By Felice Southwell
Malala Yousafzai’s return to Pakistan symbolises a growing international trend of youth activism
When a young girl was shot in the head by Taliban in Pakistan for vocally standing up for her right to an education, the world stood in silenced shock. How could a young girl, aged just 15, continue to be so outspoken in the face of mounting threats to her life?
At the beginning of April, when Ms. Yousafzai returned to Swat valley where she grew up for the first time since the shooting, the eyes of the world fell upon her, not only to hear what she had to say but to see what she will do next.
This young activist is still attending Oxford University in the UK, yet spent her spring break travelling around Pakistan to see how the money from the Malala Fund, set up after she jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize, will inspire tolerance, peace and learning in her home country.
While in Mingora before the shooting, she wrote a diary for BBC Urdu, describing the day-to-day life of people living under the thumb of precarious political tensions. In the diary, she documented the events unfolding before her as well as her feelings, writing for instance ‘I felt hurt on opening my wardrobe and seeing my uniform, school bag and geometry box. Boys’ schools are opening tomorrow. But the Taliban have banned girls’ education.”
We must be careful not to take Ms Yousafzai’s actions out of context, however. Her activism is not so globally inspiring because of who she is, but rather because of how she came to be. Her personal story of adversity, medical recovery, and dedication to express her story, was represented by the Western media as a miracle.
And the media are right; that a young girl should choose to stand up so visibly and remain committed to change does not just show courage, but determination and integrity. A ready-made leader, perhaps?
However, their attention on Ms Yousafzai as ‘Malala, the Leader of Social Justice’ highlighted their distinct lack of focus on anyone else. Where are the national leaders in the fight for education? Nowhere to be seen.
If the politicians of the day refuse to become the leaders of social progress, responsibility falls on the shoulders of the next generation. In case they’ve forgotten, heads of government are arguing over the technicalities of tax and the mechanics of the Brexit deal, while children are still dying.
In April, news broke of more murders of young people in London, linked by many to long-term systematic failings of the British government to address serious inequality and poverty. Certain members of society have been subjected to underfunded, overworked and failing education, social support and policing systems.
The international community may be facing different problems, but the links between them are too tangible to ignore. Clearly, Malala is not the only one who is tired of it. No more can young people be branded and labelled as inactive and apathetic.
In the US, school shootings have driven children, who should be mourning the loss of their friends, to political activism to prevent the frustration and grief of those affected being side-lined and forgotten by people with the power to legislate and campaign for gun control.
These aren’t isolated incidents. Like Malala, the activists of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School share the determination to fight for a world where children can go to school without fearing for their lives, but the global trend of youth activism is not limited to the fight for safe education.
In Hong Kong, Umbrella Movement activists fought for democratic suffrage; 16-17 year olds were enfranchised in the Scottish Independence referendum; and the Oxford English Dictionary named ‘youthquake’ its word of the year.
It’s a controversial opinion, I know, but children should not be making the decisions; they should be learning and gaining life experience before taking on the responsibilities of politics. Children want to go to school, they just don’t want to die doing it.
We take to politics to ensure that change happens because we cannot rely on older generations to do it for us.
To dismiss the youth activism of 2018 – this passion for action instead of more silence – would be to dismiss the importance of leadership. The leaders are not who we think they are. They’re not sitting in Parliaments or on the Executive Boards. They’re in school.