BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom (AFP) - Education rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai dedicated her Nobel peace prize on Friday to “voiceless” children around the world, and called on the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers to attend the award ceremony for the sake of peace.
The 17-year-old, who heard the news while she was in a chemistry lesson at school in Birmingham, central England, said she was honoured to be the youngest person and the first Pakistani to receive the accolade.
“The award is for all the children who are voiceless, whose voices need to be heard,” Malala told a press conference, held at the end of the school day so she wouldn’t miss class.
Malala arrived in Britain from Pakistan for medical treatment after being shot in the head by a Taleban fighter in October 2012, an attempt to silence her vocal advocacy of the right of girls to go to school.
Standing on a box so she could reach the podium at Birmingham’s main library, the teenager joked that winning the Nobel would not help her upcoming school exams.
But she told an audience that included her parents and two younger brothers: “I felt more powerful and more courageous because this award is not just a piece of metal or a medal you wear or an award you keep in your room.
“This is encouragement for me to go forward.”
The Norwegian Nobel Committee gave the award to Malala and Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi for their struggle against the repression of children and young people and “for the right of all children to education”.
Malala said she had already spoken to Satyarthi - she joked that she could not pronounce his name - to discuss how they could work together, and also try to reduce tensions between their two countries.
To that end, she urged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend the Nobel award ceremony in December.
Former British prime minister Gordon Brown, the United Nations special envoy for global education, voiced delight at the Nobel victory for Malala and Satyarthi.
“They are two of my best friends and two of the greatest global campaigners who deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for their courage, determination and for their vision that no child should ever be left behind,” Brown said in a statement.
After visiting her in hospital, Brown took up Malala’s cause with a petition for universal primary education handed to the Pakistani government on a day he named Malala Day, and later arranging for her to speak at the United Nations.
Britain’s International Development Secretary Justine Greening also congratulated the joint winners saying the prize was “richly deserved”.
The reaction in the streets of Birmingham, which has a large minority population of Pakistani origin, was also overwhelmingly positive.
“I like her. She’s confident, speaking up for herself, for women,” said 30-year-old Zara Hussain as she waited at a bus stop in Birmingham holding a baby.
“She could be president (of Pakistan) if she carries on.”
Imam Usman Mahmood of Birmingham central mosque, which with 6,000 followers is one of the biggest in the city and was visited by Malala and her family, also expressed his delight.
“It means that any person who puts their mind to something, they can achieve their goals. We wish her the best when she carries on with her life and that she keeps on going the way she is,” he said.
But local estate agent Basharat Hussain, 30, said: “I personally think she shouldn’t have got it.
“She’s inspiring but I think they’re using her for political motives, she’s been used by different organisations and governments.”
The global spotlight has provoked a backlash in parts of Pakistani society, with some accusing Malala of acting as a puppet of the West, while the Taleban have renewed the threat to her life.
There have also been concerns about exposing a child to such a level of public exposure.
“I used to say that I think I do not deserve the Nobel peace prize. I still believe that,” Malala said.
“But I believe it is not only an award for what I’ve done but an encouragement for giving me hope, for giving me the courage to go and continue this.”