Malala Yousafzai: Humanitarian of the Year



Girls’ education advocate honored in Sanders Theatre.

Photo by Meghan Brooks.
Photo by Meghan Brooks.

Friday, the Harvard Foundation honored 16-year-old Pakistani girls’ education advocate Malala Yousafzai with the 2013 Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian of the Year Award. A full crowd welcomed Yousafzai to Sanders Theatre, along with her family and the neurosurgeon who performed her first operation. The awards ceremony was free to Harvard students, and the crowd’s size and enthusiasm indicated that students as well as community members and other Harvard affiliates were looking forward to hearing Yousafzai speak. Although Memorial Hall may have been less impressive than the United Nations, where Yousafzai spoke in July, she seemed excited nonetheless as she filed onto the stage, dressed in pink and waving to a standing ovation.

Yousafzai had come a long way to stand on that stage. A student from Pakistan’s Swat valley, she became the center of international attention after the Taliban attempted to assassinate her last October. A target due to her pseudonymous column on girls’ education and life under the Taliban for BBC Urdu, which garnered her a New York Times documentary, a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize via South African bishop Desmond Tutu, and fame throughout Pakistan, Yousafzai was shot in the head along with two friends as she rode the bus home from school. After multiple surgeries in Pakistan and the United Kingdom, Yousafzai has made an incredible recovery, and is determined to use her prominence to advocate for women’s rights and girls’ education in particular globally.

Since leaving Queen Victoria Hospital in Birmingham, England, where surgeons continued the work of Pakistani neurosurgeon and Lieutenant Colonel Junaid Khan, Yousafzai has traveled widely. She has received numerous awards and considerable recognition from organizations the world over — she was awarded the Mother Teresa Award for Social Justice, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and named among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people for 2013. In her native Pakistan, she was awarded the third-highest medal for civilian bravery, and a fund set up in her name has been dedicated to promoting girls’ education around the world. Perhaps most significantly, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, declared her birthday, July 12, “Malala Day.” Her speech in the General Assembly was received well, and many hope that the momentum she has generated will continue to make girls’ education a priority topic on the global stage.

The idea that girls’ education is particularly important was not forgotten at Friday’s ceremony. Dr. Paula Johnson ’80 reminded the audience of the significant benefits societies accrue when they educate their girls and women, and her remarks, combined with Yousafzai’s powerful assertion that education is a universal right, reminded the audience how deserving Yousafzai is of this award.

As Harvard Foundation Director Dr. S. Allen Counter noted, Yousafzai is the most recent in an impressive line to have received the Humanitarian Award. Since its inception, The Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations — founded in 1981 by the late Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes and Harvard’s then-president Derek Bok — has honored exceptional activists and champions of human rights with its Humanitarian Award. Bishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland, and Martin Luther King Sr. are all counted as recipients. What all recipients have in common is that their work has changed the world for the better and inspired others to action. This year’s Awards were the second to be named after Gomes, who was also the long-serving Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the Divinity School and Pusey Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church. Counter said of the award, “[it] is presented to a person whose work and deeds have served to advance humanity, a person who is a symbol of diversity, inclusion, equal rights, and human rights for all.” Yousafzai, he continued, “[is] a refreshing new voice on the world stage that speaks to the inner core values of gender equality, justice, and individual human rights.”

When Yousafzai took the stage to speak, her voice rang clearly. She began by thanking the University for the honor, and then thanked those whose efforts helped saved her life, including Dr. Khan, who was seated on the stage. She told the story of the events that led to the shooting. The Taliban had taken over Swat and issued an edict saying girls could no longer attend school. Yet Yousafzai and her friends pushed forward, hiding their books in their clothing so as not to appear as students. “The so-called Taliban were afraid of women’s power,” Yousafzai said, “and of the power of education.” She said of her schoolmates and father, a noted educator and girls’ education activist in his own right, “we did not keep silent. We raised our voice…we raised our voice for the right of education.”

Her determination almost cost Yousafzai her life, but as she explained, education may be the only way to break the circle of violence in her native Pakistan, to free children from child labor, early marriages, sexual victimization, and poverty, and to liberate women around the world. “But dear brothers and sisters,” she said. “We are not here to make a long list of the issues we are facing. Rather, we are here to find a solution. And the solution is one, and it is simple. Education. Education. Education…if you want to see peace in Syria, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan,” she implored the ‘world powers,’ “then instead of sending guns, send pens. Instead of sending tanks, send textbooks. Instead of sending soldiers, send teachers.”

This line in particular drew the crowd to its feet, and the applause continued long after she finished speaking and local sixth-grader Maya Counter presented her with a bouquet, only to be silenced when Dr. Jeffrey Flier, Dean of Harvard Medical School, stood to present an Award of Appreciation to Dr. Khan. Flier described the difficult surgery — the bullet had pierced Yousafzai’s head, neck, and shoulder, and grazed her brain. “[Khan] fought valiantly and well to save Malala’s life that day. Their [the medical team’s] effort and results have been described as matchless,” he said. Khan accepted the award and, making his way back to his seat, laid his hand on Yousafzai’s head, a short prayer of thanks, perhaps, for the life of a young woman and humanitarian who is unafraid to fight for the rights of all women, and who will undoubtedly continue in her work to change the world for the better.

Meghan Brooks ’14 (meghanbrooks@college) is grateful for her education and excited to see what Malala does next.