2013 Humanitarian of the Year Award Ceremony

Rahim Mawji '15

“Instead of sending guns, send pens. Instead of sending tanks, send books. Instead of sending soldiers, send teachers,” said Malala Yousafzai on Friday, September 27th, 2013 in front of a packed audience at Sanders Theater. Malala – a Pakistani human rights and education activist – was honored as the 2013 Peter J. Gomes Humanitarian of the Year, and being 16 years old, is officially the youngest person to receive the award by a few decades.

Malala was only 11 years old when she began to blog for BBC Urdu about life in Swat Valley, Pakistan, under the Taliban. Under the pen name Gul Makai, Malala discussed the struggles that girls in her community faced on a daily basis, and her own family’s fight for girls’ education. In October 2012, Malala was targeted by the Taliban and shot in the head as she was returning from school on a bus. However, she miraculously survived. Malala has since continued to champion universal access to education, speaking at the UN and elsewhere, founding and working with The Malala Fund, an organization implementing education programs in disadvantaged communities, and even recently publishing a book titled “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.” The youngest person to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is also one of TIME’s “100 Most Influential People In The World,” and has received Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize, along with numerous other honors.

It is no surprise then that this incredibly inspirational young lady received a standing ovation from the 1,200 people in Sanders the moment she walked on to the stage. The evening commenced with tributes from Margaret H. Marshall, former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and the first woman to hold that position, and Dr. Paula A. Johnson, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Executive Director of the Mary Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology. Immediately after, Dr. S. Allen Counter, Director of the Harvard Foundation and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, presented Malala with the award, and she received yet another standing ovation.

Malala adjusted her signature orange scarf, and began with an endearingly cheeky comment about the absence of Harvard President Drew Faust, whom she had met with earlier in the day. This elicited a chuckle from the audience, which soon became completely silent, as Malala dived right into her life in Swat Valley under the Taliban. She spoke of her family, experiences as a girl, time in school, and the day she was shot. She spoke of how this traumatic experience only intensified her resolve to campaign for girls’ education, and she urged the West to assist Pakistan by expanding education, and not by waging war. She ended with a rallying call for everyone, encouraging people to stand up for their rights, to dream big and to act on their dreams: “Let us remember that even one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world. Let us dream today, let us dream today, a dream of a bright future where every girl and every boy is going to school, where women’s rights are respected, where there is equality and justice. Let us stand up for our rights, and let us fight for them. We are going to be the future, and let us make our future now. And let us make today’s dreams tomorrow’s realities.” Standing ovation number three. And rightly so: I do not think I have ever seen another speech delivered with that much passion, that much power, and that much love.

The event continued with words from Dean Jeffrey S. Flier, Dean of Harvard Medical School and Caroline Shields Walker Professor of Medicine, and Dr. Junaid Khan, the neurosurgeon who performed Malala’s life-saving surgery. Dr. Junaid Khan was presented with the Harvard Foundation Award of Appreciation, and Maya Dorje ‘15, an intern at the Harvard Foundation, rounded off the evening with a powerful account of her experiences teaching Tibetan girls health education in Yunnan Province, China. As the event ended and people started to file out, I just sat there for a while, in absolute awe of what I had just experienced. It was difficult for me to process that the young lady receiving the Humanitarian of the Year Award is only 16 years old, and yet has already made such an incredible impact in the world. I cannot wait to see what she does in the years to come.