The Nobel Peace Prize committee blew it big time on Friday.
It could have electrified the world by giving the prize to Malala Yousafzai, the courageous Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban because of her crusade for girls’ education. She was the odds-on favorite to win. And by fortuitous coincidence, Friday was also the United Nations’ International Day of the Girl Child, with a focus on promoting girls’ education.
What a global statement the Nobel committee could have made by handing Malala the prize on that date, one year after she was shot. How inspirational for the cause of girls’ education, which is critical in helping developing countries thrive.
Instead, the award went to the little-known U.N.-backed Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is dismantling Syria’s poison-gas arsenal. Sorry, but this choice is bizarre. Sure, the OPCW is doing important work, but it is only implementing a political deal that might not be fully honored — and that won’t stop the Syrian regime from killing more thousands with conventional weapons. Honoring this obscure organization won’t inspire the world.
The choice did please the Taliban. A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban called the decision “very good news” and praised the committee for “not selecting this immature girl for this famous award.” He warned that, given another chance, “we will definitely kill her, and that will make us feel proud.”
The Taliban’s reaction shows why Malala was the perfect candidate for the Peace Prize.
“For Muslim countries, she stands for the difference between those who want progress and peace and those who live by violent terror,” said Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of the Pakistani parliament who has received death threats for her human-rights advocacy.
Yet this 16-year-old’s importance extends beyond the Muslim world. In many developing countries, the barriers to female education seem overwhelming. It is far easier for girls from privileged families to rise to prominence than for those from poor or middle-class families. Malala’s personal history as the daughter of an educator father and an illiterate mother from Pakistan’s remote Swat Valley proves these odds are surmountable.
“She showed that with male family support, a young, rural girl can develop ideas and a belief system (that rival) many world leaders,” said Ispahani, now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “The Nobel committee missed a huge opportunity to make the prize relevant to ordinary people around the world.”
Of course, Malala has won plenty of recognition. She just received a top European human-rights award. Her memoir of life in Swat has just been released; it is titled “I Am Malala,” a reference to her reply when a Taliban boarded her school bus and asked, “Who is Malala?” just before he shot her. On her 16th birthday, in July, she gave an eloquent speech at the United Nations calling for “education for every child.”
She has become the face of a cause that needed a charismatic advocate. There is overwhelming evidence that girls’ education, especially at the secondary level, has a transformative effect on health, poverty, and economic growth in less developed societies. Yet more than 30 million girls worldwide don’t go to school.
Go to the website for the Day of the Girl (( www.un.org/en/events/girlchild ) or search for #dayofthegirl on Twitter, and you will find a wealth of ideas on how to facilitate girls’ education, from improved school transportation, to mobile technology that reaches remote areas, to corporate mentoring to help girls acquire work and leadership skills. The group Vital Voices has helped set up the Malala Fund to help girls in developing countries get schooling (w www.malalafund.org ).
But this cause still faces resistance in many countries. Pakistan has one of the most dismal records, with 60 percent female illiteracy and one of the lowest overall literacy rates worldwide. It’s no coincidence that it’s also plagued by Islamic extremism and violence.
Nor is it surprising that Malala has noisy critics in Pakistan. Some resent that her campaign lays bare unpleasant facts about her country; others claim it’s a Western plot. After a year of medical treatment in England, it’s unclear when she can safely go home.
So even if the Nobel committee had done the right thing, Malala might not have enjoyed a warm reception in her country. The only previous Pakistani Nobel laureate, the late physicist Abdus Salam, was never honored at home because he belonged to the minority Ahmadi sect, which many of his countrymen decry as heretical.
Yet I can’t help thinking how Malala’s fellow schoolgirls in Swat would have cheered had she won, and how her prize would have inspired girls around the world. Her achievements speak for themselves without a Peace Prize, but the Nobel committee lost an opportunity to do something great.