Malala Yousafzai on Friday delivered her first speech since being shot by the Taliban on a school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley last October. Addressing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a Youth Assembly of 1,000 students at U.N. headquarters, she confirmed to the world that being shot in the head at point-blank range only made her stronger.
Before Malala could even finish saying “I don’t know where to begin my speech,” her mother was crying and I was beaming with excitement at this girl who turned 16 on Friday and ,instead of celebrating her birthday, was celebrating her cause – education, especially for girls.
In January 2009, when Taliban militants issued an edict that girls must not go to school, 50,000 Pakistani girls lost their opportunity for education. A documentary by Adam B. Ellick profiled Malala during this time.
Wearing a Harry Potter backpack and expressing her desire for books, in the documentary she vowed, “They cannot stop me. I will get my education, if it is in home, school, or any place.”
Malala campaigned through her online diary, where she shared her passion for learning and detailed the intimidation tactics the Taliban used to coerce girls into not going to school. Her activism won her Pakistan’s first National Peace Prize in 2011--and put an assassination target on her back.
Now, after months of recovery and a surge of fame, Malala says that she is the same Malala with the same ambitions, hopes and dreams. “Nothing changed . . . except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.” A bullet that was meant to silence a cause became a global rallying point, and now Malala has the world standing behind her.
Today she presented Ban with a petition signed by 4 million people, demanding that world leaders and governments ensure free compulsory education for every child around the world. Millennium Development Goal 2, which aims to achieve universal primary education, is coming due in 2015. The petition Malala presented was in the form of an hourglass to signify that the time to meet it is running out.
Gordon Brown, U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education, presented the global numbers Malala’s cause refuses to ignore:
-- 57 million children worldwide are without access to education, 32 million of whom are girls.
--2 million teachers and 4 million classrooms are lacking
-- 15 million children work full time
--10 million girls become child brides every year, most of whom then abandon school.
Malala brings a voice to the 57 million children when she proclaims, “Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. ”
Peace is necessary for education, as is tolerance and the assurance of women’s and children’s rights. But until every child has access to school, Malala, driven by compassion and a philosophy of non-violence, will use the most powerful weapons she has, her voice and the power of her words.