Living in the Age of Malala

Living in the Age of Malala

By Sarah Sladen, Senior Manager for International Youth Development and AIYD, InterAction

July 13, 2013 | "Malala Day is not my day, today is the day of every woman, every boy, every girl who has raised their voice for their rights." So began 16 year old Malala Yousafzai as she stood before the UN General Assembly, wearing a shawl of the late Benazir Bhutto on what is now known as the United Nations Youth Take Over for Malala Day. The sight of Malala standing before world leaders in the vast, hushed hall is nothing less than extraordinary. Just nine months ago, on October 9th, 2012, Malala, along with several of her classmates, was shot in the head and neck in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen in her home country of Pakistan while returning home on a school bus. In the months that followed and as Malala recovered from her life threatening injuries, she became an international figure and her name a rallying cry for young women and girls’ rights to universal education.


Malala was already known in Pakistan for her activism promoting access to education and women’s rights in the Swat Valley where she lived, and where the Taliban has sought to gain control and block girls from attending school (in 2009 the New York Times profiled Malala in a piece entitled “Class Dismissed”). Following the shooting, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, now the UN Special Envoy for Global Education, launched a petition in Yousafzai’s name using the slogan “I am Malala.” The petition demands that there be no children left out of school by 2015.


Last week, less than a year after the shooting, Malala was able to speak for herself: “They thought that the bullets would silence us,” she said, “but they failed”:


“And then, out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born. I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same.”


Many young women and girls share Malala’s dreams for a better life through education and economic opportunity; social and economic barriers have made realizing their aspirations extremely difficult. This isn’t just bad for young women and girls, but for all of us. Youth, ages 15 – 24, make up have the world’s total population, nearly three billion people. Female youth comprise nearly half the world’s youth population in developing countries and according to the World Bank, one quarter of girls are not in schools; their exclusion means that young women and girls are not contributing their full potential to the economy. In a time of global recession, shifting demographics, and growing evidence of the social and economic benefits of investing in education for young people (see here, here, here, and here, among others), leaving young women and girls out of the development equation doesn’t just hinder economic growth, it’s self-destructive.


The need for greater investments in young people is a case made by the community I represent, the 24 youth and community development organizations that comprise the Alliance for International Youth Development (AIYD). But we also believe these investments must be accompanied by a commitment to peace, protection and equal rights. Malala’s story is extraordinary but it is also too often the story of young people around the world who are threatened with violence when they seek what should be theirs: education, inclusion and opportunity. As Malala put it herself, “thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I am just one of them. So here I stand, one girl among many. I speak not for myself, but so those without a voice can be heard.”


It was an act of terrible violence that propelled Malala onto the global stage but it was a message of non-violence, forgiveness and tolerance that she shared before the world last week. She spoke clearly, her voice strong and steady, and demanded accountability and action on the part of the world’s leaders who sat before her. Malala called for the protection of women’s rights and girls education; free, compulsory and universal education; and for developed nations to support the expansion of education opportunities for girls in the developing world. “We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back,” she said. “We call upon our sisters around the world to be brave, to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential.”


Watching Malala speak I wondered whether what I felt in that moment was something of what others had felt the first time they heard Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela or perhaps even Alice Paul – who, like Malala, risked their lives to speak up for those without a voice, and who helped to transform in their societies for the better. It felt significant. It felt hopeful. But Malala's message was also a clear challenge to us all: we have important and difficult work to do with and for young people to help make her vision a reality. And while Malala is deeply inspiring, neither she nor any other young girl or young boy for that matter, should have to risk their lives to go to school, or to convince those of us with the means to help.


The bottom line is this: youth friendly, girl friendly policies that support education and economic opportunity is good policy. Our stated commitments to young people must be matched by tangible and significant investments, metrics and accountability. We need the political will of our world’s leadership to make it happen. And we must attempt to demonstrate some of the courage that Malala has shown.


We are living in the age of Malala and we stand with her and with young people everywhere.


Learn More & Join the Fight

Malala in Her Own Words

Watch Malala’s UN Speech

Malala Day: UN Youth Takeover by Jamira Burley, writer and activist

Show your demand for emergency action in support for Malala’s education fight.


*Slideshow photo couresty of PakNews:


Back to Home