A lot of Bozeman middle-school students wished they never had to go to school — until they learned Tuesday about girls in Pakistan who want an education so badly they risk their lives.

Genevieve Chabot of Bozeman told students at Chief Joseph Middle School that she just returned from London, where she met Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot in the head by the Taliban for her outspoken advocacy of education for girls.

Chabot was one of several speakers at the school's fourth annual Human Rights Day celebration, sponsored by its One Million Ways Club.

Chief Joseph students went silent as Chabot retold how the Taliban threatened Malala's father with death for creating a school for girls. One day last year, the Taliban tried to assassinate Malala by shooting her in the face and neck. Doctors in London saved her life.

Chabot founded the nonprofit Iqra Fund in 2011 to educate girls in remote tribal villages of Pakistan by raising money for scholarships and hiring local teachers. Chabot said she stayed a couple of nights with Malala's family, and the 16-year-old girl talked with some of her Iqra scholarship students in Pakistan by Skype.

“She's feeling now like nobody can stop her,” Chabot said of Malala. “Her dream is to get every single girl in the world an opportunity for an education.”

Though the right to an education is one of the 30 basic human rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, today 66 million girls around the world aren't allowed to attend school, Chabot said.

To help Bozeman sixth- to eighth-graders visualize what life is like in Pakistan, Chabot had all the boys stand up. If we were in Pakistan, she said, the boys would get to stay in school.

The girls would have to go home to collect water and firewood and make food. The girls would wait for the day when, at age 13, 14 or 15, they would learn that their father had found them a husband.

“Right now, all girls can say is ‘Yes father,'” she said. “That is all they're worth.”

Chabot said when she talked with Pakistani villagers, she was surprised that they wanted their daughters to get an education, too. But the families couldn't afford the cost of $125 a year.

So far the Iqra Fund has raised enough money to support the education of 1,200 girls in school and 33 local primary teachers. The mission is similar to Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute, with which Chabot worked for four years, but Iqra focuses on hiring teachers and paying for girls' schooling, rather than building schools.

Eighth-grader Dominic Altamura said afterward that bringing in Human Rights Day speakers was worthwhile. “Definitely,” he said. “It really made me feel privileged to be educated. Everybody takes school for granted.”

Another speaker was Walter Fleming, professor of Native American studies at Montana State University, who told students about the rights of indigenous peoples, from aborigines in Australia to Laplanders in Scandinavia. Indigenous people have the right to maintain their languages, cultures and religions, Fleming said, and not be forced to abandon their traditions.

In Montana, he said, once the Sun Dance was banned. Indian children once were forced to attend boarding schools and speak only English. Yet today, the state has embraced the idea of teaching all Montana students, including the white majority, about native culture in the Indian Education for All law.

Fleming showed a photo of a sign that said “No Indians or Dogs Allowed.” He said when he grew up on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, signs like that could still be seen in stores in nearby towns like Sheridan, Wyo.

“We've gone a long way from that time,” Fleming said. “But we've got to recognize we've got a long way to go.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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