One hundred and thirty million girls are out of school. As I travel the world to advocate for them, not every day is easy.
Some days I meet girls who have to fight so hard for a right they already have. This summer I met Najlaa, a Yazidi teenager in Iraq. At 14, her parents took her out of school and told her she would be married.
On her wedding day, Najlaa kicked off her high heels and ran away — still in her wedding dress. She wasn’t ready to give up on her education and dreams of becoming a journalist.
When she was 16, ISIS invaded her village and forced her to flee again. Today she lives as an internally displaced person in Kurdistan and walks more than an hour to school each day.
Girls like Najlaa inspire me to keep working — but I also wonder what else these determined and talented young women could give the world if they didn’t have to work so hard just to go to school.
Some days I’m discouraged by leaders who could send every girl to school, but still don’t.
At the United Nations two years ago, leaders committed to ensuring every girl receives 12 years of education by 2030. Since then, donor countries have either flatlined or decreased their aid to education. None of the nine biggest countries in Africa, Latin America and developing Asia have increased their education budgets. Several are even making drastic cuts, putting more girls out of school.
Some days are hard — but I refuse to believe the world will always be as it is today.
At Malala Fund, we are working to change the world for girls by investing in educators and advocates in developing countries. These women and men understand the challenges girls face in their communities — child marriage, poverty, conflicts and wars — and are best placed to develop solutions.
In Afghanistan, they are recruiting female teachers to work in rural schools. In Nigeria, they are running mentorship clubs to help girls resist family pressure to drop out and marry as young as 13 years old. In Lebanon, they are developing e-learning programmes to teach STEM skills to Syrian refugee girls.
Progress may be slow, but I believe we can see every girl in school in my lifetime. I believe in local educators and activists, who are challenging policies and priorities that keep girls out of school. I believe in girls like Najlaa, who are leading the fight for themselves and their sisters. I believe in millions of people around the world, who are supporting our movement for education and equality.
Earlier this year, someone asked me, “After everything you’ve been through and everything you’ve seen, how do you keep from being hopeless?”
I thought about it and, after talking for a moment about all the things to be grateful for in my own life, I said, “I think it’s pointless to be hopeless. If you are hopeless, you waste your present and your future.”
If we choose to focus on the obstacles, we may be tempted to believe it is impossible to give every girl the education she deserves. But if we want a brighter future — for them and for ourselves — we must invest in girls today.
I hope you’ll join me to work for a world where every girl can learn and lead without fear.
This appears in the January 15, 2018 issue of TIME.