Malala Yousafzai says she wants the world to know that there is peace in Pakistan and that its people have stood up to extremists.
That is the message the Nobel Peace Prize laureate wanted to deliver during a previously unannounced four-day visit to her homeland that ended Monday, she told VOA in an interview. The visit was her first to Pakistan since 2012, when she was shot in the head at age 14 by Taliban militants opposed to her efforts to promote girls’ right to an education.
Yousafzai is now a 20-year-old student at Britain’s Oxford University and the co-founder of the Malala Fund, which has invested more than $6 million in projects supporting the education of girls.
In the interview, Yousafzai said it was important for her to come back to Pakistan. “In the outside world, internationally, there are concerns that Pakistan is a terrorist country or there is no peace in Pakistan,” she said. “So, my trip was important to give the message that there is peace in Pakistan and the people of Pakistan have stood against extremists.”
Shortly after her arrival in the capital on Thursday, Yousafzai met with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and delivered a highly emotional televised speech in which she became tearful while describing her happiness at being home again.
“I usually don’t cry,’ she said in the interview. “It is very rare for me to cry … I wanted to share my happiness . . . I was happy to be home . . . I wanted to be home . . . I was so desperate to see my land again . . .I think it was something that i just could not control and I cried.”
That joy was shared by many young Pakistanis. “We’re very happy that Malala has come to Pakistan,” third grader Arfa Akhtar told Reuters news agency. “I am also Malala. I’m with Malala in this mission.”
However some Pakistanis feel her campaign has damaged the nation’s reputation. Students from a group of private schools in eastern Lahore protested her visit with chants of “I am not Malala,” though several other schools declined to participate saying they refused to spread hatred.
A highlight of Yousafzai’s visit was a return on Saturday to her hometown of Mingora in Pakistan’s lush Swat Valley, where masked gunmen intercepted her school van in October 2012 and shot her in the head. She suffered several skull injuries and, after receiving emergency treatment at a Pakistan army hospital, was flown to Britain to undergo surgery.
The valley “is still as beautiful as it was,” Yousafzai told VOA.
“I saw my old school trophies, my drawings,” during a visit to her childhood home, she continued. “And I just tried to remember each and every day and how we lived in that house before I was attacked, you know, remembering the family time, having dinner together and lunch together, playing with my friends and playing cricket on our rooftop.”
Yousafzai’s fund has already built a school in Swat and she says schools are needed to fight extremists. “There is that extreme mindset . . .and in order to protect children from that kind of mindset we have to make sure that children are in school, in safe schools where they are getting not just education, but quality education.”
She said it is especially important for a girl to be in school because if not, “she is more likely to get married at the age of 13 and 14. She is more likely to be in child labor. She is more likely to be in poverty. She is more likely . . .not being able to speak out for herself if she is facing any harassment or any violence. So, education is a protection for girls.”
Yousafzai said when girls are educated, “. . . it contributes to the development of the country, helps us tackle the climate change, poverty. . .It has so many benefits not just for that one specific part, but the whole country and then globally, as well.”
No advance notice was given before the visit, in part because the outlawed Pakistani Taliban still accuses Yousafzai of promoting Western culture and has vowed to target her again.
Her Malala Fund, which operates in conflict-hit countries including Syria, Kenya, Nigeria, Jordan and Pakistan, champions every girl’s right to 12 years of free, safe and quality education. Malala, who is now 20, began speaking out at the age of 11 for girls’ education in her largely conservative home district.
The girls school in Swat, financed with some of her Nobel Prize money, was inaugurated earlier this month.