Malala Yousafzai may be the world’s most inspiring twenty-year-old. As the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history, she has been campaigning for girls’ education since she was just eleven — first in her community, and, since surviving an attack by the Taliban in 2012, on a global scale. I have been following her story since that attack, and last month I traveled for six hours to see her speak in Providence the night before my birthday. Imagine my shock and excitement when the next morning, I saw her standing on my platform for the train back to New York.
Malala’s bravery and passion for girls’ education has inspired me for years. Before the train pulled out of the station, I briefly approached her to thank her for her work, and returned to my seat. It would have been enough, but something pushed me to be uncharacteristically bold; halfway to New York, I bought a second train ticket so I could pass her a note. Once I walked in, her father changed seats to let me sit, which is how I spent 45 minutes talking to one of the people I respect most in the world.
Curled up in her train seat, wearing a jean jacket and plain black headscarf, Malala could have been any young woman. And yet, she carried herself with a poise most young people take another twenty years to develop. She spoke thoughtfully, but wasn’t afraid to quip or be funny. Chatting with her about family or college admissions, it was easy to forget that she was a Nobel laureate. But when she spoke about issues of advocacy and education, the realization came back in a flash.
“When I wanted to speak out for my right to go to school, I was only eleven, so I didn’t have any experience,” she said, “but I had passion, and that led me to speak out.”
I asked for her advice to young people looking to make a difference; she advised, “all you need is to believe in yourself. Use the passion you have to serve your community. Walk together, encourage your friends, because when you walk together… it gives you courage and confidence.”
The advice, like so much of her work and public speaking, is built around a positivity that is hard to imagine from someone who survived what she has — being shot in the head at point-blank range in retaliation for her early advocacy for girls’ education. Even this traumatic experience she approached with optimism. Speaking in Providence the night before our encounter, she said that “You can have pain, you can be sad, you can share your concerns, but there’s no need to hate in this situation… Always stay positive.”
Still, Malala balances her optimistic approach with a decided seriousness about the work that remains to be done. Sharing her own thoughts on her journey from Pakistan to the stage on which she stood that night, Malala related the story of her life and work to the structure of a Bollywood film.
“In a Bollywood film, there is this happy beginning, and then there’s a climax — bad things happen and the villain comes, but then there’s a hero or heroine who fights back. And then at the end there’s a happy ending. So I’m waiting of the happy ending of my life, and this world as well: that every child and every girl can get a quality education.”
In her work of making that happy ending a reality, Malala and her father established the Malala Fund, which seeks to secure 12 years of quality education for girls around the world, and especially in the global south. According to their mission statement, the Malala Fund seeks to “empower girls and amplify their voices… invest in local education leaders and programmes; and… advocate for more resources for education and safe schools for every child.” This work is vital: educating a generation of girls makes a difference in everything from preventing instances of AIDS and child marriage in girls, to improving their income as adults. It is a world-changing movement, and the Malala Fund is one of the most active organizations advocating for that change.
6 Ways to Help the Malala Fund
There are many ways that you, as a student or young person, can help that movement. Here are five ways to support the Malala Fund and their work in securing education for girls worldwide:
- Host a film screening of He Named Me Malala in your community or on your campus. A film screening of the documentary on Malala and her cause can create dialogue and awareness for the cause of girls’ education.
- Start a fundraiser to raise money for the Malala Fund. You can dedicate a birthday, event, or activity such as a race or walk, to raising money for the Malala Fund.
- Donate lightly-worn women’s and girls’ clothes (in the US). 40% of the proceeds of the clothes will go to the Malala Fund.
- Stand #WithMalala through your art, poetry, or social media. Whatever your passion or talent, you can use it to shine a light on the need for girls’ education.
- Use your voice to advocate. Through blog posts, social media, and letters to your representatives, you have the ability to advocate for education for girls around the world.
- Donate. Your money will go to furthering the work and mission of the Malala Fund.
Whether you choose to give your time, money, or talent to the Malala Fund and the cause of girls’ education, know that you have the opportunity to make a difference. My encounter with Malala on the train reminded me of this. For months, I had been wanting to use my platform to advocate for the causes that mattered to me most, girls’ education the highest among them. Malala’s advice to believe in yourself and the work you can do, spoke directly to my heart.
Her words are true for all of us. You have the opportunity to make a difference, no matter where you begin; and working together, we have the power to make the “happy ending” of girls’ education a reality.