The Norwegian Nobel Committee just did what it should have done in 2013: Give the Nobel Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai, the inspirational 17-year-old Pakistani who advocates for the right of girls to get a formal education — and who nearly died after being shot by Taliban gunmen who did not want girls to go to school.
On Oct. 9, 2012, Malala was returning home from school on a bus when she was shot in the head by a gunman from the Taliban. The group, in 2009, had banned girls from going to school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where Malala lived and was promoting the right of girls to go to school before she was 10 years old. In response to the Taliban edict, she gave a speech called “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to an education?” Malala survived critical injuries from the shooting and was taken to Britain where she underwent long and intensive rehabilitation.
Working to give girls an education is more than a equity issue; research has shown that educating girls and women leads to more stable and economically viable communities, and it is seen by many as one of the best long-term approaches to achieving peace in the world. There are 33 million fewer girls than boys attending school in the early grades around the world, even though the female population is larger. Malala has raised to world attention the struggle that millions of girls and women face every day to get an education despite opposition from those who, for religious, cultural and/or political reasons, want females to stay home.
Last year, at age 16, she released her memoir, titled “I am Malala,” a phrase invoked around the world as a symbol for the right of girls to be educated. On a book tour around the world, she appeared on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and in the course of the interview, said something remarkable.
Knowing that the Taliban has threatened to shoot her again if given the chance — a Taliban spokesman has said, “If we get another chance, we will definitely kill her and that will make us feel proud” — Malala addressed the issue of what she would say if she was confronted again by a Taliban gunman. She said:
“I’ll tell him how important education is, and that I even want education for your children as well. And I would tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.’”
Malala is fearless, not only ready to deal with a gunman if confronted, but also thoroughly comfortable in telling the world’s most powerful leaders what she thinks. Last year, she had a meeting with President Obama at the White House and, according to a statement she released afterward, she 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.
In 2013 she gave a speech at the United Nations, in which she said:
Dear fellows, today I am focusing on women’s rights and girls’ education because they are suffering the most. There was a time when women social activists asked men to stand up for their rights. But, this time, we will do it by ourselves. I am not telling men to step away from speaking for women’s rights rather I am focusing on women to be independent to fight for themselves.
That’s how important education is to Malala Yousafzai. Fittingly, she was at school when she found out that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize.