Malala Yousafzai, winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize and a crusader for female education around the world, urged Harvard students on Thursday evening to passionately use their voices to enact change.
At the beginning of the event, Yousafzai accepted Harvard Kennedy School’s 2018 Gleitsman International Activist Award, which comes with a $125,000 prize. Yousafzai gave a short speech followed by a discussion with the audience, moderated by Samantha J. Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“Right now, there are 130 million girls who do not have access to a quality education,” Yousafzai said in her speech. “We should all make it our challenge to challenge those critical views, all those religious beliefs, and all those cultures that deny us an education.”
Yousafzai, a Pakistani native, gained global recognition for her outspoken support of girls’ education in the wake of the Taliban’s occupation of her home village. She was shot by a Taliban gunman in 2012 in retaliation for her activism.
Power, who served under President Barack Obama from 2013 to 2017, alluded to the ongoing debate in the United States over the acceptance of refugees, asking Yousafzai about her message for the bipartisan delegation of newly elected members of Congress visiting Harvard for the Kennedy School’s annual “Bipartisan Program.”
Yousafzai urged politicians to be more “welcoming” and sympathetic to the plight of refugees.
“I think, firstly, don’t greet refugees with tear gas,” she said. “We should not assume that it is these people’s fault that they are refugees.”
Multiple times over the course of her speech, Yousafzai said the threat of climate change should remind people of the shared humanity of refugees and other at-risk groups.
“We need to look at it from the human eye and be more welcoming and consider themselves as our brothers and sisters,” she added. “And let’s understand that we are living on this one Planet Earth, which is already in danger, which is already at a great risk because of climate change.”
New York Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — in attendance with other participants in the Bipartisan Program — asked Yousafzai what role men play in the “liberation” of women.
“A very large amount of successful women, whether they’re female CEOs of Fortune 500s, or female heads of state, one of the most … common things that they talk about is that they all report a strong relationship with their fathers,” Ocasio-Cortez noted.
Yousafzai cited her own father’s evolution growing up in an environment in which women had almost no rights to becoming a wholehearted supporter of his daughter’s work.
“He knew that it was unfair,” she said. “He knew that he had to change, so he challenged himself first and said, ‘I’m not going to treat my daughter this way. I’m going to send her to school. I’m going to let her speak out.’”
“Empowering women is not just giving something to women, but it also contributes to our economy, to everyone else,” Yousafzai said.
The Gleitsman Award, whose previous recipients include South African President Nelson Mandela and U.S. Representative John R. Lewis, is awarded biennially to an individual who has “sparked positive social change and inspired others to do the same,” according to the Kennedy School’s website.
In an interview prior to the event, Yousafzai called it a “great honor” to be back at Harvard, five years after first visiting the University to receive the Harvard Foundation’s Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian Award. She urged students to devote more time and effort toward promoting girls’ education.
“The world needs this generation, especially who are receiving quality education in such incredible institutions, to actually go back and invest in their communities,” she said. “To go back and invest the skills they are learning here, the talent they are developing here.”
“When you have something and you don’t use it, it’s of no benefit,” she added.
Multiple Pakistani immigrants spoke during the question-and-answer session, praising Yousafzai for her heroism in the wake of the assassination attempt and asking how they could join in the fight for girls’ education.
“I just want to let you know that you are a great inspiration to many of us educators studying here from Pakistan,” said Izzah Ejaz, a student at the Graduate School of Education. “A week after the incident happened with you, I signed up for teaching and I’ve never looked back.”
— Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.
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