Wearing a pink shawl that had once belonged to slain Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, education rights activist Malala Yousafzai stood before the United Nations and made an impassioned call for women’s and children’s education on her 16th birthday—just nine months after a Taliban gunman tried to silence her by putting a bullet through her head.
“Dear brothers and sisters, do remember one thing,” Yousafzai addressed the U.N. assembly, along with a number of Youth Delegates invited to mark the occasion. “Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy, and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.”
“Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I’m just one of them. So here I stand, one girl among many. I speak not for myself but so those without a voice can be heard.”
Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize nominee in the award’s history, has spent much of her young life advocating for the right to education, first for girls in her native Swat Valley via a blog published by the BBC in late 2008.
Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck four years later, traveling home from school with her classmates. Two other girls were also shot. Yousafzai said in Friday’s speech before the U.N. that the attack on her life had only made her stronger.
“Dear friends, on the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead,” Yousafzai told the assembly. “They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they could change my aims and stop my ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage was born.”
Her speech was stirring, and her diction clear, five months after being discharged from a U.K. hospital after undergoing a cranial reconstruction surgery and a procedure to restore her hearing.
She released a recorded video message days before leaving the hospital, saying “God has given me this new life” and reaffirmed her commitment to women’s education rights. Friday’s speech marked her first public address since the shooting.
Former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the U.N.’s Special Envoy for Global Education, welcomed Yousafzai to the stage with a moving declaration.
“As she comes to the stage, let me say the words the Taliban never wanted you to hear,” Brown said. “Happy 16th birthday, Malala.”
Yousafzai spoke for more than 15 minutes, with numerous rounds of applause throughout her speech and was given a standing ovation after closing with a call to action.
“Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world,” she said.