Most teenagers spend their 16th birthdays throwing saccharine bacchanals, or going for their learner’s permits. Pakistani education rights activist Malala Yousafzai spent her 16th birthday addressing the United Nations Youth Assembly in New York with one of the most incredible speeches you’re ever likely to hear from anyone, let alone a teenager: an impassioned plea and a solemn vow to campaign peacefully for the education of women and children the world over.

Nine months prior, Malala was shot in the head and neck by the Taliban on a bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley for her role as an outspoken advocate for “secular education”, efforts the Taliban condemned as “pro-Western”. 

Overnight, five months after being discharged from a British hospital after receiving titanium cranial reconstruction surgery and wearing the pink shawl that once belonged to assassinated Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto, Malala spoke directly to some one thousand students, international delegates, her family and, most notably, those who would try to silence her, displaying remarkable compassion even for “the talib who shot me”:

“Dear friends, on the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends, too. They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they could change my aims and stop my ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage was born.”

Yousafzai is now the youngest Nobel Peace Prize nominee in the history of the award and began campaigning for education rights through a blog written under the nom de plume Gul Makai and published on BBC Urdu when she was just eleven. 

“Dear brothers and sisters, do remember one thing,” she said. “Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy, and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights. Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I’m just one of them. So here I stand, one girl among many. I speak not for myself but so those without a voice can be heard.” 

Malala also presented secretary-general Ban Ki-moon with a petition signed by 4 million people urging the UN to ensure 57 million children around the world are in school by the end of 2015 – a target he has pledged to meet.

“Let us pick up our books and pens, they are our most powerful weapons,” she said. 

“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”

Witness the incredible resilience, astounding intelligence and unbelievable bravery and poise of a future world leader to whom no amount of superlatives can do justice below. 

Happy Malala Day.

Photo: Stan Honda via AFP/Getty