Malala Yousafzai is a global education advocate and co-founder of the Malala Fund.
Birthdays are a time to move forward. We look back with gratitude on what has passed and decide that this year we will be even stronger.
I have already lived what many people might say is a lifetime. I was 11 when I started speaking out against the Taliban and for my right to go to school. I was 12 when I had to leave my home in Pakistan’s Swat Valley as terrorism and extremism raged in my city. I was 15 when I was shot by the Taliban and almost died but was given another life. I was 16 when I once again raised my voice for girls’ rights and education, this time on an international stage. This past weekend, I turned 17.
The first time Malala Day was celebrated, in November 2012, I was in the hospital, barely clinging to life. People across the world came together to pray for my recovery and to raise their voice for girls’ rights, to say that together we were stronger than terrorism, stronger than violence.
Last year the United Nations officially declared my 16th birthday, July 12, to be Malala Day. I spoke before the U.N. General Assembly with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, special U.N. envoy Gordon Brown and other great leaders. On that day, I raised my voice not for myself but so that those without a voice could be heard. I spoke of strength and power: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
As we celebrate Malala Day on July 14, I have both hope and heartbreak. I thought we had hit a turning point in our history, that never again would a girl face what I had to face. I did not think that, just one year after my U.N. speech, more than 200 girls would be kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram simply for wanting to go to school. These girls are my sisters.
Every day women and girls face unspeakable challenges. More than 66 million girls are still out of school around the world. In Pakistan, my sisters are taken out of school and made into brides when they still are children. In India this May, two of my sisters were raped and killed, their bodies left hanging in a tree. I struggle to even understand such a devastating act of violence.
I think of the girls from Syria who not so long ago knew what it felt like to be in a classroom and now live in refugee camps while the world stands by as they become a lost generation. I think of girls who are caught in the crossfire of conflict between Gaza and Israel, heads down as they hear the terrifying sound of the air-raid siren instead of heads down in a book, as they should be.
No student, anywhere, ever, should be a target of conflict or violence. Let us all lay down our weapons.
We cannot sit on the sidelines and let this continue. Each of us is responsible. We cannot rest until we have justice and freedom for every girl and every boy. Since last Malala Day, I have been working to help my sisters, raising my voice. But we must all do more.
I know education is what separates a girl who is trapped in a cycle of poverty, fear and violence from one with a chance at a better future. During my school holidays, I traveled to help my sisters through my organization, the Malala Fund. I have visited refugee camps in Jordan, spent time with girls facing poverty in Kenya, and even been to New York City, where girls face bullying and violence.
I know that my small contribution is not enough. But it is a start; I am just one girl.
Everywhere I have gone, I have been humbled by the power of all my sisters. I am grateful to have met many world leaders and inspiring people. But it is my sisters I carry with me. We all may seem different from far away. But up close, we face the same fears, and we own the same courage, if we only look deeply enough to recognize it.
We raise our voice so that those without a voice can be heard. We pledge not to forget the voiceless. Not to get tired of calling for the creation of a world that we want to live in. Not to lose hope, and not to stop caring.
Last Malala Day I told the world my story. This Malala Day, I have come to Nigeria to honor the stories of these brave girls who have sacrificed so much to get an education and achieve their dreams. I am meeting with some of the abducted schoolgirls who have now escaped Boko Haram and also some of the families of girls still in captivity, to listen to their stories and call on Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan to do even more to help them. They suffer, but I believe they are stronger than their oppressors. Will you listen?
We are stronger than those who oppress us, who seek to silence us. We are stronger than the enemies of education. We are stronger than fear, hatred, violence and poverty.
My birthday wish this year is that we all raise our voices for those under oppression, to show our power and to demonstrate that our courage is stronger than their campaign of fear.
The road to education, peace and equality is long, but we will succeed if we walk it together.
The writer is a global education advocate and co-founder of the Malala Fund.