An Unstoppable Spirit
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani education advocate who, at the age of 17, became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize after surviving an assassination attempt by the Taliban. Born on July 12, 1997, Yousafzai became an advocate for girls’ education when she herself was still a child, which resulted in the Taliban issuing a death threat against her.
Yesterday Malala turned twenty-one and celebrated by helping girls in Rio learn how to stay in school and overcome violence in the world around them. This is not an unusual occurrence for Malala, though. Her thirst for knowledge had led her down a path that even a horrendous attack could not stop.
Nine months after being shot by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai gave a speech at the United Nations on her 16th birthday in 2013. Yousafzai highlighted her focus on education and women’s rights, urging world leaders to change their policies. Yousafzai said that following the attack, “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.”
t Malala Yousafzai’s 2013 speech at the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pronounced July 12th – Yousafzai’s birthday – ‘Malala Day’ in honor of the young leader’s activism to ensure education for all children. “Malala chose to mark her 16th birthday with the world,” said Ban. “No child should have to die for going to school. Nowhere should teachers fear to teach or children fear to learn. Together, we can change the picture.”
Malala Yousafzai was born in Mingora, Pakistan, located in the country’s Swat Valley, on July 12, 1997. For the first few years of her life, her hometown remained a popular tourist spot that was known for its summer festivals. However the area began to change as the Taliban tried to take control.
Yousafzai attended a school that her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, had founded. After the Taliban began attacking girls’ schools in Swat, Malala gave a speech in Peshawar, Pakistan, in September 2008. The title of her talk was, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?”
With a growing public platform, Yousafzai continued to speak out about her right, and the right of all women, to an education. Her activism resulted in a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2011. That same year, she was awarded Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize. Malala and her family learned that the Taliban had issued a death threat against her because of her activism. Though Malala was frightened for the safety of her father — an anti-Taliban activist — she and her family initially felt that the fundamentalist group would not actually harm a child.
On October 9, 2012, when 15-year-old Malala was riding a bus with friends on their way home from school, a masked gunman boarded the bus and demanded to know which girl was Malala. When her friends looked toward Malala, her location was given away. The gunman fired at her, hitting Malala in the left side of her head; the bullet then traveled down her neck. Two other girls were also injured in the attack. The shooting left Malala in critical condition, so she was flown to a military hospital in Peshawar. A portion of her skull was removed to treat her swelling brain. To receive further care, she was transferred to Birmingham, England.
Once she was in the United Kingdom, Yousafzai was taken out of a medically induced coma. Though she would require multiple surgeries—including repair of a facial nerve to fix the paralyzed left side of her face — she had suffered no major brain damage. In March 2013, she was able to begin attending school in Birmingham.
In March 29, 2018, Yousafzai returned to Pakistan for the first time since her brutal 2012 attack. Not long after arriving, she met with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and delivered an emotional speech at his office. “In the last five years, I have always dreamed of coming back to my country,” she said, adding, “I never wanted to leave.” During her four-day trip, Yousafzai visited the Swat Valley, as well as the site where she nearly met her end at the hands of the Taliban. Additionally, she inaugurated a school for girls being built with aid from the Malala Fund.
n October 10, 2013, in acknowledgement of her work, the European Parliament awarded Yousafzai the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
In April 2017, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed Yousafzai as a U.N. Messenger of Peace to promote girls education. The appointment is the highest honor given by the United Nations for an initial period of two years.
Yousafzai was also given honorary Canadian citizenship in April 2017. She is the sixth person and the youngest in the country’s history to receive the honor. Also in 2017 she was accepted as a student at Oxford University, continuing her education in spite of still being targeted by the Taliban.
Malala continues to advocate and encourage world leaders to spend their money on books instead of bullets and military budgets. “The shocking truth is that world leaders have the money to fully fund primary AND secondary education around the world – but they are choosing to spend it on other things, like their military budgets. In fact, if the whole world stopped spending money on the military for just 8 days, we could have the $39 billion still needed to provide 12 years of free, quality education to every child on the planet.”
Immediately after the attack on her in 2012 to yesterday’s celebration, Malala has urged action against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism: “The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women… Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”