Unless we act, 531 million of today's girls will never complete a school education, and in the poorest countries only one in 700 will go to university.
Because of two recent tragedies -- the shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai last October, and the rape and murder in December of Indian student Jyoti Singh -- girls' rights have moved to the heart of the global agenda for change just as we celebrate the 102nd International Women's Day.
And now in quick succession a series of initiatives organized by women for women -- including Feb. 14's V-Day, the Girl Rising films which premiere this week, Girls not Brides, Plan International's 'Because I am a Girl' and Gucci's new Chime for Change program -- are making 2013 a turning point in the fight for the emancipation and empowerment of girls. For it is girls themselves, no longer prepared to tolerate the complacency of the adult world, who are standing up for their own rights. They are not just requesting changes in policy, but demanding that their concerns are center-stage. They sense that the future is theirs.
Understandably the focus of recent campaigns has been securing basic freedoms from forced marriage, violence and rape, as women fight to escape these forms of slavery. But girls want to do more than stop men violating their rights; they want to right wrongs. And so we are moving from the 20th-century movement of women's emancipation, where the issue was what we sometimes call 'negative freedom' -- from evils that ruined women's lives -- to the 21st-century empowerment of women. This demands that we also deliver opportunity, helping girls move out of exploitation and into education.
Go to Pakistan, where I met many of the million-strong Malala demonstrators demanding a girl's right to school. Travel to Bangladesh, where we now have girls who want to be saved from loveless marriages and to go to school, and so have created 'child-marriage-free zones', where girls group together as 'wedding busters' to prevent them being sold into marriage. Visit Nepal, which led the way in demonstrations for girls' rights. Attend the marches in India led by child laborers themselves, demanding not just an end to this form of slavery but the delivery of their right to learn a skill.
The demand for education reminds us that for most of history it has been adults -- and primarily men -- who have dictated whether or not the next generation is free to dream of a better future. But it also shows us girls themselves talking across frontiers and connecting with other girls, determined that adults will no longer trample on their rights. Indeed, the new superpower that cannot be ignored is the power that girls are rightly seizing for themselves.
If increasingly girls know that the only way to break the cycle of subordination is through education, International Women's Day is a sharp reminder that we still face a girls' education emergency. The stories of young girls' struggles to go to school are told in the Girl Rising film, released this week. Almost twice as many women as men are illiterate: 500 million adult women are unable to read or write.
But if nothing is done now, equality of opportunity will seem a distant dream, as an estimated 531 million of this generation's young girls will leave their teens without ever completing a basic school education.
Teenagers in the West now consider tertiary education a basic right, but things are starkly different in a country like Chad, where only one girl in 700 has that chance. In northern Nigeria the average length of girls' schooling is just six months, with several million Nigerian girls never at school. If the debate in the West is why women can't have everything, the debate in the developing world is still why so many women don't have anything.
Yet we know that girls' education -- and with it access to medical information -- also sparks the health revolutions that reduce infant mortality, maternal mortality, malaria, HIV and Aids, and prevent early marriage, early childbirths and poverty. We know, in truth, that there will be no success in attaining the other Millennium Development Goals until there is success in attaining the goal of universal education. No country will succeed for long unless its girls are free to express their talents, its women fully integrated into its political and economic life.
That is why a girl's right to education is becoming the civil rights issue of our time, the war of liberation that must be waged, the freedom fight for which we have to mobilize. It is perhaps no accident that the Taliban sought to deny Malala Yousafzai what they fear is the most powerful weapon of all: an education.
Even if a girl cannot shape the predetermined circumstances of her birth, she must now be able to shape a response to her fate. The empowerment of girls through education is the way we move from an old world -- where for centuries your rights have been only what your rulers decreed, your status and wealth what someone else ascribed to you -- to a new world, where even if your grandmothers and mothers were poor, you need not be poor too, and even if you were born without the chance to flourish, your daughters and your daughters' daughters need not be.
So today we announce the start of our campaign to promote the one change that will break the cycle of poverty: making sure that girls receive an education. We are demanding an end to all forms of child slavery by the end of 2015 -- including an end to child trafficking, forced marriage and child labor. And we are showing that we need higher levels of investment, and higher educational standards, to correct the injustices that come from birth and background, break the generation-to-generation cycle of poverty and deliver the unrealized promise of globalization, that every child can make the most of their potential.
By Dec. 31 2015, under the banner ' The Future is Hers', we aim to ensure that every one of the 32 million girls currently out of school has found a place to learn, and the education emergency that prevents them getting schooling is brought to an end. We have a set of bold new polices discussed with technology entrepreneurs, ambitious leaders of developing countries, the UN and the World Bank. It encompasses online courses in a hundred languages; smart-phone training for teachers; new hi-tech visual aids; and above all a determination to end child slavery and get two million teachers to work.
This Friday, on International Women's day, we are mobilizing for a year of change, showing that what seems impossible can be achieved: a day when any girl, in any country, from any background, can believe that the future is hers.
Gordon Brown will be in conversation with Malala's father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, on Friday March 8 in London, as part of Southbank Centre's WOW - Women of the World festival. Find out more about his work at educationenvoy.org and about the discussion here.