On World Malala Day, Teen Inspiration Works to Free Her Kidnapped ‘Sisters’

Capping a whirlwind year, including being nominated for a Nobel, Malala Yousafzai visits Nigeria to push for the recovery of the country’s missing schoolgirls.
Pakistani campaigner for education rights Malala Yousafzai meets with the families of the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram militants in Abuja, Nigeria, on July 13, 2014. (Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)


Jul 14, 2014· 2 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Malala Yousafzai is a teenager who’s already lived a lifetime.

Just days after her 16th birthday last year—and only a few months after the Pakistani Taliban shot her in the head for attending school—Yousafzai commanded the world’s attention during an address at the Youth Assembly at the United Nations. Her message, broadcast live around the world, was simple and direct: All children deserve an education, and no girl should ever face violence for it.

“Our books and our pens are our most powerful weapons,” she declared.

The U.N. then designated July 14 World Malala Day, an occasion to push for girls’ rights and universal education. At that point, Yousafzai had accomplished more than most adults, having developed an international profile and collected several major humanitarian awards.

Rather than fade into history, Yousafzai today seems determined to carry on her mission, even though it nearly ended her life.

Today, she met with Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan to discuss the fate of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamic extremists in April. Yousafzai referred to the girls—victims of the same brutality that nearly killed her—as “my sisters.”

“As we celebrate Malala Day on July 14, I have both hope and heartbreak,” she writes in a Washington Post editorial published today. “I thought we had hit a turning point in our history, that never again would a girl face what I had to face.”

The meeting with Jonathan marks the latest turn in a whirlwind year for Yousafzai, who celebrated her 17th birthday on Saturday and now lives with her family in Birmingham, England. Along with speaking engagements and news interviews, the teenager has made appearances around the world, and she has personally taken up the cause of the missing Nigerian girls.

“I did not think that, just one year after my U.N. speech, more than 200 girls would be kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram simply for wanting to go to school,” she writes.

Worldwide, several human rights organizations honored the teenager, including the Clinton Global Initiative and Harvard University, which named her its humanitarian of the year. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed her at the 92nd Street Y in New York, she was selected one of Glamour magazine’s Women of the Year, and she wowed host Jon Stewart and the audience of The Daily Show.

Perhaps the most significant development for Yousafzai last year was a nomination for the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, making her one of the youngest people ever under consideration. She didn’t win, but her supporters have renominated her for the 2014 prize. Other nominees include Pope Francis and NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

The accolades and recognition as an “international icon” haven’t seemed to distract Yousafzai from her mission: universal education for girls.

She’s featured in a video on the U.N. Global Education First Initiative’s website (as well as other human rights websites); she holds a placard that reads, “I am stronger than fear.”

In her Washington Post editorial, Yousafzai writes that she has visited scores of her “sisters” at refugee camps in Jordan, in the slums of Kenya, and other international crisis spots during the last year. She’s also addressed poverty and educational inequities in the developed world, including New York City, “where girls face bullying and violence,” she writes.

Though she’s become the centerpiece, Yousafzai emphasizes that the cause she’s undertaken—at an age when most girls in the developed world are more concerned with dating, learning to drive, or where they might go to college—is greater than one person.

Education, she writes in the Washington Post, “is what separates a girl who is trapped in a cycle of poverty, fear, and violence from one with a chance at a better future.”

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.