As the sound of gunfire erupted along the international border between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize will be shared between a teenage Pakistani education activist and an Indian children’s rights campaigner.
People in Malala’s hometown of Mingora in Pakistan’s beautiful and restive Swat valley, celebrated the fact that a young woman from their conservative society had won such a prestigious honour.
“This is a moment of great honour for us, and the people of Swat and the people of Pakistan,” said Tariq Khan, a medical official, told Reuters.
Malala’s success could bring real change to a region where women are expected to keep silent and stay behind closed doors.
Change may be slow, but Malala’s win is bound to inspire girls in the region to pursue education and become independent.
Just a few years ago, the region was overrun by Taliban insurgents who tried to impose strict Islamic rule and ban women from seeking education. Eventually, the Pakistani army drove them away, but tensions are still high in the strategic region.
Under the Taliban, teenaged Malala kept an anonymous blog describing her experiences under the austere Islamist regime, calling on other girls to study and develop their own opinions.
“The Taliban want to imprison women in homes. They don’t want their faces to be seen, they don’t want women to make their mark,” said Aziz Ullah, a store owner in Mingora.
“Malala said, ‘No. women will not sit at home. They will go out, they will study, they will do something big.’ So they shot her. And I know they will try to do it again, now that she has won this big award.”
Malala shot to global prominence when she was shot by Taliban gunmen as she made her way to school.
She was later flown for specialist treatment to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where she now resides, unable to return to Mingora because of threats by the Taliban to kill her and her family.
The current chief of the Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, was the one who ordered the 2012 attack against her.
Despite its conservative reputation, most people in the region want their daughters to go to school.
“I have sent all my daughters and grand-daughters to school. Why would I be against Malala? Swatis are a very proud people who have always believed in education”, said Akal Zada, a restaurant owner.
Malala’s supporters in Mingora and elsewhere in Pakistan are equalled in their numbers by her detractors for, despite being an international icon of resistance, she remains a divisive figure in her own country.
While there are many in Pakistan for whom Malala’s name has become synonymous with the fight against extremism others feel that she is working against the teachings of Islam as well as the country’s sovereignty.
Many Pakistanis – including expats in London – feel that Malala’s plight has been unnecessarily “hyped”, particularly by the international media, and that there are numerous individuals and organizations that are far more deserving.
Many others point to an “international conspiracy” which is using Malala to portray Pakistan as lawless and far too dangerous for activists.
Malala’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kailash Satyarthi however, does not polarize opinion in a similar fashion.
The 60-year-old has saved thousands of children from slavery through his charity Bachpan Bachao Andolan – ‘Save the Children Movement’.
He has spearheaded the organization – often all by himself – over three decades and refuses to slow down: last month he led an operation to free two dozen children from an airless basement factory in the Indian capital Delhi.
Speaking of the Nobel Prize, Satyarthi said: “I am quite hopeful that this will help in giving greater visibility to the cause of children who are the most neglected and most deprived, and that this will also inspire the individuals, activists, governments, business houses and [corporations] to work hand-in-hand to fight it out.
“The recognition of this issue will help in mobilizing bigger support for the cause.”
Whilst employing children remains illegal in India, an estimated 50 million still work in factories while millions more are employed as domestic servants by Middle Class Indians.
Satyarthi is unique in that his organization has, from the outset, sought not only to rescue children but also rehabilitate and educate them.
The campaigner says that his work was inspired by experiences in his childhood, seeing children working in myriad jobs whilst he went to school.
He gave up a career in engineering to set up Bachpan Bachao Andolan in 1983.
He rose to prominence in the 1990s, when he led raids on carpet-making factories in rural eastern India employing young children. He would later convince western countries to boycott Indian carpets made with child labour.
He also developed a self-certification label for South Asian carpets headed for export that said they were made without of child labor. In 1994 the certification trademark was called Rugmark; it is now globally renowned as ‘GoodWeave International’.
The Nobel Commitee said in a statement that Satyarthi had shown “great personal courage” and had continued to maintain Mahatma Gandhi’s tradition.
The statement added: The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism. Many other individuals and institutions in the international community have also contributed. It has been calculated that there are 168 million child labourers around the world today. In 2000 the figure was 78 million higher. The world has come closer to the goal of eliminating child labour.
“The struggle against suppression and for the rights of children and adolescents contributes to the realization of the “fraternity between nations” that Alfred Nobel mentions in his will as one of the criteria for the Nobel Peace Prize.”