She’s 16, and she deserves the Nobel Peace Prize
The conviction and moral compass of Malala Yousafzai, the teenager shot point-blank in the head by the Taliban for campaigning for girls to be educated, make her an inspiration
Exceptional: Malala Yousafzai in Dublin this week. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
‘OMG!” one teenager shrieks. “She is amaaazing! I want to be like her!” “She is just gorgeous isn’t she?” says her young red-haired friend. “I wanted to cry when I shook her hand,” adds another.
You could be forgiven for thinking these teenage girls have just met their favourite pop star. But it is not a gelled-up X-Factor winner that has the girls swooning. It is a tiny Pakistani teenager, only a few years older than them, wearing a hijab.
Malala Yousafzai grew up in a region of Pakistan controlled by the Taliban, who frequently banned girls from attending school. While she was still a child she began to campaign for education rights for girls. In October 2012 a gunman got on to her school bus and, in an effort to silence the brave, outspoken girl, shot her point-blank in the head.
She survived the attack and moved to the UK, to be treated in Birmingham, where she still lives. She has had reconstructive surgery and suffers persistent hearing difficulties.
I have met many “VIPs” over the years. Most were friendly, some even interesting, but only three – Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi – have made me feel I was in the presence of greatness. They are humble, with a self-deprecating humour, and their love for people, particularly children, is evident in the way they engage with everyone they meet. They also have an aura that suggests they are the best humanity can be.
I didn’t expect to meet anyone else who would come close to these three exceptional human beings. Then I met Yousafzai.
She was in Dublin this week to receive the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International. I was asked to accompany her during her short visit.
As I wait at the airport I am not sure what to expect. She is just 16 but has already gone through more than most people do in a lifetime. Instead of playing sports, watching TV or socialising, she took up a cause with the determination of a Mahatma Gandhi or a Martin Luther King.
Like them, she became a target of those who hated her for speaking the truth. Unlike them, she survived the assassination attempt.
She shakes my hand with a shy smile and says quietly: “I am so honoured to meet you.” She thanks everyone at the airport, and I see many eyes well up as she passes.
In the car she practises her speech over and over. She asks who she should acknowledge and thank. I run down the list. Like a seasoned politician, she nods and makes notes as I mention the Minister, the lord mayor and others. “Oh yes, and Bono,” I say. She looks slightly anxious, and frowns. “Do you know who Bono is?” I ask. “He is in this rock band called U2.” Her face lights up. “The guy who always wears glasses even inside and when there is no sun, right?”
At the venue she handles the long line of people with the grace of a person four times her age. She gives everybody her attention and respect.
After having her photograph taken with a group of schoolchildren, she looks lovingly at the young ones who surround her. “Hello,” she says softly. “I hope you have all done your homework.” “I think you are so brave,” a nine-year-old bursts out, turning blood-red. “You are brave, too,” says Yousafzai.
I alert her that Bono is on his way, and a few minutes later she whispers in my ear with a giggle: “I see him. I can see the glasses.”
An hour later, after being presented with the award, she stands up on the stage and, with an authority born of deep conviction, reminds us that there are “millions of children across the world who fight every day for the right to go to school”.
Many in the audience wipe away tears as they give her a standing ovation. Then she has to rush back to the airport to travel home so she can finish her own homework and sleep before school the next day.
In a world with few true moral voices, where there is so little leadership and where there is so much misunderstanding and growing hatred between the west and the Islamic world, this tiny young woman is a moral compass. I believe she deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.
What she would argue is that she needs the international community to support her in the cause for which she nearly gave her life: the right of all girls to an education.
Yousafzai has described Nelson Mandela as her hero. She tells me she would like to meet him, as she wants to be more like him. Sadly, she probably never will meet him. But if her reason for meeting him is to be more like him, I know there is no need. Yousafzai already exemplifies all the qualities that make her one of a handful of exceptional human beings.
Melanie Verwoerd is a former South African ambassador to Ireland