The project required complete secrecy. Not even its name or location could be disclosed, for security reasons. And although it was announced with great fanfare by actress and activist Angelina Jolie, the key sponsor wouldn’t be able to visit the site for years.

Launched in April 2013, the US$45,000 project sent 40 girls ages 5 to 12 back to school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley region. It marked the first initiative for Malala Fund, launched one year after its founder, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by a masked gunman.

The near-fatal attack by Taliban militants inspired the then-teenage education activist to establish her nonprofit group to break down the barriers that keep 130 million girls out of school around the world.

From 2007 to 2015 in Pakistan alone, extremists attacked 867 schools—many targeted because they taught girls. The nation has the world’s second-highest dropout rate for girls, with just 13 percent still in school by ninth grade.

US­$45,­000

Budget of Malala Fund’s first project in Pakistan

US$6 million

Amount Malala Fund had invested in education projects across Pakistan by 2018

US$3 billion

Amount Malala Fund secured in 2018 from the leaders of G7 countries for girls’ education

Since the debut project, Malala Fund has invested US$6 million in building schools for girls and rolling out technology for home-based education in Pakistan.

“I am grateful to Malala for her invaluable efforts to promote education, a task our leaders failed to accomplish,” a shopkeeper in Shangla told The Express Tribune after dropping his three daughters at the school. “We have just one Malala today but after a decade or so, we will have Malalas everywhere.”

Currently studying at Oxford University, Yousafzai wasn’t able to return to Swat Valley until a brief visit in 2018 that required intense security. But that first project planted a deep seed of hope.

“Let us turn the education of 40 girls into 40 million girls,” Yousafzai proclaimed at the time.

The nongovernmental organization is living up to the promise, launching initiatives on three continents. In 2018, Malala Fund secured US$3 billion from the leaders of G7 countries to support girls’ education.

And now the organization’s project portfolio reaches far beyond Pakistan. Many fall under the umbrella of the 10-year, US$100 million Gulmakai Network initiative, which establishes a network of education advocates in developing countries to assess and deliver region-specific solutions:

  • Brazil: Gulmakai Network advocates worked with local leaders and girls to develop standards for curriculum as well as school operations and transportation. Online training courses help teachers improve gender equality and reduce discrimination.
  • Sierra Leone: When the Ebola outbreak in 2015 forced school closures, Malala Fund developed a plan to provide radio-based education for 1,200 marginalized girls.
  • Afghanistan: Malala Fund began recruiting female teachers in an effort to inspire more girls to enroll. Teach for Afghanistan is among more than 40 programs around the world with similar goals. And those initiatives have paid off: 70 percent of the women who have completed the programs ended up working in education for disadvantaged children.
  • Lebanon: A digital learning platform uses solar-powered box servers to provide education for Syrian refugee girls. Designed to help the children adapt to the Lebanese curriculum and make up for lost time in school, the network was scaled to 10,000 students in 2018.