UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls, celebrated her 16th birthday Friday by demanding in her first public speech since the attack that world leaders provide free compulsory schooling for every child.
In an impassioned address from the podium at the United Nations to nearly 1,000 youth leaders from over 100 countries, Malala called for “a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism.”
“Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons,” she said. “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”
Malala, who wore a traditional pink patterned Pakistani dress and pants called a shalwar kameez and a white shawl that she said belonged to slain Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, began her speech with a traditional Muslim prayer.
She called herself just one of thousands of victims of the Taliban and said the bullet that entered the left side of her forehead last October, which the extremists thought would silence her, had not dimmed her ambitions to promote peace, education and prosperity. Her head was covered in a traditional scarf and her face displayed little sign of injury.
Malala invoked Indian independence leader Mohandas Gandhi and other global advocates of non-violence stressing that “I’m not against anyone, neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban, or any other terrorist group.”
“I’m here to speak about the right of education for every child,” she said. “I want education for the sons and daughters of all the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hands and he stands in front of me. I would not shoot him.”
Malala said extremists kill students, especially girls, and destroy schools because they are afraid of the power of education and the power of women.
“We cannot succeed when half of us are held back,” she said, urging all communities to be tolerant and reject prejudice based on caste, creed, sect, religion or gender.
The U.N. designated July 12 “Malala Day,” and there were cheers, standing ovations and a round of “Happy Birthday” for her.
But she said “Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.”
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who helped organize the Youth Assembly in his capacity as U.N. special envoy for global education, said Malala was doing exactly what the Taliban didn’t want her to do, calling her “the most courageous girl in the world.”
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon denounced terrorist attacks on students saying: “No child should have to die for going to school.”
UNESCO and Save the Children released a special report entitled “Children Battling To Go To School,” ahead of Malala’s speech.
According to the report, the number of primary school age children not getting an education has fallen slowly from 60 million in 2008 to 57 million in 2011, but during that time period the percentage of youngsters in conflict-affected countries who aren’t at primary school rose from 42 percent to 50 percent, UNESCO said.
The report found that 95 percent of the 28.5 million children in conflict-affected areas who aren’t getting a primary school education live in low and lower-middle income countries – 44 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, 19 percent in south and west Asia, and 14 percent in the Arab states, UNESCO said.
Girls make up 55 percent of the total and are often the victims of rape and other sexual violence that accompanies armed conflicts, UNESCO said.