Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani student who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban after campaigning for girls’ right to education, addressed the United Nations Youth Assembly on her 16th birthday today.
In a speech to young activists from 100 countries, she called for world leaders to provide “free, compulsory education” for every child.
“Let us pick up our books and our pens,” Malala said. “They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.”
She told the assembly that despite the trauma she suffered, “I am the same Malala.”
“My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same and my dreams are the same,” she said. “I am not against anyone. Nor am I here to speak against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. I am here to speak up for the right to education of every child.”
Malala used the occasion to promote the United Nations Global Education Fund led by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister.
“We call upon all the governments to fight against terrorism, to protect children from brutality and harm. We call upon the United Nations to expand opportunity and education for girls all over the world,” Yousafzai said, standing on a platform beside Moon and Brown. “We cannot all succeed when half of us are hampered.”
“(Malala) spoke out on the right of girls to seek an education, and the Taliban saw her as a target for assassination,” Brown said.
After she was shot, Malala was initially treated in a Pakistani hospital, then flown to the United Kingdom for specialist care.
The attack on Malala came shortly after she received a Civic Courage Prize from the Centre for Civic Education in Islamabad on September 15, International Democracy Day (above).
The Centre for Civic Education is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO.
The attack on Malala prompted calls to strengthen Muslim democrats’ capacity to combat extremist ideology.
Radical extremism can only be defeated through a long-term, sustained war of ideas conducted by Muslim democrats and modernizers within their own communities, said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former envoy to the US and a professor of international relations at Boston University.
“Eventually, the United States will have to find Muslim allies who help limit the influence of ideas or organizations that turn some young Muslims into terrorists,” he argued. ‘Washington has made few efforts toward that end, depending on friendly autocrats or whoever manages to get elected instead of working to strengthen modernizing democrats who share Western values.”
Malala told the UN youth assembly she spoke for hundreds of human rights and civil society activists fighting for education, justice and equality.
“Here I stand not as one voice but speaking for those who have fought for the right to be treated with dignity, their right for equality of opportunity, and their right to be educated,” she said.
In many parts of the world, women and children are victims of child labor, forced to marry at an early age, and every government and world leader should stand up for women’s and girls’ rights, including compulsory free education for every child, she said.
“When we were in class in Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books,” she said. “The extremists were afraid of education. … That is why they’re blasting schools every day. Because they’re afraid of progress, afraid of change.”
But if women and young people rise up and demand their due, “no one can stop us,” she said. “If we want to achieve our goals, let us empower ourselves with a weapon of knowledge and shield ourselves with unity and togetherness.”
“Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child. One teacher and one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”