Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for her advocacy of education rights, marked her 16th birthday seeking support for her cause at United Nations headquarters.
Having made a remarkable recovery after her medical evacuation to the U.K, Yousafzai looked poised and confident today as she addressed a UN youth assembly and called on governments to ensure free compulsory schooling for girls as well as boys.
“Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism,” she said. “Let us pick up our books and our pens -- they are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution.”
Yousafzai said the attack on her and two schoolmates by a Taliban hit man -- and more recent attacks against students and teachers in Pakistan -- shows the violent means that the militants use in their effort to block womens’ rights and education for girls.
“The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and paper,” she said, making her first high-level public appearance since her recovery. “The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.”
“They were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society,” she said.
The Taliban assassin who failed to silence her has sparked a massive response around the world, said Yousafzai. She was dressed in a pink hijab and said she was wearing a shawl from the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who died in a 2007 terrorist attack which Pakistan authorities and the CIA have attributed to the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The UN declared today “Malala Day.” Introducing her, former U.K Prime Minister Gordon Brown, now the UN special envoy for education, called her “the most courageous girl in the world.”
While traveling to school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, she was shot in the head and neck in October in retaliation for her support of girls’ education rights, defying the violent anti- education campaign by Taliban militants.
“The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambition,” she said. “But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died; strength, power and courage was born.”
Now attending school in the U.K., Yousafzai decried the continuing attacks against girls and women in her homeland and denounced the Taliban, who seek to impose their strict interpretation of Islam in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Taliban “think that God is a tiny, little conservative being who would send girls to the hell just because of going to school” and misuse Islam “for their own personal benefits,” she said.
“I am not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group,” she said. “I am here to speak up for the right of education of every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the extremists.”
Brown and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals is to achieve universal primary education by 2015. About 57 million primary school-aged children aren’t getting an education, Brown said.
“As that end date approaches -– and despite significant progress -– it appears that the international community will fall short of this goal,” according to a report by the aid and advocacy group Save the Children.
Coinciding with “Malala Day,” Save the Children’s report says that almost 50 million primary and lower-secondary-age children are out of school in countries affected by conflicts. Of these, 28.5 million are primary age, and more than half of them are girls, according to nonprofit group, based in Westport, Connecticut.
“Malala’s case involves an attack on a student whose ‘crime’ was a desire to learn,” according to the report. “But attacks on education can take a number of forms. They are defined as any intentional threat or use of force directed against students, teachers, education personnel and/or education institutions, carried out for political, military, ideological, sectarian, ethnic, religious or criminal reasons.”
“Based on UN data, we estimate that there were more than 3,600 separate, documented attacks on education in 2012,” the group said.
Save the Children called on governments to investigate all such attacks and prosecute those responsible, and said the UN should give greater attention to reporting on them.
© Copyright 2013 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.