Real Life Stories

Schoolgirl activist Malala Yousafzai speaks out for change

She was shot in the head and survived. Now Malala Yousafzai is fighting back... with words.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

On July 12, her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai stood in front of more than 500 young people at the first-ever “youth takeover” of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. Dressed in a pink head scarf —and a shawl that once belonged to former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto — Malala was passionate, but composed. “The extremists are afraid of books and pens,” she told the young people before her. “The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.” It was her first public address since October 9, 2012, when the Taliban shot her in the head and neck for trying to go to school.

Sixteen-year-old Fahmeeda from Toronto was sitting in the third row. “I expected her to be angry,” Fahmeeda says. “But she was really calm. And sincere. She motivated me to do more when I got home.” Fahmeeda’s family came to Canada from Pakistan when she was eight. On a return visit a few years ago, Fahmeeda met a girl who was too afraid to risk the 3-km walk to the nearest school. Fahmeeda was shocked. “It shouldn’t be that way,” she says. “It made me see what we take for granted.”

Today, 66 million girls do not get to go to school. Fahmeeda, who attended the UN youth takeover as a youth ambassador for Plan Canada, hopes to change that. She earned a place on the trip because of the work she has already done, from selling cupcakes to raise money for girls’ latrines to organizing a prom-dress drive to fund scholarships for girls in Africa. Now she is gearing up for the second annual International Day of the Girl on October 11, a day formally adopted by the United Nations to recognize the barriers girls face worldwide and seek solutions.

“I think the Day of the Girl is as much about celebrating girls as it is about raising awareness of the problems they face,” Fahmeeda says. “It’s a chance to feel happy about being a girl.” Last year, she handed out buttons and brochures to get people talking about girls’ issues. “One of my friends told me, ‘Nobody can be like Malala.’ But I think everybody has the potential to do more. What we can do is more than we can even imagine.” As Malala said, “No one can stop us. Our words can change the world.”

Note: Malala’s vocalness against extremists has put her on the hit list of the Taliban, with new murder threats always emerging. Her bravery and humanitarian work has won her countless awards, including the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. She was also a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, and if named, she would have been the youngest recipient of the prestigious award.