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NEW ORLEANS—Shiza Shahid and Malala Yousafzai—two young women, less than a decade apart in age—grew up in different Pakistani villages at a time when terrorism was on the rise.
Malala captured the world’s attention when the Taliban attempted to assassinate her in 2012 because of her work—in defiance of the Taliban—on behalf of girls’ rights to an education.
Shahid is CEO and co-founder of the Malala Fund. She is working with Malala to make formal education available to the more than 600 million adolescent girls around the world who are denied that opportunity because of social, economic, legal and political impediments.
At the SHRM 2014 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition on Oct. 14, Shahid shared the inspiring story of how she came to know and work with the 17-year-old girl who four days earlier had become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
When she was 11, Malala, using a pseudonym, secretly shared with BBC Urdu her diary describing life under the Taliban and her family’s fight for girls’ education in her community. She was nominated in 2011 for the International Children’s Peace Prize and was one of four runners-up for Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
She was 15 when, on Oct. 9, 2012, the Taliban boarded her school bus and shot her point-blank in the head while she was returning home from the girls’ school her father had founded in a remote valley in northern Pakistan.
She survived and suffered no brain damage. She continues her activist work on behalf of girls’ rights and universal education and has appeared before the United Nations.
“I knew my country was in deep, deep trouble… there were structural problems, severe poverty, and women’s rights were growing weaker by the day,” she recalled. Shahid threw herself into grassroots efforts, volunteering at a women’s prison at age 14 and serving as a volunteer at an earthquake relief camp when she was 16.
She went on to win a full scholarship to Stanford University, interned in Washington, D.C., and eventually graduated from Oxford. During her sophomore year in 2009, the 19-year-old was living in the Silicon Valley when she saw a documentary about the Taliban taking over a town three hours from her own village, where it was blowing up girls’ schools.
Shahid felt called to action. She contacted Malala’s father and secured funding and volunteers. That summer, Shahid and Malala’s father started a weeklong girls’ camp where they secretly advocated for girls’ rights to an education. There, Shahid met Malala.
Three years later, when she learned the Taliban had shot Malala, Shahid flew to the U.K. where Malala was hospitalized. On a “leap of faith,” Shahid said, she quit her dream job with a major corporation in the Middle East to help create the Malala Foundation, which invests in community-led programs and serves as an advocate for universal access to education.
“Malala’s story hit a chord … she had been shot in the head simply for wanting to go to school,” Shahid told conference attendees.
“I am just a girl with big dreams … [and] with incredible passion for creating change in our world. Someone needed to take this work forward … to take this moment forward and transform it into a global movement,” she explained. “Without an education, girls are trapped in a cycle of poverty.”
Shahid had discovered through her volunteer work as a young girl, she said, that “you have the power to change what you cannot accept, whether in your own life or the life of the world around you.”
She urged attendees to live a life of passion.
“Find what is holding [you] back, and have the strength to overcome it,” she said to a standing ovation.
Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.
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