CAMBRIDGE — Malala Yousafzai, at 16 years old, commanded the stage at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre on Friday despite being younger than nearly all of the 900 people sitting rapt before her.
“Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world,” Yousafzai said. “Let us stand up for our rights, and let us fight.”
Nearly a year after the Taliban tried to assassinate Yousafzai in Pakistan, where she had become an international symbol for women’s education, she touched her heart as the Harvard Foundation presented her with its annual humanitarian award.
“Your words and deeds have served to advance humanity,” said S. Allen Counter, director of the foundation, which works to bolster intercultural and race relations.
With an articulate self-confidence that belied her age, Yousafzai called for continued defiance of efforts by the Taliban and others to deny women an education, and she urged the audience to heed the needs of children displaced and endangered by fighting in Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
“Let us make our future now, and let us make our dreams tomorrow’s reality,” Yousafzai said. Her award is named for Peter J. Gomes, the late Harvard Divinity School professor and minister at the university’s Memorial Church.
Yousafzai’s appearance at Harvard would have seemed all but impossible on Oct. 9, 2012, when she was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen as she rode home on a school bus. The attack gained global attention as Yousafzai lay unconscious and in critical condition for days before being transferred in a coma to a hospital in Birmingham, England.
Since then, Yousafzai has redoubled her efforts to push for widespread education in countries where access to schools, particularly for women, has been restricted or denied.
“They were afraid of the power of education,” Yousafzai said of the Taliban. “At that time, we did not keep silent. We raised our voice for the right of education.”
Yousafzai is from the Swat Valley, a region of northern Pakistan that is known for its natural beauty but was overrun by the Taliban in 2007. Schools were bombed, police officers beheaded, and government officials assassinated. A prolonged campaign by the Pakistan military had initial success, but the Taliban were able to infiltrate the region again. A cease-fire followed in 2009.
Early that year, Yousafzai expanded her audience by using a pseudonym to write a blog for the BBC about women’s rights and life under the Taliban. Three years later, the militants nearly ended her life.
“Malala, we stand here today in awe of you,” said Paula Johnson, executive director of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Let us reflect on the power of one woman’s voice to move many.”
Yousafzai said she was determined to speak out, no matter the consequences.
“Some people only ask others to do something. I believe that, why should I wait for someone else? Why don’t I take a step and move forward,” Yousafzai said. “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.”
Harvard president Drew Faust praised Yousafzai’s courage in a joint appearance in Harvard Yard before the speech.
“She has been such a courageous voice,” Faust said. “We educate women because it is smart. We educate women because it changes the world.”
Yousafzai echoed that theme to rousing, standing ovations in Sanders Theatre.
“The solution is one, and it is simple. It is education, education, education,” she said. “No one can defeat us. We can’t be afraid of anyone.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.