Here in New York at the UN headquarters I was delighted to learn that Canada has bestowed honorary citizenship upon Malala Yousafzai.
After presenting Malala with her certificate at a ceremony in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thanked her. “Thank you, Malala, for your inspiring words. It was an honour to host you in our house, which I hope you’ll now consider your house, too.”
This brave young woman captured the imagination of the world in 2012 after she was shot in the head and nearly killed by the Taliban. This awful violent crime against a young girl was designed to shut her up and stop her from championing female education.
Fifty-two per cent of Pakistani girls are out of school. That’s 13 million girls. In a country that has a constitutional commitment to educating all boys and girls between the ages of 5 and 16, this is not right.
Malala was lucky to be born into a family that valued education. Her father, Ziauddin, is himself a teacher and runs a chain of schools. He inspired his daughter and two sons to prize education and to recognise that the source of empowerment is learning.
This was something that the Taliban clearly found threatening.
Since the shooting in 2012, when Malala very nearly died, she has used the media interest wisely to advocate for the rights of girls around the world. She’s set up a foundation, written a book, and is a regular speaker at forums and events. She’s become a figurehead for a vital global campaign championing the rights of girls and the importance of schooling.
A few days before Trudeau awarded her Canadian citizenship, Malala was made the youngest-ever UN Messenger of Peace, the highest honour granted by the UN. As she accepted her award, she said:
“I stood here on this stage almost three and a half years ago … and I told the world that education is the basic human right of every girl. And I stand here again today and say the same thing. Once you educate girls, you change the whole community, you change the whole society.”
Do not underestimate the power of personalities like Malala to help drive change. Unlike her assailants this young woman has no weapons, but she does have words. Unlike the abhorrent Taliban she has a message of hope.
It is time for communities in countries like Pakistan to take their responsibilities to educate seriously if they aspire to the levels of development, economic success and social cohesion of countries such as Canada.
And it is time for countries around the world to think carefully about their own records. No country is perfect in this matter, and it is madness to ignore the talent and potential of half of the population simply because of gender.
This is an issue I care about, and I am inviting some leading thinkers and advocates on girl’s rights to speak at the Global Citizen Forum in November. Watch this space.
Image copyright of THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang.