The Pakistani teenager who was shot in the head by Taliban militants two years ago, stood before dignitaries, celebrities, and fellow activists from around the world to accept a Nobel Peace Prize.
“This award is not just for me. It is for those forgotten children who want education,” she said in her speech.
Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian children’s rights activist with whom Yousafzai shared the prize looked on approvingly as the his fellow newly-minted Nobel Laureate gave a speech that was poignant as well as powerful — and the 17-year-old managed to be playful too.
“I am pretty certain that I am also the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize who still fights with her younger brothers,” the youngest Nobel winner to date said. “I want there to be peace everywhere, but my brothers and I are still working on that.”
But her youth hardly shielded her from the hard realities that spurred her passion for education, having been robbed of it by the Taliban who took over her hometown of Swat.
“When I was ten, Swat, which was a place of beauty and tourism, suddenly changed into a place of terrorism, Yousafzai said. “More than 400 schools were destroyed. Girls were stopped from going to school. Women were flogged. Innocent people were killed. We all suffered. And our beautiful dreams turned into nightmares. Education went from being a right to being a crime. But when my world suddenly changed, my priorities changed too.”
But it wasn’t only her life that changed dramatically on that October afternoon in 2012. Yousafzai related herself to Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, the two girls who were shot by a Taliban gunman while riding home from school her. Both of those young girls were there to see their friend accept her award. Yousafzai also invited Amina Yusuf a 17-year-old girls’ education mentor from Northern Nigeria and Mezon Almellehan, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee who promotes girls’ education in the Jordan’s refugee camps.
“I tell my story, not because it is unique, but because it is not,” she said. “It is the story of many girls. Though I appear as one girl, one person, who is five foot two inches tall, if you include my high heels. I am not a lone voice, I am many.”
She hadn’t even been released from the hospital when, one month after she was shot, a petition calling for Yousafzai to win the Nobel Peace Prize had been signed by tens of thousands.
“I feel much stronger after the attack that I endured,” she said, “because I know, no one can stop me, or stop us, because now we are millions, standing up together.”
She pledged to continue fighting until every child is in school.
But Yousafzai did not shy from critique. She questioned policies which put defense above education.
“Why is it that countries which we call ‘strong’ are so powerful in creating wars but so weak in bringing peace?” she asked. “Why is it that giving guns is so easy but giving books is so hard? Why is it that making tanks is so easy, but building schools is so difficult?”
“[W]e have already taken many steps in the right direction,” she said. “Now is the time to take a leap.”