It is not often a teenage girl has the chance to address the United Nations on her birthday. But Malala Yousafzai is a young Pakistani of extraordinary courage who on her 16th birthday spoke at the UN Youth Assemby to promote girls education.
"Let us pick up our books and pens," Malala summed up. "They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first."
Most of us now recognize Malala’s name and know her story. As a fouteeen year old, she blogged for the BBC about her life at school in the far north-west Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of – an area troubled by violence and Taliban activity.
Then the unthinkable. On October 9, 2012, members of the Taliban boarded Malala’s school bus and shot her in the forehead in reprisal for her activism. Several other students on the bus were also attacked.
The world prayed for speedy recovery and Malala received thousands of messages and gifts from around the world. Since then, her family has relocated to the UK, and Malala continues to speak out for universal education.
She told the 1000 young people gathered for the United Nations Youth Assembly, "The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambitions," she said, "but nothing changed in my life, except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born."
She continued: "I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists."
The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon told the audience that 57 million children, mostly girls, are not in school. International aid has declined for education. He feels Malala’s stand reminds all nations, “Schools must be safe for all children and teachers. No child should die for going to school. No teacher should fear to teach or children fear to learn.”
Millennium Development Goal 2 aims to have all children everywhere attending primary school by 2015. This has already been achieved in many places but Malala’s home country, Pakistan and nations in sub-Saharan Africa are lagging behind. In addition, while most children enrol in school the quality of education and the number of years spent in school may still be deficient. Free, quality education for all remains a crucial priority.
Malala’s speech and indeed her life of dignity and courage, remind us that girls and women can be powerful advocates for their 900 million ‘sisters’ who suffer the injustice of extreme poverty.
Micah Challenge International