Power of Young Voices: Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to Children’s Rights Activists

Malala Yousafzai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, stands with family members after being presented with the 25th Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament in 2013. Photo courtesy of Claude TRUONG-NGOC/Wikimedia Commons.

Last Friday, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai “for their struggle against the oppression of young people and for the right of all children to education.” Yousafzai, at 17, is the youngest person ever to be awarded the prize.

“Despite her youth, Malala Yousafzai has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education and has shown by example that children and young people too can contribute to improving their own situations,” the Nobel committee said in a statement. “This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances. Through her heroic struggle, she has become a leading spokesperson for girls’ rights to education.”

Yousafzai is from the Swat District of Pakistan, the site of several battles between the Taliban and the Pakistani Army. As the Taliban exercised control in the region, they sought to limit the rights of women — specifically their right to an education.

Yousafzai gained notoriety in 2009 as a 12-year-old writing an anonymous blog for the BBC chronicling her life amidst the conflict.

In 2012, she was the target of an attack by the Taliban that left her in critical condition after suffering a gunshot wound. She continued to protest and helped garner support for what became the first right to education bill passed in Pakistan. She also founded the Malala fund, which strives to help girls around the world to obtain an education and escape poverty.

In a press conference Yousafzai held after being named as co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, she explained the choice she faced under Taliban rule.

“I had two options: one was not to speak and wait to be killed, and the second was to speak up and then be killed. And I chose the second one,” Yousafzai said.

Yousafzai saw the denial of her right to an education as a denial of her right to a future.

“When I heard that I could not go to school, for a second I thought that I would never be able to become a doctor, or I would never be able to be who I wanted to be in the future,” she said. “And my life would be just getting married at the age of 13 or 14, not going to school, not becoming who I really can be, so I decided to speak up.”

She encouraged other children in difficult situations to follow her example.

“[Children’s] voices are so powerful,” Yousafzai said. “It would seem that they’re weak, but at a time when no one is speaking your voice gets so loud that everyone has to listen to it, everyone has to hear it.”

Keith Lepak, coordinator of peace and conflict studies at Youngstown State University, said Yousafzai’s resilience is what has set her apart.

“She is an extraordinary young woman simply because she has a very strong will to stand down these efforts that have been made to shut her up, including the attempt to kill her,” Lepak said.

He also said the prestige along with the monetary award — about $1.5 million — will be instrumental in helping her further her cause and cultivate an international support system.

“There’s not only a status aspect about the award, but there’s an economic and financial expansion of the resources that she can bring to bear on this problem,” Lepak said.

Satyarthi has fought for over 30 years to secure the rights of children in India, with a particular focus on the exploitation of child labor. Many impoverished families in India resort to selling their children into a form of involuntary servitude.

“[Satyarthi] has been an advocate for revealing this problem and trying to bring the conditions to the attention of different social groups and political authorities both inside and outside the country,” Lepak said.

He said both Yousafzai and Satyarthi are doing their part to bring larger problems concerning the treatment of children in underdeveloped countries to light.

“Both of them have, in their own way, been engaged with the politics and the rights of young people and children both educationally and economically,” Lepak said.