Wrapped in a pink shawl that once belonged to Benazir Bhutto, speaking to an audience of hundreds of youth delegates and foreign dignitaries, Malala Yousafzai had a message for the Taliban who tried to murder her: “I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. And my dreams are the same.”
It’s been nine months since gunmen ambushed Malala’s schoolbus in the remote Swat Valley of northern Pakistan and shot her at point-blank range, all because she dared to raise her voice and demand an education for herself and other girls. The attack was meant to silence her—but instead it sparked a global wave of support for Malala and her friends and spotlighted the need to fight on behalf of all children for the right to go to school.
It was this right that formed the heart of Malala’s appeal to the United Nations and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the occasion of her 16th birthday on July 12, now christened “Malala Day.” As her beaming parents looked on, Malala delivered a speech full of poise and fire: “Dear brothers and sisters—do remember one thing. Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy, and every girl who have raised their voices for their rights,” she told the cheering crowd. “Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I’m just one of them. So here I stand, one girl among many. I speak not for myself but for those without voice…those who have fought for their rights. Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.”
Despite the outpouring of support for Malala in the wake of her shooting, attacks on women and girls continue unabated in Pakistan. Earlier this year, extremists killed a 41-year-old teacher at an all-girls’ school on the Afghan border, and militants massacred 14 female students and injured dozens of others in a suicide bombing at a women’s university in Baluchistan. And earlier this month, two teenage sisters were slaughtered by their stepbrother, simply for being caught on videotape dancing in the rain—an act that supposedly “stained the family’s honor.”
Malala reminded the audience on Friday that “we cannot all succeed when half of us are held back. We call upon our sisters around the world to be brave. To embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential.” The Taliban, she continued, are “afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. And that is why they killed 14 innocent students…that is why they killed female teachers…that is why they are blasting schools every day. Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society.”
Malala also took the opportunity to present the secretary-general with a petition asking world leaders to pour funds into building new schools and training new teachers, and into ending the scourges of child marriage, underage labor, and trafficking. “When we were in Swat, in the north of Pakistan, we realized the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns. The saying ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ was true. The extremists were and they are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them,” Malala told the crowd. “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.”
Last September, the United Nations launched the Education First initiative to press for universal primary education. Already at the time of its debut, the initiative had collected $1.5 billion in commitments to help further its goals. Additionally, Malala herself directs the Malala Fund, launched by Vital Voices, whose first grant is funding a program to help young girls escape domestic labor in Pakistan and attend school.
After Malala's speech, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, who has devoted himself to the cause of girls’ education since leaving office and is the U.N. special envoy for global education, told the audience that “we will be back this year, every year, until every single child is in school” and reiterated his plan to press countries like Pakistan and Nigeria—where 5 million and 10 million children, respectively, lack access to an education—to help the next generation achieve a brighter future. Brown also highlighted the stories of young men and women who, like Malala, are “standing up for justice” in their own communities, from a 12-year-old in Morocco who took on the country’s education minister after he advised her to drop out school and become a child bride, to Shazia Ramzan, one of the three girls injured in the attack that targeted Malala and who just fled to safety in Britain last week to further her education.