Why Malala should have won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize

Malala Yousafzai and United Nations Secretary-Genral Ban Ki-moon at the July 12 ‘Malala Day’ Youth Assembly. (By Mary Altaffer/AP) Malala Yousafzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the July 12 “Malala Day” Youth Assembly. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

(Update: Malala statement about drones to Obama)

Congratulations to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for winning the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a worthy winner. As would have the other people thought to be leading contenders, including Russian human rights activists and a physician in  Congo who has long fought against sexual violence.

But  there was another nominee who would have been equally deserving and a more electrifying choice for the 2013 prize: 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who has for several years advocated for the right of girls to get an education and who nearly died after being shot by Taliban gunmen who don’t want girls attending school.

Alfred Nobel said in his will establishing the annual Nobel Prizes that he wanted “champions of peace” to be rewarded with the Nobel Prize. Advocating for girls’ education is seen by many as perhaps the best long-term approach to achieving peace; Secretary of State John Kerry has said that “gender equality is critical to our shared goals of prosperity, stability and peace.” Indeed, research has made it clear that educating girls and women leads to more stable and economically viable communities.

Malala has become the face of the miserable struggle that millions of girls and women face every day to simply sit in a classroom and learn without fear from those who want to deny them that right for religious, cultural and political reasons. There are 33 million fewer girls than boys attending school in the early grades around the world, even though the female population is larger, and the majority of those who live on less than $1.25 a day around the world are female. Malala is a powerful symbol for girls and women who fear standing up for their rights.

Some will ask whether a 16-year-old — any 16-year-old — should win a Nobel Prize. Isn’t it supposed to be for a lifetime of work? If a lifetime of work really mattered for this award, then, for example, Yasser Arafat wouldn’t have won the Peace Prize in 1994, as his lifetime of work didn’t exactly scream the word “peace.” As for the 1973 awarding of the Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger, satirist Tom Lehrer said it best when he said that political satire became “obsolete” on that day.

President Obama was given the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize not so much for what he had accomplished yet but for the promise of what he could accomplish toward a world in which diplomacy reigned. If the award can be aspirational, why not Malala as a winner? Why not champion the cause of education for girls and women?  Why not stand up like she has?

She in fact told Obama in a meeting on Friday at the White House that U.S. drone strikes were fueling terrorism and that supporting education was a better way to achieve peace. A statement she released that was published by the Associated Press said:

I thanked President Obama for the United States’ work in supporting education in Pakistan and Afghanistan and for Syrian refugees. 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.

Malala began speaking out for the right of girls to have a formal education in 2008, before she was 10 years old, in the Swat Valley of Pakistan where she lived. The Taliban militia in control there didn’t want girls going to school, and she didn’t like the edict, so she gave a speech called “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to an education?” In 2009, the Taliban closed down all girls’ schools, and she started to blog anonymously for BBC Urdu.  Her identity became known, and a year ago, she was shot by Taliban gunmen while she was on a bus returning from school. She nearly died, but survived and underwent intensive reconstruction and rehabilitation in Britain.

That experience, though, has not stopped her; she has been more vocal than ever. She set up the Malala Fund to bring worldwide attention to the plight of girls, and spoke to the United Nations last month on the first anniversary of the Global Education First initiative:

Instead of sending weapons, instead of sending tanks to Afghanistan and all these countries which are suffering from terrorism, send books. Instead of sending tanks, send pens. Instead of sending soldiers, send teachers. This is the only way we can fight for education …

It is no surprise that this week she won the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, given to “exceptional individuals who combat intolerance, fanaticism and oppression.” Though the names of Nobel Peace Prize nominees are not publicly released, it was believed that she was a leading candidate. Malala said, though, that she didn’t think she deserved the award and had a lot of work still to do.

Malala has been targeted again by the Taliban; a militia statement released after the Nobel Peace Prize announcement was made said that it was a good thing that she hadn’t won. A Taliban spokesman has said, “If we get another chance, we will definitely kill her and that will make us feel proud.”

Malala’s reaction:

Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are trying to do is wrong, that education is our basic right.

Sounds like Nobel Peace Prize material to me, whatever her age.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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