Malala Yousafzai can provide inspiration to us in Scotland

The following article appeared in the Stirling Observer on 4 December 2013:

In a chamber packed with more than 1,500 MEPs and visitors, 16 year old Malala Yousafzai made a moving speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 20th November as she collected her 2013 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Introducing Malala, European Parliament President Martin Schulz said that it was a particularly important occasion, because it was also the 25th Anniversary of the introduction of the Sakharov Prize with 20 former laureates present in the chamber. President Schulz said that Malala had written in her book ‘I AM MALALA’ – “I don’t want to be remembered as the girl who was shot by the Taliban, but as the girl who fought for education”. She also said in a speech to the UN in July “A teacher, a book and a pen, can change the world.” President Schulz said that tens of millions of children don’t have access to education and it is a particular concern that three quarters of them are girls.

Accepting the Sakharov Prize and acknowledging a standing ovation, Malala said she wanted to start her speech by quoting the French philosopher Voltaire who said: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” She went on to dedicate her award to “the unsung heroes of Pakistan and all over the world who are fighting for basic human rights.” She continued: “Many children have no food to eat or water to drink and they are starving for education, but they cannot go to school. But still there is hope. Because of terrorism hundreds of schools have been destroyed. But still there is hope. There is hope because we are here together, united and prepared to take action. Powerful countries will not be judged by counting their armies and navies, but by counting which country has the biggest literacy rate; which country has provided basic education and respect for human rights; which country has provided equal rights to men and women.”

Malala concluded her speech by calling for support for the suffering countries of the world, especially in Asia, particularly Pakistan. “If we leave millions behind we can never succeed even if we are the fittest,” she said. In a poignant conclusion she said: “There are 57 million children who have nothing in the world today. They don’t want an iPhone or a PlayStation, they just want a book and a pen.”

It was an odd, but thrilling, experience listening to a 16 year old schoolgirl addressing a packed chamber of the European Parliament and talking a lot more sense than you often hear from experienced politicians three or four times her age. She is a highly intelligent and remarkably courageous girl and the work she has done to champion one’s right to an education serves as an inspiration to us all.

She was in Scotland recently to receive an honorary degree at the University of Edinburgh as well as to speak at the inaugural public meeting of the Global Citizenship Commission, a body established to promote human rights. Her struggle to draw attention to her fight to extend the right of education to all in her native Pakistan and around the world, should also remind us of the plight of the poor and oppressed everywhere.

In many nations, including Malala’s native Pakistan for example, religious minorities continue to be persecuted, attacked and threatened with death. In so many places, outright prejudice against minorities is accepted as a matter of course, a depressing reality that we must constantly fight to change.

The people of Scotland are compassionate and outward-focused. The success of the recent fundraising appeal for those devastated by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines is testament to this. Malala’s message has been embraced in this country and I have no doubt that Scots will do their part to ensure justice for poor and repressed minorities worldwide.

Struan Stevenson MEP