fb-pixel Skip to main content

Malala Yousafzai receives award for activism at Harvard, offers advice to incoming lawmakers

Malala Yousafzai, 2014 Nobel Laureate, gestured to the crowd after accepting the 2018 Gleitsman Award at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge Thursday. Michael Swensen for The Boston Globe

Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership awarded activist Malala Yousafzai with the 2018 Gleitsman Award Thursday night, in recognition of her mission to ensure that all girls have access to education.

“I’m . . . very grateful for the Gleitsman Award because it is a huge honor and it is a reminder for me how important this work is, the work of girls’ education,” Yousafzai told the audience, a packed crowd of about 700 people. The award includes a $125,000 prize.

Yousafzai, 21, first came to international attention in 2012. After speaking out in support of girls’ rights to education, a masked gunman boarded her school bus in Pakistan and shot her point blank in the head. Yousafzai survived and, after recovering in the United Kingdom, cofounded the Malala Fund, which works to ensure that all girls have access to education.


In 2014, she became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Harvard professor Samantha Power, former United States ambassador to the United Nations, moderated the evening. Sixty members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, were in attendance.

“I’m so proud to see so many women among you, and so many women in leadership positions,” Yousafzai told the incoming representatives.

In the crowd was New York Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A Boston University alum, she was voted into office this November at age 29, making her the youngest woman to ever be elected to Congress come 2019.

Reflecting on Yousafzai’s strong relationship with her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, a lifelong believer in girls’ education who was seated in the audience, Ocasio-Cortez asked what “tangible actions and roles” supportive men can take on, beyond “just in identifying as feminists or talking about feminist things.”

Yousafzai noted that her father grew up with five sisters who were unable to go to school and, while he could have accepted that situation for girls in Pakistan, he chose not to.


“He had to challenge himself because he knew that it was unfair, he knew that it had to change, so he challenged himself first, and said, ‘I’m not going to treat my daughter this way. I’m going to treat her differently. I’m going to give her legal rights, I’m going to send her to school. I’m going to let her speak out,’ ” Yousafzai said.

“And so I think it’s important for men to fight the misogynist views that they have in their head and believe that empowering women is not just getting something for women, but it’s also finding use . . . for every one of us.”

When asked by Power what she’d like to say to the members of Congress about refugees, Yousafzai paused briefly, before saying: “Firstly, don’t greet refugees with tear gas.”

“You should not assume it is these people’s fault,” Yousafzai said, before encouraging everyone to “just be human.”

Lillian Brown can be reached at lillian.brown@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lilliangbrown.