The Pakistani education advocate – who was shot by the Taliban for her activism – spoke exactly 10 years after her landmark ‘Malala Day’ speech to youth at the UN Headquarters in New York, where she called for global action against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed introduced Malala, saying she transcended borders, cultures and generations, as her message and love touched people everywhere.
“Malala continues to dare us to imagine: to imagine a world with less intolerance, more understanding and respect. A world without hate and more people. A world with less bigotry and more equality. A world with less ignorance, and more education and awareness,” he said.
He added that the UN and Malala know that quality education for girls and boys “is not a dream, but it is a basic human right.”
Focus on girls education
In the years since her UN speech, Malala has graduated from high school and university, traveled to more than 30 countries, and founded an eponymous fund that works to reduce barriers to girls’ education.
“I gave a lot of speeches and talked to a lot of leaders,” he said. “In everything I do, I try to draw the world’s attention to girls like me – the almost 120 million girls denied the right to education by poverty, patriarchy, climate and conflict.”
During that time, Malala also spent her birthday traveling to different countries to meet local women, including refugees in Jordan, Iraq, Kenya and Rwanda, and indigenous women in Brazil.
He has made three trips to Nigeria alone, meeting with activists and young women, and also with parents whose daughters were among the 276 girls abducted in the Chibok school kidnapping in 2014.
Joy and challenges
Malala shared the stories of some of the young women she met over the years who went on to earn university degrees and even started working.
“We must celebrate the woman who goes to university, works, chooses when and if she gets married. But we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that we have made enough progress,” he warned.
“I want to congratulate those who have made it, despite the challenges they face. But my heart aches for those who failed us. Every young woman like me has friends we see left behind – those whose governments, communities and families hold them back.
Little has changed
He praised global initiatives to promote education and gender equality, which will help achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of quality education for all by 2030. But he emphasized again that “these few gains cannot hide how little has changed for hundreds of millions of women”, including due to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Malala also highlighted the situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban returned to power two years ago. In the past, one in three women there was enrolled in university, he said, but now it is the only country in the world where girls and women are prohibited from pursuing education.
“Even as a teenager, I understand that progress can be slow,” he said. “But I never expected to witness a complete transformation. A whole nation of girls stuck in school stuck in their homes. And lost hope.”
It can change
In her powerful speech at the UN in 2013, 16-year-old Malala famously declared that “a child, a teacher, a pen and a book can change the world.” His youthful optimism has since been shattered.
“I will tell you now what I did not know before. One child, even with the best resources and encouragement, one child cannot change the world. Neither can a president or prime minister,” he said.
“A teacher, an activist, a parent – no one can change the world by themselves. The truth is that change can start with just one person.
Investing in women
Malala called for joining forces to build a world where all children have access to 12 years of quality education, while leaders must be held accountable for their commitments to gender equality and education.
He also emphasized the importance of communities. “I believe that many of the problems that girls face can be solved if we can break the control of patriarchy, the misogyny, we disguise it as a cultural or religious tradition,” she said.
Malala revealed that when she was 16, she could not imagine what the next decade would bring, although she was hopeful.
“Now, I can see the future more clearly because I have met our future leaders. Women understand the power of education and they are working to open the school gates wide enough for every child to enter,” she said.
“I know that if we match their determination, fund their work and follow their lead, we will see tremendous progress over the next 10 years.”