Malala's New Film—Will Action Follow the Acclaim?

Malala Yousafzai
Malala Yousafzai attends the premiere of "He Named Me Malala" at the Ziegfeld Theater in Manhattan, New York, September 24. Andrew Kelly/Reuters

A powerful feature-length film about Pakistani Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai broadcasts this week in 171 countries, and will reach hundreds of millions with her message of the value of girls' education.

From her new home in England, Malala's advocacy has been tireless, yet for many girls in her native Pakistan, things haven't improved and for Syrian girls, education is harder to access than ever before.

For decades, economists have known the truth of Malala's message: Girls' education is not only a right, it's a key facet of strengthening a society overall. Due to the resounding health and economic benefits, including growth in national wealth girls' education is considered one of the most important investments that governments can make.

And many do.

In fact, globally, government aid agencies give as much as $13 billion per year to education. And when we surveyed a group of 44 education donor organizationsgovernment agencies and corporate and private foundationsmany cited the "Malala Effect" as bringing unprecedented attention that helped increase their budgets for girls' education.

But too often, those funds don't reach into the corners where they're most needed.

Most organizations have little or no ability to work in the violence-affected areas of countries like Afghanistan where girls are most tragically behind; and families who rely on state education are left helpless when the state breaks down during civil war, as is the case in Syria and Somalia.

Other factors also play a role in preventing girls from being educated despite the money and attention Malala brings to the case.

Amid the kind of insecurity of war and poverty we saw in Colombia and Guatemala for years, families are more likely to constrain their daughters' movement and education. When extremists take control, like the Taliban in Pakistan, some go so far as to bomb schools and prohibit girls' education entirely.

Education donors are often rightly fearful of working in regions where they and their programs could be attacked, or their mere presence is so controversial it provokes attacks against the population they're trying to help.

We see these factors playing out in countries where literate, educated girls' are most needed. In refugee communities outside Syria, for example, boys outnumber girls as much as three to one in university and the rate of child marriage has as much as doubled. This is even more tragic given that before the war, most Syrian boys and girls went to school, and in near equal proportions even at university level.

Now, to make Malala's message a reality, we need a breakthrough in girls' education.

Look at our militaries once centered on epic state-on-state battles like Stalingrad and Midway they've had to evolve to fight modern enemies that are networks rather than states, like Al-Qaeda. Similarly, education needs to evolve. States are still the drivers of education, but amid war and uncontrolled flows of refugee populations, they must facilitate networks of partners and promote innovation.

Unfortunately, states are often a barrier to education. Take the case of Turkey, a country with half a million Syrian children, 70 percent of whom are not learning in school or in other programs. Until this year - the fourth year of the war - the government refused registration to top international education nonprofits, effectively blocking funding and opportunities for hundreds of thousands of children.

There is a better way, and Jordan may be leading the charge. In Jordan, a country with half the GDP of Turkey, 64 percent of Syrian children are in school and 100,000 are learning in other settings. The dozens of partners support the education strategy. Innovations are taking hold, facilitated by the government, such as drop in centers where the most vulnerable children can build literacy, life-skills, and even learn to code.

There are, in fact, important actors working in conflict-affected states from UNHCR to the International Rescue Committee. Their experiencesfrom early warning networks in Cote d'Ivoire to clandestine home schools in Afghanistancan help girls beat the odds.

While Malala's story has inspired the world to take action, governments need to clear the way, reinvisioning their role as more than providers, but also strategic leaders and facilitators. Only then will we help girls and boys in intractable places like Syria, Afghanistan or Nigeria.

Dr. Rebecca Winthrop is the director of the Center for Universal Education at The Brookings Institution. What Works in Girls' Education: Evidence for the World's Best Investment, by Gene Sperling and Rebecca Winthrop, will be released October 11, Day of the Girl. @RebeccaWinthrop

Dr. Xanthe Ackerman is the founder of Advancing Girls' Education in Africa, the executive director of the Fuller Project for International Reporting, and author of numerous reports on girls' education. @XAckerman