The Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban for advocating girls’ education called on world leaders to ensure free schooling for all children Friday morning.
“One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world,” Malala Yousafzai told the United Nations Youth Assembly Friday. “Education is the only solution.”
The speech, in which Malala called for “a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism,” was her first major public appearance since a Taliban gunman shot her in the head at point-blank range last October.
The UN designated the day – which also coincided with Malala’s 16th birthday – ‘Malala Day,’ to promote awareness of the importance of education.
Dressed in a pink dress and pants, and a shawl owned by former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, the diminutive teenager spoke with a loud, clear voice, telling gathered dignitaries and youth leaders that her attackers did not intimidate her.
“The Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too,” Malala said in her speech.
“They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed.”
Malala underwent months of skull reconstruction surgery in the U.K. after a gunman boarded her schoolbus in the Swat district of Pakistan and sent a bullet through her left forehead. Still, she said, she forgives her attackers.
“I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and the extremists,” Malala said.
“I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him,” she said.
The teenager first gained attention as an 11-year-old, when, after the Pakistani Taliban ordered girls’ schools shut down, she started a blog campaigning for education.
After the attack, she attracted global attention, and has since emerged as a global symbol for women’s rights in Pakistan.
Malala, who is currently living and studying in the U.K. with her family, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2013.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon referred to Malala as “our hero, our champion” in his introduction to the teenaged activist’s speech. “She was targeted just because of her determination to go to school and learn,” Mr. Ban said.
“Targeting Malala shows what they feared most: a girl with a book.”
Former U.K. prime minister and the UN’s special envoy for global education Gordon Brown called it a “miracle,” given her injuries after the attack, that Malala could be speaking at the UN Friday morning
“Let me repeat the words – the words the Taliban never wanted her to hear – Happy 16th birthday Malala,” Mr. Brown said.
UNESCO took the opportunity to release a report titled “ Children still battling to go to school ,” which showed that, although the overall number of children in school increased by about 3 million between 2008 and 2011, the opposite has happened for children in conflict-affected countries.
During the same time period, the report stated, the percentage of children denied an education in war-torn countries increased from 42 per cent to 50 per cent.