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 more than 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 Pakistani dress and pants called a shalwar kameez and a 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 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.”
But her main focus was on the 57 million children who aren’t in school today.
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.”
UNESCO and Save the Children released a special reported entitled “Children Battling To Go To School,” ahead of Malala’s speech.
The report found that 95 percent of the 28.5 million children 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.
Girls make up 55 percent of the total and are often the victims of rape and other sexual violence that accompanies armed conflicts.
The study found that in 2012 there were more than 3,600 documented attacks on education, including violence, torture and intimidation against children and teachers resulting in death or grave injuries, as well as the shelling and bombing of schools and the recruitment of school-aged children by armed groups.
According to the report, while the number of primary school age children who are not getting an education has fallen to 57 million in 2011 from 60 million in 2008, during that period the percentage of youth in conflict-affected countries who aren’t at primary school rose to 50 percent from 42 percent.
“Across many of the world’s poorest countries, armed conflict continues to destroy not just school infrastructure, but also the hopes and ambitions of a whole generation of children,” UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova said.