Malala Yousafzai has won the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17 for her courageous, and near fatal, campaign to secure education for girls. She is by far the youngest recipient since the awards began more than a century ago, and she insisted on Friday that her work had only just begun.
The Pakistani campaigner, who survived an assassination attempt at the age of 15, will share the $1 million prize with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian activist who has dedicated his life to fighting for the rights of children.
The two Nobel laureates have pledged to work together on future campaigns and called on the leaders of their two quarreling nations to join them at the prize ceremony in December as a symbol of reconciliation.
When the announcement was made, Malala was in Chemistry class at her school in Birmingham, England, where she sought refuge after surviving a shot to the head from a Taliban gunman. After being told that she had made history as the first Pakistani peace laureate and the youngest person to win any of the Nobel prizes, she moved on to Physics class and remained in school until classes let out that afternoon.
After school, Malala described her emotions when a teacher came into class to share the news: “I felt more powerful and more courageous,” she said. “Because this award is not just a piece of metal or a medal you wear or an award you keep in your room. This is encouragement for me to go forward.”
It was Malala’s determination to get to class, despite the wishes of extremists in her native Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan, that would lead her to become one of the world’s most prominent education campaigners. Her refusal to cover her face and her willingness to speak out in defense of girls’ rights made her a target for the local Taliban commanders.
Two years ago, a gunman boarded her school bus and fired three shots at close range. Somehow she survived, even though one of the bullets struck her in the forehead. The Taliban plot to silence their young critic had backfired spectacularly. She continued to campaign—now with a worldwide audience.
The Nobel prize will amplify her voice ever louder, even as she insisted that she did not deserve to be honored and join the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and Nelson Mandela.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said Malala’s global impact at such a young age was truly extraordinary. “Despite her youth, Malala Yousafzai has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education, and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations,” said Thorbjørn Jagland, chairman of the committee. “This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances. Through her heroic struggle she has become a leading spokesperson for girls’ rights to education.”
Though less well known in the West, Satyarthi has spent decades working to secure a brighter future for the millions of children in India who grow up in poverty with little access to education.
The Nobel committee said he was continuing in the noble tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Speaking of both Satyarthi and Yousafzai, Jagland said, “The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”
Satyarthi said he was dedicating the award to all of those he had not yet been able to help. “It’s an honor to all those children still suffering in slavery, bonded labor, and trafficking,” he said.
Malala, a devout Muslim, has given voice to millions of fellow believers who are disgusted by the extremists who twist the words of Islam to suit their ultra-conservative beliefs. She was brave enough to stand up to Taliban militants who had forced the closure of scores of schools in northwest Pakistan, close to the border of Afghanistan, where she grew up.
Encouraged by her father, she began writing anonymously for BBC Urdu at the age of 11, charting her struggle to get the same education that was available to her brothers. Her writing won such widespread acclaim that her anonymity could not last.
“At that time I stood up for my rights and I said, ‘I will speak up.’ I did not wait for someone else. I had really two options: one was not to speak and wait to be killed, and the second was to speak up and then be killed,” she said Friday. “I chose the second one because at that time there was terrorism, women were not allowed to go outside of their houses, girls’ education was totally banned, people were killed…I needed to raise my voice because I wanted to go back to school.”
She fled the area with her family for several years until it was thought to be safe to return. The subsequent attempt on her life proved otherwise, but even before that shooting had secured the world’s attention, she continued to display an uncommon bravery. She confronted Richard Holbrooke, who was a U.S. special envoy to the region at the time, demanding that more be done to improve education for women.
Once she had recovered from her injuries, Malala continued to speak truth to power. This time last year she dropped in at the White House during a trip to Washington to address the World Bank. The teenager told previous Nobel Peace Prize winner President Obama that she disapproved of his drone policy.
“I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees,” she said afterward. “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.”
Earlier this year, she traveled to Nigeria, where she pressurized President Goodluck Jonathan to do more to secure the release of 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. She also gave a speech directed at an even younger generation of children. “To the girls of Nigeria and across Africa, and all over the world, I want to say: Don’t let anyone tell you that you are weaker than or less than anything,” she said. “You are not less than a boy…You are not less than a child from a richer or more powerful country. You are the future.”