In 2012, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head while sitting on her school bus because she’d dared to campaign for the right of girls to receive an education.
Nearly five years later, she’s a prominent activist, a powerful public speaker, the subject of films and books, the founder of the non-profit Malala Fund and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, refusing to be cowed or silenced by her experiences.
Now, Yousafzai has been named the United Nations’ youngest-ever Messenger of Peace, with a special focus on girls’ education.
Bestowing the accolade in New York, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told her, “You are the symbol of one of the most important causes in the world – probably the most important cause in the world – and that is education, education for all, and, particularly because we know it is more difficult in many societies, education for girls […]
“You are not only a hero, but you are a very committed and generous person.”
Accepting the accolade in New York, she said: “[Bringing change] starts with us and it should start now.
“If you want to see your future bright, you have to start working now [and] not wait for anyone else.”
As well as blogging for BBC Urdu service under a pen name in her early teens, Yousafzai, now 19, spoke publicly too about the right to education, and was shot on the orders of the Taliban while on her way home from school in north-west Pakistan, following years of highlighting what it was like to live, as she did, in Swat Valley under its control.
Once her condition became more stable, she was transferred to Birmingham for treatment and is now based in the UK.
UN Messengers of Peace are individuals chosen from the fields of art, literature, science, entertainment, sports or other fields of public life, “who have agreed to help focus worldwide attention on the work of the global organisation” and who “volunteer their time, talent and passion to raise awareness of UN’s efforts to improve the lives of billions of people everywhere.”
Other messengers have included Muhammad Ali, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlize Theron.
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Speaking in New York, Guterres also read out the official designation of the role, stating: “Inspired by your dedicated service to the ideals and objectives of the United Nations, especially its vision of a life of dignity for all people; admiring of your courageous defence of the rights of all people, including women and girls, to education and equality; honouring the fact that you have shown, even in the face of grave danger, an unwavering commitment to peace; conscious of your consistent focus on the best in humankind and your resolve to foster a better world; grateful that your example has energized people of goodwill to join together in pursuit of our common values; hopeful that your principled activism will advance our shared vision of a future of justice, equity and sustainable progress; it is a great pride and pleasure for me to proclaim Malala Yousafzai a United Nations Messenger of Peace.”
Later taking questions from the audience, Yousafzai said the most difficult time she had faced was the two years from 2007 to 2009 in the Swat Valley, “because we were at a point of making a decision about whether to speak out or remain silent.
“And I realised that if you remain silent, you are still going to be terrorized. So speaking out, you can help people.”
Images: Rex Features