Reaching across the gulfs of age, gender, faith and nationality, the Norwegian Nobel Committee on Friday awarded the 2014 peace prize to Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi of India, joining a teenager known around the world with a veteran of campaigns on behalf of children.
At 17, Yousafzai is the youngest recipient of the $ 1.1-million prize since its inception in 1901. Before her, the youngest peace laureate was Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni peace campaigner who was 32 when she was awarded the 2011 prize, along with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian campaigner for peace and women’s rights. Satyarthi is 60.
The awards, announced in Oslo by Thorbjorn Jagland, the committee’s chairman, were in acknowledgment of their work in helping promote universal schooling and protecting children worldwide from abuse and exploitation, particularly young labourers in India, on whose behalf Satyarthi has campaigned for decades.
“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,” Jagland said. “Children must go to school and not be financially exploited…It is a prerequisite for peaceful global development that the rights of children and young people be respected. In conflict-ridden areas in particular, the violation of children leads to the continuation of violence from generation to generation.” “Showing great personal courage, Kailash Satyarthi, maintaining Gandhi’s tradition, has headed various forms of protests and demonstrations, all peaceful, focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain,” Jagland added. “He has also contributed to the development of important international conventions on children’s rights.”
Despite his works, Satyarthi isn’t nearly as widely known as Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 for her campaigning for girls’ education in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. At that time, she was 15. Since then, she has become a global emblem of her struggle, celebrated on television and publishing a memoir.
“She has already fought for several years for the right of girls to education and has shown by example that children and young people, too, can contribute to improving their own situations,” Jagland said. “This she has done under the most dangerous circumstances. Through her heroic struggle, she has become a leading spokesperson for girls’ right to education.”
For the previous two years, the prize had been awarded to international bodies – the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in 2013 and the European Union in 2012.
This time, the winners were chosen from 278 candidates, 47 of them organisations, the highest overall number of candidates for the prize. The previous record was 259 in 2013, according to the Oslo-based committee.
In the speculation that invariably precedes the announcement of the award, Yousafzai had been a favourite for two successive years. This year, some forecasters spoke of Pope Francis, while others said it was likely the committee would withhold the prize, as it previously did during the Vietnam War in 1972 because the global horizon seemed scarred by conflict.
In part, the nomination of Yousafzai seemed intended as an inspirational message, offering a counterpoint to conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.
Despite her international fame, Yousafzai has been seen as a more contentious and even divisive figure in her homeland. In the Swat Valley, which she left after being wounded in the shooting in October 2012 and evacuated in a military helicopter, there has been smouldering animosity towards her among Pakistanis who feared Islamists might one day return to the region.
Yousafzai, who has said she wants to become her country’s prime minister one day, was treated for her head wounds in Britain, after the Taliban attacked a bus in which she was travelling.
Last year, she won several European awards. She has also published a memoir of her experiences, I Am Malala. The title echoed the circumstances of her shooting. When the Taliban gunman boarded her bus, he called out, “Who is Malala?”
As she noted in an interview last year, her voice is now heard “in every corner of the world”.
British news reports said Yousafzai was at school in Birmingham, England, where she has lived since being treated for the gunshot wounds, when the prize was announced. She was taken out of her class to be informed of the award.
For his part, Satyarthi, a former engineer, has long been associated with the struggle to free bonded labourers, some born into their condition and others lured into servitude.