/ 7 December 2023

Malala Yousafzai calls on SA to lead ‘gender apartheid’ fight

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Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai arrives for the Kering Foundation's second annual Caring for Women Dinner at The Pool in New York City on September 12, 2023. (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images)

Nobel peace prize laureate Malala Yousafzai has called on South Africa to throw its weight behind the codification of “gender apartheid” to the United Nations treaty that is being amended, to make it a crime against humanity.

“South Africans fought for racial apartheid to be recognised and criminalised at the international level. In the process, they drew more of the world’s attention to the horrors of apartheid,” said Malala.

The global education activist was delivering the keynote address at the 21st annual Nelson Mandela Foundation lecture at the Joburg Theatre, where she highlighted the oppression that women and girls in Afghanistan were facing under the Taliban. The lecture marked the 10th anniversary of Mandela’s death.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian after the lecture, Malala said she “could not have found a better opportunity to speak on the issue” of gender apartheid.

“I am here in South Africa speaking at the Nelson Mandela lecture, but at the same time I want to create solidarity that when oppression happens against women and girls anywhere, we should all stand up, because it is not only about protecting the women and girls in Afghanistan. We are also sending a message to girls elsewhere that we cannot allow this to happen to you either in the future,” she said.

Malala and the former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have been leading the call for UN member states to include gender apartheid as a crime against humanity.

She said South Africa has the ability to “champion” and “influence” other states to back the amendments to the UN treaty.

“The conversation against gender apartheid will go through a long process and different countries will be taking part in this. I believe the countries who care about women and girls and who care about the issues of apartheid, in general, can take a stand,” said Malala.

“South Africa has a very important role to play in championing the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan and they can influence other countries as well on why it is important to call it gender apartheid.”

Yousafzai, who was 15 when the Taliban shot her in the face for speaking up for her right as a girl to receive an education, said the oppression of women and girls has continued since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, and that the world was not paying attention.

“It took a bullet to my head for the world to stand with me. What will it take for the world to stand with the girls and women of Afghanistan?” she asked. 

The activist said she felt “solidarity” when she met former first lady and speaker at the annual lecture, Graça Machel, adding that South Africa had too experienced the oppression that women and girls in Afghanistan face.

She said the world needs to show “sympathy” to conflict, displacement and wars happening in Sudan, Yemen and Gaza.

“It’s important for us to carry sympathy and to hold pain and it is possible for us to hold pain for a lot of people at the same time, we have that human capacity and it is important for us to speak out about injustices anywhere where it is happening.” 

Malala is among other activists and Hollywood celebrities, including Palestinian model Bella Hadid and actors Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon, who have been calling for a ceasefire in Gaza after the Israel Defence Force attacked Gaza.

The bombing of Gaza by Israel was in response to attacks in Israel on 7 October by Hamas, in which 1 200 people died and about 250 were kidnapped. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called Israel’s response a “war” on Hamas. He has come under severe criticism for using disproportionate force, which has led to the deaths of more than 16 000 Palestinians, according to figures from the Gaza Health Ministry, which operates under the authority of Hamas.  

“There needs to be an immediate ceasefire and we need to protect the women and children and the people – we just don’t know how many more children will lose their lives and how many more schools and hospitals will be destroyed if this continues,” Malala said.

She added that all parties in the conflict must stand by international law and be held accountable if laws are broken.

“There is huge loss, and countries need to make sure that there is accountability on standing by the international law no matter who is in power and no matter which country it is and how many allies you have.”

Malala, the youngest recipient of the Nobel peace prize at the age of 17, said although the world’s focus is on world crises, they should not forget that there are urgent issues in education systems around the world that need to be addressed.

“Not only is there a problem of access to education but also the quality of education, and I think that it’s important for us to reflect on the education systems we have because education is shaping the future generations of leaders and changemakers,” she said.

Earlier in 2023, Yousafzai met girls who had been displaced by the Boko Haram crisis in Nigeria to continue her advocacy for access to education for girls.

In South Africa, the nonprofit organisation Equal Education, in partnership with other civil society organisations, called on Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to urgently fulfil the legal obligations set out in the Norms and Standards for Public School Infrastructure, which was signed into law 10 years ago.

Malala said issues relating to education and the future of girls should not be ignored. 

“Education is oftentimes not seen as an urgent issue and is ignored, underfunded and under resources in countries including Africa. Even the girls that are in school oftentimes are not receiving quality education, they are facing harassment and violence.”