On her Sweet Sixteen, Malala Yousafzai’s celebration included what most teen girls would never imagine for their birthdays.
The Pakistani girl addressed a special session of the United Nations, calling for global leaders to deliver education to all children. It was dubbed “Malala Day” in honor of the girl who was shot by a Taliban gunman on her way to school last October in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. The usual ambassadors and dignitaries cleared the assembly room, with more than 500 young people – all under 25 years old – packing the session for Malala’s address.
“The Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead,” said Malala. “They shot my friends too. They thought the bullet would silence us, but they failed. Out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aim and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this. Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
Only a few adults were allowed to be present, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.N. Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown.
“I quickly understood when I met Malala that she was an amazing girl,” said Brown in an interview with ABC News’ Bob Woodruff. “She’s got such courage, but she’s also got such a strong belief. This belief that every child irrespective of gender, of race, of religion, should have the chance of education, is so at the center of everything that she does that you cannot but be impressed by her determination.”
Worldwide, 57 million boys and girls do not receive an education, with girls making up 32 million of those out of school. Part of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals is universal access to a primary school education by the end of 2015.
“It’s an intolerable situation,” explained Brown. “It actually costs in most countries in Africa and Asia only about a $100 a year to educate a child. It’s not the finance. It’s the lack of political will to do this. It’s something we can do something about pretty quickly.”
Where political will has failed, Malala’s steadfast determination to get an education has inspired 4 million people around the world to sign a petition calling for every child’s right to an education and an end to discrimination against girls.
“There are a large number of girls now who are not prepared to take no for an answer, who are not prepared to accept the subjugation, who are not prepared to either be married off as 12-year-olds or to be trafficked or to be in child labor or to be discriminated against,” said Brown.
Brown likens this struggle to the civil rights movements in the United States and the battle to end apartheid South Africa.
“We can allow terrorists to deny girls the right to education,” said Brown. “We can be indifferent to the needs of young people who are wanting to go to school. But we will pay a heavy price if we don’t take action.”
That heavy price was paid just a few weeks ago. In southwestern Pakistan, a suicide bomber blew up a bus carrying university students and teachers, killing 14 women. Militants then attacked a hospital treating the injured, killing two dozen more. In northeastern Nigeria, militants opened fire on students taking their exams at school, killing nine of them. Just the day before, 13 students and teachers were killed when extremists attacked a boarding school.
“We have these outbreaks of violence, and we can no longer be complacent or indifferent to the attacks that have been put on girls, particularly, trying to get to school,” said Brown. “And that’s why Malala is such a symbol, because she’s not the only person who’s been subject to these intimidations and these threats and these attacks. But she has stood up and said, ‘I am not prepared to give up my right to education in the face of these terrorist threats.’”
Brown believes Malala deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. But what the young girl has told him she would most like to see is the building of schools.
“If you want to have long-term change, transformation, you need to invest in education,” said Brown. “And if you want to avoid the security problems that have been caused in Africa as well as Asia by terrorist organizations, you can’t allow them to fall prey to these extremists who are offering to educate them in madrasas, and be subject to terrorist propaganda. We’ve got to do what’s the right thing to do, and that’s to offer education to these children ourselves.”
For more information, please visit www.malalafund.org
ABC News' Cindy Smith, Teri Whitcraft, David Kovenetsky and Rhaina Cohen contributed to this episode.