Androulla Vassiliou is European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth.
We often think of the issue of gender equality as a numerical matter or in terms of equality in career advancement. While the statistics prove beyond doubt that gender inequality exists at all levels of social, political and professional life, they cannot really reveal the whole truth. Shocking acts of violence are still being perpetrated against women and girls every day in many different parts of the world, even if we are less familiar in Europe with the worst examples of this systematic abuse.
The case of Malala Giousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who the Taliban tried to kill for promoting girls' education, is just one example of the unacceptable inequality and brutal repression faced by women and girls on a daily basis in some countries. And because education can be a vehicle to address and challenge this kind of oppression, the story of Malala has a lot to teach us.
Malala was barely 12 years of age when she first dared to publicly express her views about the closure of schools and deliberate attempts to prevent girls in her region from getting an education. While others had chosen silence or succumbed to oppression in the Swat Valley, Malala resisted.
She resisted because she rightly judged that fundamental issues of dignity cannot be ignored. She resisted because the right to education cannot be a gender issue. She resisted because change cannot take place without action.
Malala paid a heavy price for her resistance. On 12 October 2012 she was shot in the head by paid assassins who had seen in her face not only the resistance of women, but of every human being with dignity. Some regimes unfortunately derive their power and authority from the oppression of another person's dignity. And women in these regimes are almost always the first victims.
For the world of education, Malala is a symbol for ensuring and strengthening the right to education for all children - without exception. A principle which inspired pedagogy for centuries as a legacy of the great Comenius. Malala's country is far from being the only one where we see examples of resistance to the fundamental right to education.
In the European Union, in terms of school attendance and performance, the picture is of course a lot more reassuring, though far from perfect. The figures for 2012 show that early school leaving still amounts to around 13% of the general population. The corresponding figures are 11.1% for girls and 14.6% for boys. In term of literacy, girls achieve higher levels of performance than boys. The picture for children with a migrant background is, in many cases, worse.
The target we have set for reducing early school leaving, to below 10% by 2020, is attainable if Member States promote comprehensive measures, both in terms of curricula and in relation to improving teaching quality, use of technology, and social measures to support vulnerable groups.
On the occasion of International Women's Day (8 March 2013), I would like to draw the attention of the competent authorities to the importance of education in addressing social, religious and other prejudices that can keep girls away from school.