|Malala Yousafzai, schoolgirl shot by Taliban, to speak at UN
Pakistani girl will mark her 16th birthday Friday with speech to world leaders at the United Nations in her new role as global campaigner for education.
By: Hamida Ghafour Foreign Affairs reporter, Published on Fri Jul 12 2013
NEW YORK—On Friday morning, Malala Yousafzai will celebrate her 16th birthday. For most girls, it is an age to obsess over their looks, school or boys, but Malala will mark her special day with a speech to world leaders at the United Nations in her new role as global campaigner for education.
The much-anticipated address will be the first time the Pakistani teenager has spoken in public since the Taliban shot her in the head last October as she travelled home from school. She was one of the few people in Pakistan who had openly and consistently criticized the militants for banning girls’ education.
The girl who struck a chord with millions of people around the world with her simple, brave words — “I want to get my education,” she once said on television — will urge leaders at the UN headquarters to ensure 57 million children who are not in school receive free schooling.
Malala will hand over a petition signed by three million people demanding funds for books, schools and teachers, and calling for an end to child trafficking, child marriage and child labour.
It is a heavy burden for her young shoulders.
But Malala is now a figurehead for a global cause, said Syed Irfan Ashraf, a columnist for Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper and an anti-Taliban activist. He became friends with her family in 2007 when he began covering the rise of Islamist militancy in the Swat Valley, where Malala was born and raised.
“Malala is not Malala any more. She is an institution, she is an ideology,” he said in an interview.
She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, launched an education charity with the movie star Angelina Jolie, and the UN has named her birthday Malala Day. She is also writing a memoir, I Am Malala, which will be published this autumn as part of a $3 million book deal.
Friday’s event is being organized by Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister who is now UN Special Envoy for Global Education. The day promises to be a spectacle, with 500 youth delegates taking over the UN.
According to a preview of her speech emailed from Brown’s media relations office, they will hear her say: “Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution.”
Malala’s message has particular resonance at home. In Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, for example, only 7 per cent of women are literate.
The Pakistani Taliban continues to target schools and students as part of its campaign to wage war against the state. So far, 600 schools have been destroyed. Last month, 14 female students on a bus in Quetta were murdered.
“Despite last October’s worldwide reaction against the shooting of Malala, we have seen an escalation of the threats to — and the shooting and maiming of — boys and girls because they dare to go to school,” Brown wrote last month in an opinion piece published by Reuters.
After a Talib gunman shot Malala in the head on an open-back truck used as a makeshift school bus, Malala was flown at Pakistani taxpayers’ expense to a specialist hospital in Birmingham, England. The bullet was removed from her skull, and her facial nerves repaired. It took her three months to recover.
But the Taliban have not silenced her. The blog posts she wrote under a pen name for the BBC Urdu service, detailing life under the Taliban when it temporarily seized Swat in early 2009, are still circulating online.
And the Taliban have not stopped her from going to school, either. In March she returned to her studies with her doting father Ziauddin, a social activist, at her side.
But despite her determination and the accolades she has received, Malala cannot return to her own school in Mingora, where Ziauddin was principal. The Taliban have vowed to kill her. She is finishing her education at the Edgbaston High School in Birmingham. Her parents and two siblings have moved to the city because of fears for their lives. Ziauddin, a strong supporter of girls’ education, has taken a role as special adviser to Brown.
To the world, Malala is the girl who stood up to the Taliban.
At home in Pakistan, she has also shown that a child from the Pashtun ethnic group, hailing from a rural town, can breach the boundaries of class, age and ethnicity to change her world.
“Malala can become a leader and tell us that is not just the case that elders should have the right to speak,” Ashraf said. “It is not the case that a lady should stay home, or a girl should be married at 14, no. Even if she changes two people, for me she has justified her struggle.”