For most young people, turning 18 means coming of age. For activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, it’s another chance to make her message heard.
The education advocate, who turned 18 Sunday, celebrated the big day by calling on world leaders to invest in “books, not bullets.” She also opened a school for Syrian refugee girls in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border. The school will offer education and skills training to more than 200 Syrian girls between ages 14 and 18, according to Ms. Yousafzai’s nonprofit, the Malala Fund, which is helping support the new school.
“I am honored to mark my 18th birthday with the brave and inspiring girls of Syria.... Their courage and dedication to continue their schooling in difficult conditions inspires people around the world and it is our duty to stand by them,” Yousafzai said in a statement.
“On behalf of the world's children, I demand of our leaders to invest in books instead of bullets,” she added. “Books, not bullets, will pave the path toward peace and prosperity.”
Yousafzai became a symbol of defiance after she was shot on a school bus in her native Pakistan by the Taliban in 2012 for campaigning for girls’ rights to education. She has continued her advocacy and won the Nobel in 2014.
She has also appealed to world leaders to invest more in primary education, recently calling for an additional $39 billion annually. Universal fee-free primary and secondary education for a 12-year period would cost an estimated $340 billion per year through 2030, according to the Malala Fund.
“We will not stop,” Yousafzai said in early July, ahead of an education summit in Oslo, Norway, attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, among others. “We will continue to speak out and raise our voices until we see every child in school.”
For her birthday, she told Reuters, “I decided to be in Lebanon because I believe that the voices of the Syrian refugees need to be heard and they have been ignored for so long.”
Lebanon hosts about 1.2 million of Syria’s 4 million refugees, the largest number of people to be displaced by any crisis in almost 25 years, the United Nations said. Only a fifth of the 500,000 Syrian school-age children in Lebanon are currently in formal education.
“For many, schooling is an opportunity of the past, leaving as the only options menial labor and, for growing numbers of girls, childhood marriage,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi wrote in March.
All in all, UNICEF estimates about 14 million children – more than the populations of Washington State and Massachusetts combined – face extreme violence, the hardships of displacement, and the aggression of radical ideology every day, Mr. LaFranchi continued.
At the same time, Lebanon and Syria’s other neighbors are beginning to prevent more refugees from crossing their borders, saying they can no longer cope with the influx from Syria’s four-year conflict.
For Yousafzai, such a state of affairs is unacceptable.
“In Lebanon as well as in Jordan, an increasing number of refugees are being turned back at the border,” she told Reuters. “This is inhuman and this is shameful.”
Her father, Ziauddin, said he was proud she was carrying on her activism into adulthood.
“This is the mission we have taken for the last eight to nine years,” he said. “A small moment for the education of girls in Swat Valley: it is spreading now all over the world.”
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.