A little less than a year ago, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai lay in a Pakistan hospital struggling to survive after being shot in the head by Taliban insurgents — simply for trying to get an education. Last Friday, the demure teen, wearing a plain white gown with a rose-colored scarf covering her head, stood before a crowd of nearly 1,000 at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre receiving one standing ovation after another throughout the evening.
“We are here to find a solution and it’s simple: education, education, education,” Yousafzai, now 16, told the audience as she made a plea for peace, education, and equality in her country and around the world.
“A war can never be ended by a war,” Yousafzai said. “You can only fight wars with education.
“Instead of sending guns, send pens,” she said. “Instead of sending tanks, send books. Instead of sending soldiers, send teachers.”
Yousafzai was in Cambridge to receive the 2013 Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award from the Harvard Foundation, which each year honors an individual whose work promotes equality, racial harmony, and peace. Previous recipients have included Elie Wiesel, Desmond Tutu, and Kofi Annan.
“This impressive young woman has touched many throughout the world,” S. Allen Counter, director of the Harvard Foundation and Harvard Medical School (HMS) clinical professor of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, said as he presented the award. He called Yousafzai “a refreshing new voice on the world stage.”
Yousafzai’s voice was nearly silenced after she drew the ire of Taliban insurgents who, in 2007, made a push for control of the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan where she lived.
Police and government officials were gunned down and schools were bombed. Young girls such as Yousafzai lived in fear for their lives every day they attended school.
“They used to slaughter two to three innocent people every night,” Yousafzai said.
“We had to hide our books under our shawls to pretend we weren’t students … they were afraid of the power of education,” she said.
Eventually, a cease-fire was reached, but Yousafzai’s family was never out of danger; their outspoken anti-Taliban views, coupled with a blog Yousafzai wrote for BBC Urdu about life under Taliban oppression, made all of them targets. On Oct. 9, 2012, gunmen shot Yousafzai in the head as she rode home from school on a bus. The attack garnered worldwide attention.
While in a coma, Yousafzai was flown to a hospital in Birmingham, England. When she recovered, her commitment and voice were stronger than ever. Pakistan’s former President Asif Ali Zardari honored her courage by announcing the formation of a $10 million education fund in her name.
“They found we did not keep silent. We raised our voices for the rights of education,” Yousafzai said. “When no one speaks, then even one voice becomes powerful.”
The benefits of education for girls in developing nations has been underscored by a World Bank study that showed improvements to economic productivity and decreases in child mortality rates when girls are allowed to go to school, said Paula Johnson, HMS professor of medicine and executive director of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who also spoke at the award ceremony.
“Education and health are totally intertwined,” Johnson said. “Malala, our work at Harvard is inspired by you.”
Johnson’s remarks echoed those of Harvard President Drew Faust, who praised Yousafzai’s efforts at a meeting in Harvard Yard before the ceremony.
“We educate women because it is smart. We educate women because it changes the world,” Faust said.
Yousafzai was accompanied to the Harvard Foundation ceremony by her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, who also received a standing ovation, and by one of the neurosurgeons who saved her life, M. Junaid Khan, a colonel in the Pakistani military. HMS Dean Jeffrey S. Flier recognized Khan with an award of appreciation for the pivotal role he had played in Yousafzai’s care.
“It is because of your expertise as a medical doctor and surgeon that Malala is able to continue to share her vision of equal opportunity in education with the world and, today, with all of us here at Harvard University,” Flier said. “We are all the richer for the work each of you has done and continues to do.”
Yousafzai said she has a dream of a “bright future” for children in “suffering countries,” such as Syria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In many places, she said, children have “no access to food and clean water, and they are starving for education.”
Yousafzai said she will continue to call for equal educational rights for “every boy and every girl.”
“We are going to be the future,” she told the theater packed with college students. “Let us make today’s dreams tomorrow’s realities.”