UNITED NATIONS — She spoke in a high-pitched voice that showed her youth, but her message was grown-up, defiant, so poignant that it prompted everyone hearing it to stand and applaud.
Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year after speaking out in favor of girls’ education in Pakistan, spent her 16th birthday Friday at the United Nations, where she called on world leaders to provide free, compulsory education for every child.
“Let us pick up our books and our pens,” Yousafzai told nearly 1,000 young leaders from more than 100 countries at the U.N. Youth Assembly. “They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”
Noting that she was proud to be wearing a pink shawl that had once belonged to Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan, Yousafzai delivered her first major speech since she was shot point-blank in the head by a Taliban hit man while returning home from school Oct. 9 in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.
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She recalled how the attackers had also shot her friends. “They thought that the bullets would silence us,” she said, “but they failed. And then, out of that silence came thousands of voices.”
She has been promoting education for girls since 2009, when Taliban militants pressed their violent campaign against girls’ education in northwestern Pakistan. More than 800 schools in the region have been attacked.
It was not until she was shot, however, that she gained global attention and began to galvanize global support for the issue. On Friday, she and her supporters also formally unveiled The Malala Fund to raise money and distribute grants to support education for girls.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea introduced her to the youth assembly, saying: “Extremists showed what they feared the most: a girl with a book.”
Yousafzai, who was in grave condition after the attack, emphasized that she had no desire for revenge against the Taliban or any other terrorist group. She credited her nonviolent philosophy and ability to forgive to lessons taught to her by her parents, who were listening in the audience.
A report by UNESCO and Save the Children issued just before her speech said 57 million youngsters were out of school in 2011, down from 60 million in 2008. But it said the number living in conflict zones rose to 28.5 million in 2011 and more than half were girls.
Yousafzai received several standing ovations and everyone joined in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.