The Nobel committee finally got the Peace Prize right in 2014.
After blowing the chance to choose Malala Yousafzai last year – as a brave and inspiring champion of girls’ education worldwide – the committee finally tapped her, along with Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian campaigner against child labor.
These choices couldn’t have come at a better time.
At a moment when the global news is nonstop negative and ugly, these heroes stand for something uplifting and positive. Both have risked their lives to promote education and better lives for children. And, as Indian and Pakistani troops fire at each other over Kashmir, the joint award stands as a rebuff to this endless war in South Asia.
Yousafzai and Satyarthi are the perfect antidote to the brutal Islamic State jihadis who have been dominating the news by trying to drag civilization back to the 7th century.
The two winners are fighting to open young minds, not close them. They look to the future, not to an imaginary past; they celebrate life, not death.
Malala, the schoolgirl who was shot in the head two years ago by the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley for promoting girls’ education, made a miraculous recovery in a British hospital. She has continued her campaign on a global stage, speaking out at the United Nations and tirelessly championing learning for girls.
As Malala repeatedly points out, and statistics show, girls’ education is key to economic growth in poor countries. Yet the right of girls to study is being threatened in too many places – as the Islamic State closes girls’ schools and murders female activists in Mosul; as its thugs sell young Yazidi women for sex slaves; as Boko Haram kidnaps schoolgirls and forces them to marry jihadis in Nigeria; as girls and young women in Afghanistan fight to retain the right to schooling that the Taliban is threatening – again.
Malala reminds us that we can’t forget about these young women, or the millions of brave girls in other countries struggling for an education. This is a nonviolent battle for books, school buildings and available teachers, a battle that can be won if citizens, donors and governments join in.
Satyarthi’s fight to end child labor and prevent child trafficking – both widespread among India’s nearly 1.3 billion people – goes hand in hand with Malala’s efforts. His work has helped free 70,000 children and adults from bondage. The future of India – whose economy is undermined by a lack of primary schools in rural areas – hangs in the balance.
But the significance of this Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t stop there. This award reminds us that there is a battle underway for the minds of children in many countries. In the Arab world, where there is a huge population bulge of youths under 30, the largely rote system of education ensures that millions of undereducated young people will remain jobless. Their frustrations provide fertile ground for jihadi recruiters. And too many of these youths, notably in Saudi Arabia, receive religious education that promotes disdain or hatred for other religions or non-Sunni Muslim sects.
In Pakistan, Malala’s home country, thousands of boys attend religious schools, or madrassas, that encourage them to become jihadi fighters.
The education of girls is still under threat in Malala’s Swat Valley, and the Taliban still has her on a hit list. It is too dangerous for her to return home. So this Nobel Peace Prize is a test for the countries that produced the winners – a test that has relevance for the rest of the world.
For India, Satyarthi’s prize is a challenge to new Prime Minister Narendra Modi to revamp the country’s education system so the world’s largest democracy can finally develop its potential and match China’s growth. And for Pakistan – arguably the world’s most dangerous nation, with its lethal combination of terrorists and nukes – Malala’s prize challenges both government and people to decide what kind of country they want.
If Pakistan looks to its future rather than to its past wars with India, and if it focuses on educating its girls (and boys), it can prosper.
If Pakistanis embrace Malala as their heroine, their country stands a chance.
Trudy Rubin can be contacted at email@example.com.