Malala Yousafzai: changing the world at 17

Malala Yousafzai: changing the world at 17

George Edmondson asks what the announcement of the most recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize says about the way women and children are seen today

It’s rare that a drowsy browse through the morning’s headlines will cause your heart to overflow with joy and pride in your fellow human beings. The recent announcement in Norway of this year’s recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, however, should do just that.

At the age of 17 Malala Yousafzai has become the youngest ever person to be awarded the prize. She will share the $1.1 million prize with 60 year old Kailish Satyarthi. Both have been awarded for their indomitable campaigning for children’s education and rights in Pakistan and India.

She is only the 15th female winner of a prize that has run annually since 1901.

Malala initially came to international prominence after writing an anonymous diary excerpt for BBC Urdu in 2009 about life in the Taliban-controlled territory of north-west Pakistan. She became a beacon of hope and symbol of change, prompting the upper echelons of the Taliban to order her execution, along with 22 other dissenters and heretics in the same area. She was shot in the head on her bus to school in the Swat Valley during October 2012. She was 15.

Since recovering completely from her horrific injuries at a Pakistani army emergency ward and receiving rehabilitative care at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, she has continued campaigning across the world for children’s education and rights. Malala has delivered speeches at the UN General Assembly among other places and is writing an autobiography about her struggles.

Miss Yousafzai marked her 16th birthday by delivering this address to the United Nations Youth Assembly:

“Thousands have been killed by the terrorists and been injured. I am just one of them.”

However, recognition of Malala’s efforts is not merely a victory for one incredible young woman but a victory for women everywhere, over fear and over oppression. It stands as a defiant message in the face of violent opposition.

Last year Malala was chastised by members of her own community for standing up and speaking out against the Taliban militants in Pakistan, who accused her actions as provocative and likely to incite revenge attacks upon the local population. Upon learning of the nomination, her neighbours scolded the recommendation, saying ‘she doesn’t deserve it at all.’

Yet this year’s decision by the Nobel committee exhibits that it will champion the courage and virtue of individuals to stand up for what is just and not pander to aggressive force. Importantly, it shows that children are being granted a voice in worldwide politics. Malala can’t yet buy a glass of wine in the UK, but her words show that young people should be respected and valued, not negligently seen as passive victims of terror and war. They can change things.

Additionally, Malala’s award shows an increasing recognition of women and gender-equality on the international stage. Most obviously it is one step towards amending the disparity between men and women on the Nobel lists – she is only the 15th female winner of a prize that has run annually since 1901.

The announcement sends a resounding message of hope to those in Malala’s home country, where, in places, Sharia law still dominates and women suffer acute subjugation. Along with Emma Watson’s speech at the UN last month and the widespread outrage following the leaked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence et al. hopefully, it is also indicative of a tectonic shift in the way women are perceived both in high politics and, more deeply, in global society as a whole. It seems, thankfully, that the female voice is becoming a more commonplace sound in international affairs.

There are a million and one reasons to celebrate this remarkable young lady who has changed the world before we had even finished high school, but, above all, we should be delighted not simply for her indefatigable message of justice and equality for everyone, but that someone lent an ear to hear it from a woman, and a woman as young as she.


Featured Image Credit: Photo Claude TRUONG-NGOC

George Edmondson