Malala Yousafzai, born in 1997, is a Pakistani activist known for fighting for education rights for girls under the Taliban regime. She was awarded Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize for her cause of education. On October 9, 2012, a Taliban gunman shot Malala in her head and neck in an assassination attempt. Pakistan authorities subsequently offered an US$100,000 bounty on capture of the attacker. She remains in critical condition.
Malala Yousafzai defies Taliban to take world stage
Malala Yousafzai will address the United Nations on Friday, nine months after a Taliban gunman put a bullet in her head believing he was ending the Pakistani teenager’s campaign for girls’ education.
The young woman will mark her 16th birthday with her first public speech since making a near miraculous recovery from the attack on a school bus near her home in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.
Doctors had to place a titanium plate over the hole in her skull and her hearing has been badly affected. But Malala has become a global superstar and a favourite to become the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize winner.
She has already been named as one of Time magazine’s most influential people this year and has reportedly secured a US$3 million contract for a book on her life story.
“This frail young girl who was seriously injured has become such a powerful symbol not just for the girls’ right to education, but for the demand that we do something about it immediately,” said former British prime minister Gordon Brown, UN envoy on education who organised World Malala Day.
“There will be no compromise with any religious extremist who says girls should not go to school or stop going to school at 10,” Brown told CBS News.
Malala is expected to use her speech at UN youth assembly to lecture UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and any listening world leaders on the need to keep a promise to provide universal primary education by the end of 2015.
She will also hand over a petition to Ban signed by more than 330,000 people calling on the 193 UN members to finance teachers, schools and books to meet the education goal.
“From the day that terrible shooting – assassination attempt – took place, Malala Yousafzai is a symbol for the rights of girls, and indeed the rights of all young people, to an education,” said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.
“And she has further underscored that symbolism through her remarkable recovery and her eloquence in explaining her case and her position,” Ban’s spokesman added.
The Taliban made it clear that the aim of the shooting was to let the world know that girls have no right to equality at school.
Now, more girls than ever before are attending schools in the Swat Valley.
But the United Nations estimates that 57 million children of primary school age do not get an education – half of them in countries at conflict like Syria.
“Students and teachers across our globe are intimidated and harassed, injured, raped, and even killed. Schools are burned, bombed, and destroyed,” said Diya Nijhowne, director of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.
Nijhowne highlighted the horrific attack in northern Nigeria last week.
Gunmen from the Boko Haram Islamist group – whose name literally means “Western education is a sin” – broke into a secondary boarding school and killed 41 students and one teacher before setting fire to the building.
According to Ban’s annual report on children and conflict, 115 schools were attacked last year in Mali, 321 in the occupied Palestinian territory, 167 in Afghanistan, and 165 in Yemen.
Schools were also a regular target in Pakistan when Malala started a diary at the age of 11, written under the pseudonym of Gul Makai (the name of a Pashtun heroine) that was published on BBC Urdu.
The young girl built up a worldwide following of supporters as told of the anxiety she and friends felt as they saw students dropping out for fear of being targeted by militants. Girls also refused to wear uniform to school in case militants saw them.
Malala and her family briefly left Swat during a government offensive on the Taliban controlled territory.
On their return, they were the subject of threats by militants before the attack on October 9 last year.
The family now live in Birmingham, England where the girl has undergone surgery and rehabilitation. The Taliban said it shot Malala because of her efforts to promote “secular education” and have made it clear she remains a target.