The assassination attempt that left Malala Yousafzai in a critical condition prompted an international press storm. Since then, Malala has become a well-known name worldwide. At only sixteen years of age, Malala has published her memoirs, addressed the United Nations, been the Queen’s guest at Buckingham Palace and earlier this year, Malala was in contention for a Nobel Peace Prize. According to Deutsche Welle, Malala is now the most famous teenager in the world; given her international prominence, this claim hardly seems farfetched.

What is genuinely shocking, however, is just how exactly Malala became a household name as a campaigner for education for girls. In the West, we tend to think of women’s rights and equal access to education as hard earned universal principles. Schooling for girls isn’t the kind of principle that merits debate, let alone murder and violence. And yet Malala’s case throws light on just how fragile these principles are in a global context.

The Global Campaign for Education estimates that nearly 61 million children across the globe are deprived of access to a basic education, nearly 60% of them girls. At roughly 55%, Malala’s native country of Pakistan has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world and one of the grossest disparities in literacy rates between men and women (35% for women, 62% for men). The problem is exacerbated in the countryside, where the female literacy rate is just 25% and only one in five girls are enrolled in school.

There has been legitimate criticism of the mechanism that has made girls’ education in Pakistan an international issue whilst simultaneously silencing the voices of other people from the same area, such as the victims of drone attacks. Nevertheless, in the face of these bleak statistics, Malala’s story is rendered doubly important and highlights what is essentially a historical problem. Throughout the ages, girls’ education has been secondary to boys’ all over the world. In China, education was denied to women in conjunction with the practice of foot-binding on the basis that a woman’s virtue lay in her purity and lack of knowledge; an idea that dominated from the times of Imperial China until the 19th century. An almost identical policy was brought to Africa by Christian missionaries, who focused on educating boys whilst providing only the basic education for girls so that they could fulfill their role within the home and promote Western, supposedly ‘Christian’, gender roles.

However, a few societies have managed to buck this trend. In 1878, the University of Calcutta became one of the first universities in the world to admit female graduates, before any British universities had done the same; the University of London followed suit later that same year. Although this is something that, as university students, we all take for granted, it is also a clear example of how far we’ve come and perhaps grounds for hope for the future.