Thank you and greetings to all of you.
A year ago this week, in Pakistan’s Swat valley, a masked gunman boarded a school bus. Waving his firearm at the students, he demanded to know; “Which one is Malala? Which one is Malala? Tell me or I will shoot you all.”
When a bus full of frightened eyes revealed the truth; the gunman approached 15 year old Malala Yousafzi and – at point blank range — shot her twice, with bullets piercing her head and neck.
For days young Malala was unconscious; part of her skull was removed to relieve the swelling; amid the pain and dreams, she became uncertain whether she was alive or dead; but in Malala’s own words, quote: “I think death didn’t want to kill me. And God was with me…and the people prayed.” End quote.
Here in the United States, we’ve had more than our share of experiences with gun-related violence, including attacks on school children; often we characterize such tragedies as senseless, caused by inner demons, a personal grievance, a petty theft.
But Malala Yousafzai was shot for a reason. And that reason was fear – fear of knowledge, fear of freedom, fear of truth, and fear of change.
Years before that terrible day, this young woman had already become her country’s leading champion of the right of girls to attend school; when the Pakistani Taliban tried to deny that right – she fought back with the only tools she had – her voice, a blog, and defiance of the repeated death threats made against her.
Young and brave, she was noticed and she was listened to; this little girl became scary. With her growing appeal and her refusal to go away, she got under the skin of the Taliban, who recognized the danger she posed to their ideology. Her fearlessness terrified them. So the Taliban struck using the means they have come to know best – cold-blooded murder. But in striving to blot out Malala’s words, they amplified her message far beyond the Swat Valley, calling attention to the justice of her cause in every corner of every continent.
For that we are grateful, because the journey Malala is asking us to take is a necessary one. At the start of this century, the world established a set of landmark goals, one of which was ensuring access to primary education for every boy and every girl; in the years since, we’ve made progress but some 57 million school age children remain outside the classroom – and last year, for the first time in a decade, international assistance – international aid for education decreased.
In Malala’s home country of Pakistan, fully a third of young people who should be attending school are not. Enrollment rates are lower for girls, for children who live in rural areas, and for the poor.
Obstacles include the kind of medieval pressures imposed by the Taliban, but also a shortage of teachers, supplies, security, and money. When families struggle with poverty, many children who begin school don’t stay long, with boys dropping out to take jobs and girls dropping out to help domestically.
In my own home, I have two young children, and it is obvious that I want them to enjoy access to a first-rate education. But Malala reminds me – and I think all of us – that this dream is shared by families everywhere; it is every parent’s dream for their children.
Earlier this year, when the United Nations asked people in 194 countries to name their top priority – their top priority – more than two-thirds said education.
We must remember that attending school is not a privilege, but a right that enables individuals to take advantage of other rights – to speak, to organize, to earn a living, to safeguard family health, and to contribute to society. Intellectually and often ethically, education is what separates mere existence from the ability to live a full life, rich in dignity and blessed with understanding.
And so investments are urgently required to train instructors, to build schools, to transport students, and to give help to those with special needs – including refugees and children in armed conflict. Just yesterday, I returned from Central Africa, and can report that the big issue in that region is not whether to “teach to the test,” but how to bring students and teachers together safely and for more than a few days at a time.
Here in America, we often hear complaints about the size of government, but it’s the absence of effective government that’s far worse – and one of the public sector’s primary responsibilities is to provide for means of education.
Three months ago, Malala Yousafzai spoke before the United Nations General Assembly – and in front of that global audience, this 16 year old was professor to us all.
Now is the time, she said, to speak up for women’s rights and children’s rights and to ensure that no girl and no boy is denied an education because their families can’t afford it, or because their school has been destroyed by conflict, or because adults are afraid that knowledge will shatter the dubious comfort of their own narrow and bitter view of the world.
Malala spoke that day with telling affection about her home country, and about the Pakistani people’s desire for prosperity, dignity and peace. Of the Taliban, whose threats against her continue, she expressed only the prayer that their children, all of their children, will have access to a real education as well.
Mixed with the courage in Malala’s words, there is both personal humility and profound confidence; with passion in her voice, she summons us to unleash the power of young minds; to fight back against illiteracy, poverty, and terrorism; and to know in our hearts that – again, in her words – “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”
“Education is the only solution,” she declares, adding that, with sufficient bravery and respect for one another “No one can stop us.”
Last year at this time, the Taliban asked “Which one is Malala?” Now the whole world knows which one is Malala. And we – and they — have started to look around and to see that there are Malalas everywhere.
The 92nd Street Y is my favorite venue, Christiane Amanpour is the world’s foremost interviewer, and tonight we come together in the presence of a remarkable young woman to listen and to learn.
Malala, in your fervent wish to know more, you have become all of our teachers. And for that, and many other things to come, you have our eternal thanks.
Ladies and gentlemen, Malala Yousafzi, her father, and Christiane Amanpour.
Cross posted from: USUN