

Illiteracy, especially among girls, will hold Pakistan’s development back for decades unless something is done. China, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and even Bangladesh will enrol millions of students at college and university – but while Pakistan’s population will grow to 300 or perhaps 400 million, making it one of the world’s most populated countries, it will remain in the dark ages for education.

The world’s other Malalas

We also know that young people denied opportunity fall prey to extremist propaganda. This is yet another reason why a new Pakistani national education plan is required, involving all NGOs, and, while recognising that education is a devolved not federal matter in Pakistan, a national consensus on doubling investment in schools is now urgently needed.

In the last few months, we have been working with the government, civil society organisations, UN sister organisations and donor governments to draw up proposals to expand education, to get girls in particular to school, and to help the provinces where education attendance is lowest. This includes Malala’s home of KPK, where 700,000 children are not at school, 600,000 of them girls.

Gordon Brown: The story of Malala’s friend

We will discuss these proposals at a summit meeting between the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Nawaz Sharif in September when the new Pakistani Prime Minister visits New York. And I will visit Pakistan to meet civil society organisations to assess the role they can play in improving educational opportunities for the left-out millions.

The good news is that we need no scientific invention or technological breakthrough to deliver education for all: we need instead the same willpower to move mountains that Malala showed when she stood up to the Taliban and lit the fuse that could inspire a modern educational revolution.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gordon Brown.