On July 12, 2013, youth took over the United Nations. Hundreds came to hear Malala Yousafzai – the Pakistani girl who was shot on a school bus last year by the Taliban for standing up for her and other girls’ right to receive an education. After recovering, she is now speaking louder than ever.
Now known as Malala Day (#MalalaDay), the Special UN Youth Assembly was full of energy and the smell of teenage sweat as I sat alongside other young people from over 80 countries on the first floor of a room normally occupied by diplomats, ambassadors and global leaders. Our goal was to support Malala in delivering a resolution to the UN Secretary-General, and subsequently, the UN Security Council, to demand compulsory education for the 57 million children out of school.
Titled The Education We Want, this was an entirely youth-authored resolution, and a monumental declaration. The feeling in that chamber was exhilarating, and the other youth delegates and I knew we were part of something important, something historic and something that had the potential to change the future for our generation and generations to come.
Reminiscent of Severn Suzuki who shook the world in 1992 at the UN Earth Summit, Malala was a remarkable sight, resolute and calm with her small frame and simple pink dress, pants, and shawl. She appeared almost unfazed at the attention as she stood next to some of the most prominent and powerful men in the world.
As a young Canadian, I admire her. Only 19 years old myself, I’ve been lucky to have seen some amazing and eloquent speakers in the past, including both Bill and Hilary Clinton and the former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. Nonetheless, speaking just after the UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon, Malala resolutely took the stand. Not a single of those mentioned could even touch the inspiration coming from this girl from Pakistan. Her words were powerful, clear, and simple: “Education is the only solution. Education First.”
Malala spoke of peace, brotherhood, tolerance, freedom of religion, race, and education for all, but she also forced us to look inward to the collective shortcomings we face. A blazing example lies in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Currently, the MDGs on educating the world’s children sit at 95 per cent complete, and are largely celebrated as a success – but where do the 57 million young boys and girls still without basic education fit into that goal?
Malala firmly stated that this was not her day, but a day for all the world’s girls and boys. She’s right. And moreover, it is not only her voice that matters. And that’s what makes Malala Day so important. There are millions of children around the world who are just like her, children who face insurmountable obstacles when trying to access basic education. It was these words that truly marked how historic Malala’s call-to-action was. Though UN declarations are not always kept, perhaps it will be her voice, and the voices of the world’s youth that will carry this resolution through.
Throughout the day, I interviewed other young people on their perceptions of Malala Day. They commonly stated that it “signals the transition from a time when young people have been ignored, to a point where young people can change the world.”
Salathiel, a young man from Burundi (who helped organize the day) spoke to the importance of including young people in policy and decision-making processes. He believes that youth can be shapers of the globe, and can make invaluable contributions to policies and agendas.
Thoughts about Malala and the other forgotten children that she represents also made me think of our children at home in Canada. I think, as a ’developed country,’ we sometimes see ourselves above the calls for universal education worldwide. Yet, these calls apply to us as well, and how we support youth in poverty, most particularly in our Aboriginal communities.
Access to education is a problem that affects today and generations to come; we need to call on our leaders to take action, or Malala Day will just be another day of the week. If we don’t join her, that small girl in pink who inspired us, no matter how loud her voice, will disappear behind another wall of tall men, bureaucracy, and words without meaning or resolve.
Jaxson Khan is the Executive Director of Student Voice Initiative and the former CEO of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association. He was one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20.