UNITED NATIONS - At an impressive ceremony at United Nations headquarters in New York, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday gave Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai the top award, stating he was inspired by her "unwavering commitment to peace" and "resolve to foster a better world."
"You are not only a hero but you are a very committed and generous person," Guterres said, highlighting Yousafzai's determination to bring equality to all.
Hailing Malala as "the most famous student in the world" and the symbol of the cause of education for all, the UN chief appointed her as the Messenger of Peace for girls education.
Accepting the accolade, Nobel Laureate Yousafzai spoke on the importance of education in her home country - Pakistan - and around the world, stating that "education is a right of every child and especially for girls" and that the "right should not be neglected."
"I'm hopeful and I encourage all young girls (in Pakistan) to stand up as well. You need to believe in yourselves. If you do not stand up, change will not come. If you want to see your future bright, you have to start working now," she said.
“I stood here on this stage almost three and a half years ago…and I told the world that education is a basic human right of every girl…I stand here again today and say the same thing: education is the right of every child and especially for girls, this right should not be neglected,” Malala told hundreds of youth representatives from around the world in the Trusteeship Council Chamber.
Pakistan's UN Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi, who later hosted a largely attended reception in honour of Malala in a UN lounge, was among those present.
Malala profusely thanked the UN chief for the honour. "I'm getting this award, but I also want to represent Pakistan, my country, because I want people to know that this is me representing Pakistan, not extremists and terrorists - they are not Pakistan, they are not us," she said. "It's girls like me, who stand in that country who believe in education; it's girls like me who are Muslim and are proud of their religion who stand for education, who believe in education. All Muslim girls believe in education and believe in peace."
In his remarks, Secretary-General Guterres also praised Pakistan's generosity for hosting millions of Afghan refugees. “We live in a world where so many borders closed; so many doors are closed, but Pakistan has received millions refugees with open borders, open doors and hearts – open a symbol of generosity.”
He hoped this spirit could serve as an example that “it is not by closing doors that we will all be able to move forward.”
Guterres told Malala, “You have been to the most difficult places […] visited several refugee camps. Your foundation has schools in Lebanon, in the Beka’a Valley,” while noting that as a former physics professor he felt emotional facing the "most famous student of the world."
“[You are a] symbol of perhaps the most important thing in the world, education for all,” he added.
UN Messengers of Peace are distinguished individuals, carefully selected from the fields of art, literature, science, entertainment, sports or other fields of public life, who have agreed to help focus worldwide attention on the work of the global Organisation.
Backed by the highest honour bestowed by the Secretary-General on a global citizen, these prominent personalities volunteer their time, talent and passion to raise awareness of UN’s efforts to improve the lives of billions of people everywhere.
Other current Messengers of Peace include actor Leonardo di Caprio, for climate change, actor Charlize Theron, whose focus is prevention of HIV and elimination of violence against women, and actor Michael Douglas, whose focus is disarmament.
On her part, Malala underscored the importance of education, especially education of girls, for advancing communities and societies.
“[Bringing change] starts with us and it should start now,” she said, adding: “If you want to see your future bright, you have to start working now [and] not wait for anyone else.”
Following the official presentation, Guterres and Malala conversed with youth representatives from around the world on the theme of girls education.
Taking a question from a young speaker in the audience, Malala said the most difficult time she faced had been from 2007 to 2009 in the Swat Valley, “because we were at a point of making a decision about whether to speak out or remain silent. And I realised that if you remain silent, you are still going to be terrorised. So speaking out, you can help people.”
While recovering from the Taliban attack, she realised that “extremists tried everything to stop me [and the fact that they didn’t] is clear evidence that no one can stop me. I have second life for the purpose of education and I’ll continue working on [this issue].
Malala went on to state that brothers and fathers must also support women and girls in the global effort to ensure education for all and, more importantly, “be who they want to be.”
Indeed, she has that her father always told people not to ask him what he did for Malala, ‘but as what I didn’t do – I didn’t clip her wings.’
Beyond issues of education, Malala has also been an outspoken advocate on issues of conflict and refugees.
On the escalation of violence in Syria, she stated: “To the children under siege in Aleppo, I pray that you will get out safely. I pray that you will grow up strong, go to school and see peace in your country some day. But prayers are not enough. We must act. The international community must do everything they can to end to this inhumane war.”
Most recently, Yousafzai condemned the US executive order banning people from several Muslim-majority countries, writing that she is “heartbroken” and asking President Donald Trump to not turn his back on families fleeing violence and war.
“I’m a Muslim and I’m proud to be a Muslim… I think people should look at me and all of the other 1.6 billion Muslims who are living in peace and believe in peace rather than looking at a few terrorists…they are not us,” she said during the designation ceremony.
She also deplored Western media's attempt to associate Islam with terrorism, stating that 1.6 billion Muslims around the world believe in peace and justice.
Asked about the role of feminism in Islam, Malala said Islam advocated equality and, therefore, equal rights for males and females.
Both Malala and Guterres noted the challenges that refugee families face in camps.
Worldwide, approximately 50 per cent of refugee children have access to primary education. The gap widens as children grow older with 22 per cent having access to secondary education and less than 1 per cent with access to universities.
In Lebanon alone, only half of Syrian refugee children can go to school.
“This shows how little the international community is doing to educate refugee children,” Guterres said.
“It is our responsibility, especially in the richest countries, to express our solidarity to all those who unfortunately cannot provide to their children the education they have the right to receive,” he continued.