UNITED NATIONS — Malala Yousafzai celebrated her 16th birthday on the world stage at the United Nations, defiantly telling Taliban extremists who tried to end her campaign for girls’ education in Pakistan with a bullet that the attack gave her new courage and demanding that world leaders provide free education to all children.
Malala was invited Friday to give her first public speech since she was shot in the head on her way back from school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley last October. She addressed nearly 1,000 young leaders from over 100 countries at the U.N.’s first Youth Assembly — and she had a message for them too.
“Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons,” Malala urged. “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”
The U.N. had declared July 12 — her 16th birthday — “Malala Day.” But she insisted it was “the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.”
The Taliban, which has long opposed educating girls in Pakistan as well as neighboring Afghanistan, said it targeted Malala because she was campaigning for girls to go to school and promoted “Western thinking.”
In what some observers saw as another sign of defiance, Malala said the white shawl she was wearing belonged to Pakistan’s first woman prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007 when she returned to run in elections.
Malala recalled the Oct. 9 day when she was shot on the left side of her forehead, and her friends were shot as well. She insisted she was just one of thousands of victims of the Taliban.
“They thought that the bullets would silence us,” she said. “But they failed. And then, out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
Malala began her speech with a traditional Muslim prayer and later accused terrorists of “misusing the name of Islam and Pashtun society for their own personal benefits.” She wore a traditional pink patterned South Asian dress and pants called a shalwar kameez and a matching head scarf.