Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban for attending classes, on Friday 12 July, addressed hundreds of young people at the United Nations, urging them to use education as a weapon against extremism. “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world,” Ms. Yousafzai said, in an impassioned address to the UN Youth Assembly.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has dubbed today – Ms. Yousafzai’s 16th birthday – ‘Malala Day’ in honour of her heroic stand to ensure education for all. The meeting, which featured nearly 1,000 youth leaders, was addressed by former United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in his capacity as UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Vuk Jeremić, President of the General Assembly, and Ahmad Alhendawi, the Special Envoy on Youth.
Ms. Yousafzai told the gathering that the Taliban’s attack nine months ago changed nothing in her life, except that “weakness, fear and hopelessness died.”
“The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens,” she said. “The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women.” Urging worldwide action against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism, she said: “Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.”
This call to action was delivered just as the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO) Education for All Global Monitoring Report, launched a new policy paper spotlighting that globally, the number of children out of school has fallen from 60 million in 2008 to 57 million in 2011. However, 28 million children out of school live in the world’s conflict zones, and more than half of those are women and girls.
“So here I stand,” Ms. Yousafzai declared before the Assembly, “one girl among many. I speak – not for myself, but for all girls and boys. I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.
Describing the terrible October 2012 incident that only strengthened her resolve, she said the Taliban shot her on the left side of her forehead. “They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed,” she said, adding that the incident instead gave birth to “thousands of voices.”
“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. I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same.”
Telling the Assembly that she was focusing on women’s rights and girls’ education because they were suffering the most, Ms. Yousafzai called upon world leaders to change their strategic policies in favour of peace and prosperity.
“We call upon all Governments to ensure free compulsory education for every child all over the world,” she said, also calling on Governments to fight against terrorism and violence, to protect children from brutality and harm.
In his remarks, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed Ms. Yousafzai, praising her courage and determination.
“Malala chose to mark her 16th birthday with the world,” Mr. Ban said, noting the strong support she has received from millions of people all over the world is a clear sign saying: “Malala, you are not alone. We are all with you, standing behind you.”
Mr. Ban reiterated the UN’s commitment to give access to quality education to every girl and boy through its Global Education First Initiative which has three priorities: to put every child in school, improve the quality of learning, and foster global citizenship.
“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,” he said.
Mr. Ban also encouraged the students gathered at the Youth Assembly, to continue to voice their concerns on issues that matter to them.
“I urge you to keep speaking out. Keep raising the pressure. Keep making a difference,” Mr. Ban said. “You are sending a message – a message of hope and empowerment … a message of dignity and opportunity. All of you are on the frontlines.”
President of the General Assembly Vuk Jeremić underlined the urgency of providing access to education to every child regardless of factors like geography, gender, disability, language, wealth and ethnicity, and called Member States to act quickly to avoid further disparities in education levels.
He also stressed that the quality of education should be improved, providing young people with the necessary skills to succeed in the current world economy.
“School enrollment is nothing more than a necessary foundation upon which to build a 21st-century set of educational standards,” Mr. Jeremić said. “Basic literacy should not be seen as an end in itself, but merely as a baseline tool for teaching cognition, mathematics, problem-solving, and creative thinking.”
Opening the proceedings, Mr Brown told the Youth Assembly: “You cannot say there is anything other than an education emergency that we need to solve.” With that in mind, he hailed young people as “the new superpower in the world” with the capability to overcome all obstacles to access education.
On 17 June, Mr. Brown launched a worldwide petition calling for urgent action to ensure the right of every child to safely attend school. Ms. Yousafzai was the first signatory and since then more than one million people have signed the petition.