"Girls understand the power of education — and they are working to open the school gates wide enough for every child to enter. I know that if we match their determination, fund their work and follow their lead, we will see so much progress in the next ten years."
Excellencies, sisters and brothers,
Ten years ago, on this day, I was sixteen years old and visiting the United Nations headquarters for the first time. The Secretary General had invited me to tell my story to an audience of 500 young people. At that moment, I could not have imagined being here with you today. I did not even know if I would live to see another decade.
I spent two years of my childhood under the terrorism of Taliban, displaced from my home and banned from going to school because I was a girl. I was shot and nearly killed for speaking out against these injustices. I did not know if my first speech at the UN would be my last — my only chance to ask the world to send every girl to school.
I am more than happy to say that I was wrong. Over the last ten years, I finished high school and graduated from university. I traveled to 31 countries. I started Malala Fund to support education activists and amplify girls’ voices. I gave a lot of speeches and talked to many leaders. In everything that I did, I tried to draw the world’s attention to girls like me — the nearly 120 million girls denied their right to education by poverty, patriarchy, climate and conflict. In the years following that first speech, I spent my birthday traveling to meet girls around the world — refugees in Jordan, Iraq, Kenya and Rwanda, Indigenous girls in Brazil, and activists and young women in Nigeria. On my three trips to this country, I have traveled from Abuja to Maiduguri. I’ve listened to heartbreaking stories from fathers and mothers who lost their daughters in the Chibok school kidnapping. I have asked two Nigerian presidents and other officials to do everything they can to ensure children are safe at school.
Several years ago, I met Amina, a student from Kaduna State. She told me she hoped to go to university and become a teacher. But she knew the challenges ahead of her — she was one of the only girls in her community still in school at 17. She spent her evenings tutoring friends who had dropped out.
Amina recently graduated from college with a degree in biology education and took her first job as an educator. I’m thrilled that Amina is here with me today — and I hope you will all congratulate her for her work teaching the next generation of girls.
I know many girls like Amina…
In a refugee camp in Jordan, I met Muzoon — a 16 year-old Syrian who refused to give up hope for a better future. Last year she completed her masters degree in international relations and she hopes to become a journalist.
In the United States, I met Marie Claire, who first stepped into a classroom at age 11 after her family fled conflict in Congo. Having witnessed so much violence, including the death of her mother, she wanted to learn how to heal her community. Today she is an intensive care nurse.
We should celebrate the girl who goes to university, takes a job, chooses when, who and if she marries — but we should not deceive ourselves into thinking we’ve made enough progress. I want to cheer for those who made it despite the challenges they faced — but my heart aches for those who we failed. Every young woman like me has friends we saw being left behind — girls whose governments, communities and families held them back.
Just as these individual stories show us successes and setbacks, our work to advance girls’ education globally has seen major wins and obstacles in the last decade.
In 2015, we raised the global standard for education from nine to 12 years — ensuring that SDG4 would match the ambitions girls have for themselves.
In 2018, the G7 committed nearly three billion dollars to increase education opportunities for girls affected by emergencies and conflict.
And just last year, 14 African countries signed the Freetown Manifesto to promote gender equality in and through education.
I am grateful for these achievements — and the advocates, governments and UN partners who made them possible. And I am proud of Malala Fund’s work in supporting girls and activists leading the call for change.
But this handful of victories can’t hide how little has changed for hundreds of millions of girls. And now we are facing new challenges:
As Covid-19 forced children out of school, education experts knew it would take a coordinated, focused effort to make sure girls returned to the classroom as soon as possible. Yet many countries have reduced their spending or aid to education, and many low and middle income countries have to choose between paying their debts or paying for education. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the number of out-of-school girls has increased since the pandemic.
Ten years ago, millions of Afghan girls were going to school. One in three young women were enrolled in university. And now? Afghanistan is the only country in the world to ban girls and women from seeking education. Even as a teenager, I understood that progress could be slow — but I never expected to witness a complete reversal, an entire country of girls locked out of school, trapped in their homes and losing hope.
When you look at me or Amina or Muzoon or Marie Claire, don’t see us as “success stories” — instead imagine what our world could be if every girl in Afghanistan, every girl in Nigeria, every girl in Pakistan, every girl in every country had the education and opportunities they deserve.
I dreamed of that world a decade ago. I stood on the stage at the United Nations and, with a 16 year-old’s optimism, declared that “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
But I will tell you today what I did not know then:
One child — even with the best resources and encouragement — one child can’t change the world. Neither can one president or prime minister. One teacher, one activist, one parent — no one can change the world on their own.
What is true is that change can begin with just one person. To build a world where every child has access to 12 years of quality education, we must join forces. We must bring girls and governments together with activists and educators, parents and community leaders. I have seen what can happen when people work together for education and equality. In nine countries, Malala Fund supports local education champions who are lawyers, teachers, coders and activists. Working together, Malala Fund champions in Nigeria convinced governors in Kaduna and Adamawa states to ratify the Child Rights Act. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, they successfully advocated for 70% of the province’s education budget to be dedicated to girls. And we see stories like these replicated in countries around the world.
We should follow the lead of education champions and young leaders who understand the power of collective action. And we can begin with what we’ve already been promised — by holding our leaders accountable for the commitments they so quickly abandon. We must ask those who claim to care about gender equality and education why their budgets and policies don’t match their words. We must call again and again, [at] every opportunity, for leaders to prioritise education.
We must also look beyond governments to our own communities. I believe that so many of the problems girls face would be solved if we could break the stranglehold of patriarchy — the misogyny we disguise as “culture”, “tradition” or “religion.”
We need fathers like mine who stand up for their daughters’ rights. We need mothers who speak up for them and brothers who celebrate their wins. We need imams and priests who speak out against those who twist our faith to hold women and girls back. We need a community of people who do not tolerate any harm or discrimination against girls and protect their equal rights. And each of us must begin at home by challenging our own thoughts and by starting conversations with our family members and friends.
As I’ve often said, culture is made by people — and people can change it too. I am thinking about my friends today — about Shazia and Kainat who were also injured when I was attacked. They are completing their training to be nurses — and they remain committed to advocating for girls’ education.
I am thinking of a friend who didn’t have a choice in her marriage and had to give up on her ambitions to be a teacher.
I am thinking of a friend who is my age and dreams of becoming a doctor, but has to beg her family’s permission to step outside her home.
I am thinking of all my friends who are denied the opportunities they deserve, who face misogyny and violence, who are constantly told they are not enough — but who push forward toward their goals, despite the challenges.
At sixteen years old, I couldn’t imagine what the next decade would look like — I couldn't think what it would hold for myself or girls like me. But I was hopeful because I saw the world waking up to the injustices we faced. Today I can see the future more clearly — because I have met our future leaders. Girls understand the power of education — and they are working to open the school gates wide enough for every child to enter. I know that if we match their determination, fund their work and follow their lead, we will see so much progress in the next ten years. Thank you.