May 1, 2018
By Diana Hart
At 20 years old, her name has become internationally associated with bravery, resilience and hope.
Malala Yousafzai, the celebrated activist for education and the rights of girls, took the stage in Toronto at the recent Art of Leadership for Women conference (which was sponsored by Scotiabank). The youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize inspired the audience with stories about her work with the Malala Fund, why women must believe in themselves and how technology is changing the future of education.
Targeted by the Taliban for her work in Pakistan as a young advocate for girls’ education, she was shot in the head, neck and shoulder on her way home from school in Pakistan in 2012. Following her incredible recovery in Birmingham, England, she has worked tirelessly to promote access to a safe, quality education for young girls everywhere.
The honorary Canadian citizen was interviewed by Barbara Mason, Group Head and Chief Human Resources Officer at Scotiabank.
On her conversation with Yousafzai, Mason says, “It was an honour to speak with this thoughtful, driven and accomplished young woman. She has already made such an incredible impact around the world by championing education for all children and through the work being done by the Malala Fund. She was an inspiration to all of us at the conference and is an amazing role model for young people around the world.”
Here are some of Yousafzai’s reflections from that conversation:
On the challenge for women to be confident
“I think it is easy to give advice; to tell women to believe in themselves, follow your dreams, not be afraid of anyone and be themselves. When I was taking my A-level exams, which are like high school exams, I would come home and tell my parents, ‘The exam went really badly, just pray that I pass it,’ and I discouraged them so they don’t hope for good grades from me. But my brother, when he was taking his exams, he would come home and say that the lowest he could get was an A. One of the things I’ve noticed is men and boys are usually more confident, even if they shouldn’t be [laughs]. Women are often not as confident. That is something I would ask all women, including me, to change. To believe in ourselves, be more confident and just go for it. Say that the least we can get is an A.”
On staying positive
“I have seen many challenges in my life, but I always try to stay positive and think about all the good things that are coming in the future. I think hatred and negativity is a waste of time, so I don’t want to waste my time. I want to focus on all the positive things around me.”
On how Canadian can help support refugees
“We must remember that people become refugees not by choice. It is the circumstances that make them leave their home. In Pakistan, my family and millions of other people were entirely displaced. I remember not knowing when I would be able to see my [Swat] Valley again and when we would get peace in our region. All of the refugees you see, they want to live in a safe place where they can move freely without fear. They need our support. I encourage everyone in Canada to help refugees. It can be just talking with them, listening to their stories and sharing your stories with them. With things that you hear on social media against refugees, it is very difficult for them to feel like they are welcome. We have to tell them that the majority stands with them, supports them and that they should feel like home.”
On the impact of young activists and the rise of young American activists
“When I started my campaigning, I was only 11 years old. I did not know if my voice would have an impact or not, but I tried my best to keep speaking out. The moment when I thought that my voice could actually change the world was when I was targeted. I was targeted because extremists were afraid of my voice. They didn’t want me to speak up and that showed that my voice was actually bringing change. So this younger generation we see today speaking about gun violence in their communities and their countries, they should be proud of themselves and continue speaking out. There should be ways that we can protect our younger generation and protect each other. I hope that one day we can build that society where we can live without any fear, without boundaries, in a society where we welcome and support each other and we don’t need anything like guns.”
On the impact of technology on education internationally
“[With the Malala Fund, we are looking at] how to use technology to make access to education easier. How can we use technology in refugee camps that otherwise would not have schools or teachers? How can we use it in remote areas? For instance, in one of our projects in Lebanon for Syrian refugee girls, the electricity is not 24 hours, so when there isn’t electricity, the girls use devices where they can access all their education content. We’re thinking about how we can use technology to make access to education easier, helping children in those communities and fighting challenges they face.”
On returning to Pakistan and visiting her childhood home for the first time since she was attacked
“I’ve waited to see my home for five-and-a-half years. I did not leave my country Pakistan by choice, so this time I was returning by choice. My family and I have been waiting for this for so long. We landed in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The weather was beautiful. It was warm and the air was fresh. I felt so happy that I can’t describe it in words. I went to my home and saw my room, drawings, the place where we used to have breakfast every morning and our garden. Everything I was looking at was reminding me of my past and the beautiful moments that we had as a family. I hope that I can go back more frequently. This was the first trip, but not the last trip.”
On being inspired
“When I met young girls in refugee camps, I don’t think they need my advice. They are already amazing because they are going through all their difficulties - leaving their home, seeing terrorism, hearing bullets - yet they still have hope for the future. All of the girls that I’ve met in the camps, when I’ve asked them what their dream is, say that they want to be journalists, doctors and teachers. One girl in Lebanon, when I asked her what her dream was, she said she wanted to be an architect. I asked why and she said she wants to be an architect because when she was leaving her country, Syria, she saw it devastated and destroyed. She wants to be an architect so that she can go and rebuild her country. The atrocities that they have seen in their lives have ignited these girls in their dreams. It has given me courage and hope for the future that they are thinking of changing the world and rebuilding their countries. They inspire me.”
Quotes from Yousafzai have been edited and condensed.