UNITED NATIONS // Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls, celebrated her 16th birthday yesterday by demanding that world leaders provide free compulsory schooling for every child.
In her first public speech since the attack, an impassioned address from the podium at the United Nations to more than 1,000 youth leaders from more than 100 countries, Malala called for "a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism".
"Let us pick up our books and our pens," she said. "They are our most powerful weapons.
"One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first."
Malala, who wore a pink shalwar kameez and a shawl that she said had belonged to the former Pakistani prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007, began her speech with a traditional Muslim prayer.
She described herself as just one of thousands of victims of the Taliban, and said that the bullet that entered the left side of her forehead last October, which the extremists thought would silence her, had not dimmed her ambitions to promote peace, education and prosperity.
Her head was covered in a headscarf and her face displayed little sign of the injury.
Malala invoked Mohandas Gandhi and other global advocates of non-violence, stressing that "I'm not against anyone. Neither am I here to speak in terms of personal revenge against the Taliban, or any other terrorist group.
"I'm here to speak about the right of education for every child. I want education for the sons and daughters of all the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists. I do not even hate the person who shot me."
But her main focus was the 57 million children who are not in school.
The UN designated yesterday "Malala Day", and there were cheers, standing ovations and a round of "Happy Birthday" for her.
But, she said: "Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights."
Unesco and Save the Children released a special report, titled Children Battling to Go to School, ahead of Malala's speech.
The report found that 95 per cent of the 28.5 million children who are not getting a primary school education live in low and lower-middle income countries - 44 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, 19 per cent in South and West Asia, and 14 per cent in Arab states.
Girls make up 55 per cent of the total and are often the victims of rape and other sexual violence that accompanies armed conflicts.
The study found that last year tt there were more than 3,600 documented attacks on education, including violence, torture and intimidation against children and teachers resulting in death or grave injuries, as well as the shelling and bombing of schools and the recruitment of school-aged children by armed groups.
According to the report, while the number of primary school-age children who are not getting an education fell to 57 million in 2011 from 60 million in 2008, during that period the percentage of youth in conflict-affected countries who were not in primary school rose to 50 per cent from 42 per cent.
"Across many of the world's poorest countries, armed conflict continues to destroy not just school infrastructure, but also the hopes and ambitions of a whole generation of children," said Unesco's director general, Irina Bokova.
* Associated Press