From being shot in the head by a Taliban extremist in Pakistan to giving a speech at the United Nations is no small journey, but for 16-year-old Malala Yousufzai, that journey was less about her suffering and more about education for the world’s children. She has become the face for the millions of children around the world who receive no education.
Malala was shot Oct. 9, 2012, while boarding a bus in her native Pakistan by a group of extremists who oppose educating girls. The bullets, which struck her and her school friends, was meant to stop her campaigning for better schools, especially for girls.
She described this experience in her speech July 12 at the U.N. this way: “The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.”
Those powerful words sound more like Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. than they do a typical 16-year-old student. Like those leaders, both victims of assassination, Malala was able to deliver a message of peaceful protest for her cause. In support, the United Nations dedicated July 12, her birthday, as “Malala Day,” a day to promote better education for children.
Malala was in one sense quite lucky. After being shot, she was flown to Britain for treatment and is now going to school in Birmingham. Millions of other children are not so lucky. A report from the group Save the Children, issued just before Malala’s speech, noted that 57 million youngsters were not in school in 2011. Of those, 28.5 million lived in conflict zones where the fear of attending school, and the persistent practice of child labor and child marriage mean that attending school is impossible.
The message from Malala and groups working for childhood education is that primary education is the foundation of all positive social change. Education should be considered a right for all children and all governments around the world should provide free compulsory education for all children.
As Malala said in her speech, “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”
Those peaceful weapons just might be working. On the day of the speech, a local Swat education officer reported that in the Swat district where Malala was shot, an area where only 36 percent of women and 72 percent of men are literate, 102,374 girls registered at primary schools in the first six months of 2013, compared with a total of 96,540 during all of last year.
That is a welcome start. As Malala said in her speech, “One teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.” Perhaps it already has.