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Extending access to education for girls in developing countries

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Malala Yousafzai’s campaign for girls’ right to education has attracted global support and won her recognition as the youngest-ever Nobel laureate.


More than 60 million girls worldwide are missing out on education. Many of them have to work, care for family members, or marry and have children while they are still children themselves. The problem is particularly acute in conflict zones, poverty-stricken regions, and countries with legal or cultural barriers to girls’ education.

In 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was the target of an assassination attempt by the Taliban because of her public campaign for girls’ education in her province in Pakistan. After extensive medical treatment for life-threatening injuries, she made a full recovery and resumed her advocacy from her new home in Britain. In her first public speech after the attack, she addressed the United Nations with a call for worldwide access to education. The date of that speech—July 12, 2013, her 16th birthday—was subsequently celebrated as Malala Day.

With her father Ziauddin, an educator, Malala sought to build on the public’s outpouring of support to continue the struggle for girls’ education. The UN Special Envoy for Global Education, former UK prime minister Gordon Brown, asked McKinsey to help Malala with this mission. The Malala Fund was set up in 2013, and we immediately set to work to help define its founding vision, develop its strategy, and prepare its plan of action for the first few years.


The new organization sought to translate the worldwide interest sparked by Malala’s story into tangible improvements in girls’ lives. “When Malala established her fund, she had a lot of choices about the direction it would take,” said Lynn Taliento, the lead principal for the work. “We spent our time mapping the existing education landscape, identifying the gaps, and debating where and how she could best deploy her unique voice and influence in the world. In the end, we all agreed that the Fund should be an inspiring and bold advocate of girls’ education that actively supports and spotlights some of the most promising leaders and programs around the globe.” It decided to focus on the least-developed countries and organize its activities using three pillars:

  • Advocacy. Malala’s experience, courage, and articulacy make her uniquely qualified to raise awareness of barriers to girls’ education and act as a force for change.
  • Direct action. To achieve maximum impact, the fund offers grants and support to empower local education leaders and strengthen programs already in operation.
  • Amplifying girls’ voices. The fund provides a platform for girls to connect with one another, provide mutual support, and build a global movement.

Initially, the McKinsey team helped the Malala Fund to map the global education landscape and develop ideas for its activities; later, it turned to strategy and an operational plan. The goal articulated by the fund is to enable all girls to complete 12 years of safe, high-quality education so they can achieve their potential and bring about positive change in their families and communities. 


In its first 2 years of operation, the Malala Fund committed more than $3.5 million of funding—raised from philanthropists, institutional grants, and individual donations—to 11 local education projects and global initiatives promoting girls’ secondary education. It supported a number of projects:

  • scholarships, funding, and counseling for girls kidnapped by or under threat from Boko Haram in Nigeria
  • radio-based education for adolescent girls unable to attend school because of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone
  • help setting up a girls’ school in rural Kenya and an informal tech-training and entrepreneurship program for 300 girls from the Nairobi slums
  • learning programs for Syrian refugee girls in a camp in Jordan and an informal secondary school in Lebanon
  • efforts to increase enrollment for girls at secondary schools in Swat Valley in Pakistan, as well as relief work at girls’ schools following flood damage

In its short history, the Malala Fund has also influenced policy decisions in line with its goal. Examples include the following:

  • pressuring the international community to raise its ambitions for children’s education to 12 years from 9, as agreed upon in the sustainable-development goals at the 2015 United Nations General Assembly
  • securing more than a million signatures on a successful petition to the Global Partnership for Education to fund 12 years of education for the poorest girls in 60 developing countries
  • calling on donor countries to commit $1.4 billion in education aid for children affected by the long-standing conflict in Syria

In December 2014, Malala became the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, accepting it with these words: “I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is not. It is the story of many girls.” As the organization she founded points out, there are millions of young women throughout the world who want to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, and leaders, and they need others to believe in their future so they can make it a reality.

Muzoon Almellehan is one such example. The 17-year-old Syrian refugee told world leaders at the 2016 Supporting Syria conference in London, “We need education because Syria needs us.”

The Malala Fund is committed to giving Malala a global platform to speak out and a means to provide practical help to girls in great need around the world. Our formal involvement with the fund came to an end in 2014, but one of our partners continues to serve on its advisory board.