Peace by example
The decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to two advocates of children’s rights—one a world-famous teenager who survived an assassination attempt, the other a less-well-known campaigner who has fought against child exploitation for many years—is an inspired and inspiring choice. Seventeen-year-old Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan and 60-year-old Kailash Satyarthi of India were awarded what is regarded as the world’s most prestigious prize “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”
Malala was only 11 when she started actively championing the right of all girls to education—a dangerous advocacy in an area that had once been overrun by the Taliban. She wrote a blog and appeared on TV. At the age of 15, while riding in the back of a pick-up truck on the way back from school, in Pakistan’s picturesque Swat Valley, she was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman.
By a miracle of fate, she managed to survive; she made an astonishing recovery within months, and has since gone back to school (this time in Birmingham, England, where she had been airlifted and where she underwent multiple surgeries) and returned to her advocacy. Last week, she became the youngest-ever winner of any Nobel prize.
The official announcement noted her new role as a global symbol. “Despite her youth, Malala Yousafzai has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education, and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations. This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances. Through her heroic struggle she has become a leading spokesperson for girls’ rights to education.”
Kailash Satyarthi has fought for children’s rights for decades, and is at the forefront of the war on child labor. By one count, he has saved some 80,000 children from exploitation. He founded the Save the Childhood Movement in 1980, and was pivotal in the adoption of an International Labor Organization convention that now defines and outlaws child labor.
The official announcement highlighted the Gandhian tradition that Satyarthi follows: “Showing great personal courage, Kailash Satyarthi, maintaining Gandhi’s tradition, has headed various forms of protests and demonstrations, all peaceful, focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain. He has also contributed to the development of important international conventions on children’s rights.”
The Nobel Committee’s decision was carefully balanced. It chose to honor a pair of advocates who complemented each other: one a young woman still in school, the other a veteran campaigner; one a Muslim, the other a Hindu; one a Pakistani, the other an Indian; one world-famous, the other largely known only inside his own country. Both are joined, the Committee noted, “in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”
Whether the pairing was motivated by political considerations or only and purely by complementary advocacies, the balancing act has resulted in a happy outcome. Malala’s celebrity has helped focus the spotlight on Satyarthi’s work; Satyarthi’s wider range of concerns puts Malala’s campaign for girls’ education in a broader context. All girls have the right to go to school, because uneducated children are more vulnerable to financial and other forms of exploitation.
One more thing the pairing allows us to see: Malala’s personal history, the brutal attack carried out in the presence of other schoolgirls, is the other, more visible side of the same coin of sacrifice; on the other side are the slights, insults, harassment endured by Satyarthi in long years of advocacy work.
“The biggest threat to the Taliban is a girl with a book,” the foreign minister of Sweden, Margot Wallstrom, said when the news of the Nobel Peace Prize circled the world. Yes, and the biggest threat to child exploiters is a man with a dogged plan.
The work and personal example of both Malala and Satyarthi are an invaluable investment in the future of humanity.