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In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, these remarkable young women have taken great risks to speak out against the violence and injustice plaguing their societies.
The oldest is 23, the youngest are teenagers. They come from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria and have lent their voices to issues impacting hundreds of millions of lives. They stood up for their own rights: the right to an education, the right to thrive, the right to remain a child, unmarried. And then, having done that, they used their growing power to fight on behalf of others. Twenty years into the “Asian Century,” another generation has been shaped by war and conflict. These young women, each a recipient of Asia Society’s Asia Game Changer Award, exemplify the best of their generation: Youth molded — but not defined — by the pain surrounding their lives, bringing a voice to those silenced and serving as an inspiration to millions.
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Malala Yousafzai was only 11 years old when she started speaking out against the Taliban. A brilliant student, Yousafzai was encouraged by her father — who also ran the local girl’s school. After militants seized parts of Pakistan’s Swat Valley, cutting off access to girls’ education, she gave her first public speech. “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” she asked.
She was 15 when a Taliban gunman boarded a school bus and shot her in the head. Yousafzai was gravely wounded — but she survived. And while the Taliban had intended to kill an innocent girl who simply wanted the right to an education, they instead gave birth to an extraordinary global movement.
The 2012 shooting resulted in a massive outpouring of support for Yousafzai and transformed her into a global icon. In the years since, she has channeled her celebrity into advocacy for the education of girls worldwide. Her work earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, making her the youngest-ever recipient of the award. Together with her father, she started the Malala Fund, which offers girl-centric approaches to education that support the goal of creating a world where every girl reaches her true potential.
Now 22, she is studying philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University. Her fund has expanded to reach girls in countries across Latin America, Africa, and Asia by supporting remarkable teachers and advocates providing safe, equitable education.
“The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions,” Yousafzai said, “but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage were born.”
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Muzoon Almellehan was in ninth grade when she fled her home in Syria in 2013. She was from the ancient town of Dara’a, the cradle of the Syrian uprising. Dara’a had seen the first protests against the regime, and some of the first crackdowns against the local population. After violence shut down the city’s schools, Almellehan and her family left for Jordan, among the earliest in a sea of refugees that now numbers nearly 7 million.
In the midst of these difficult and often dangerous circumstances, and in spite of her youth, Almellehan was not afraid to work for change.
Almellehan and her family lived in the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan, and her focus from the beginning was opportunities for girls and young women. She enrolled in the camp schools, but soon saw that half the girls in her class — some as young as 13 and 14 — were dropping out and getting married.
“I was lucky because I was in a camp where there were schools,” Almellehan said. “I was lucky because my parents believed in education.”
Almellehan began walking through the camps, from tent to tent, to speak with parents about the value of education and the risks of early marriage. At every turn, she urged them to send their daughters back to school. Many of her classmates began saying they stayed in school because of her.
“Girls must get an education,” Almellehan said. “It’s the best protection for girls. If a mother is not educated, how can she help her children? If young people are not educated, who will rebuild our country?”
At 19 years old, Almellehan continues her fierce activism, fighting for the right to education for millions of displaced children. She is a UNICEF goodwill ambassador and has been named one of Time’s most influential teenagers. Almellehan has carried out missions in Chad, participated in consultations involving the Global Compact on Refugees, and spoken at the G20 Summit. Above all, she remains committed to advocating on behalf of all girls denied an education around the world, especially her sisters from Syria.
“We need education because Syria needs us,” Almellehan said. “Without us, who will bring peace?”
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When Sonita Alizadeh was 16 years old, her mother came to her with news that would turn her world upside down: Sonita was to be sold into marriage.
In her native Afghanistan, it was an all too common story — in fact, her family had already tried selling her once when she was 10. But the teenager’s reaction was anything but ordinary. She decided to rebel — and to use music to do so.
“I scream to make up for a woman’s lifetime silence,” Alizadeh raps in her song “Daughters for Sale.”
“I scream on behalf of the deep wounds on my body. I scream for a body exhausted in its cage — a body that broke under the price tags you put on it.”
As a young child, Alizadeh fled to Iran with her family to escape the Taliban. She discovered, and grew enamored with, rap music.
Despite an Iranian law that prohibited women from singing, Alizadeh recorded songs about being a refugee, about the Afghanistan war, and about being a young woman. She started winning money in competitions.
While her parents pushed for the marriage, Alizadeh recorded her powerful and evocative video and uploaded it to YouTube. Eventually, her family relented and decided she didn’t need to get married. The video went viral and has since inspired countless other Afghan women.
Today, Alizadeh lives in the United States and is a passionate advocate for ending child marriage. She has shared the stage with heads of state, Nobel laureates, and renowned changemakers. She has helped develop a curriculum on child marriage that is being used today by over one million students.
“If I can change [my parents’] minds with my music,” she said, “then maybe I can change the world.”
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The Afghan Girls Robotics Team
The members of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team are among the world’s best young engineers. They won a top prize at a European robotics competition for a solar-powered robot that helps farmers plant seeds and cut crops. Another of their robots can distinguish between contaminated and clean water — that innovation won them a silver medal for “courageous achievement” at an international robotics competition in Washington, D.C. But what truly sets them apart is how they got there in the first place — and where they came from.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s most inhospitable places for female education. The majority of girls do not learn to read or write, and very few have succeeded in the fields of science and technology. Persistent poverty and violence make competing in international competitions close to impossible for the vast majority of Afghans. In 2017, the Afghan Girls Robotics Team encountered a different kind of obstacle when, after making the 500-mile journey from their native Herat to the U.S. embassy in Kabul, they were denied visas. No reason was given — and it was only following an outcry that the U.S. government granted the girls special status and allowed them in. When they returned home, there was fresh heartbreak: The father of the team’s captain was killed in a suicide bombing.
Unbowed, the girls carried on competing in robotics competitions around the globe.
Roya Mahboob, the first female CEO of a tech company in Afghanistan and one of the team’s sponsors, said that the girls’ real legacy will reach far beyond robotics:
“When the girls came back [to Afghanistan] there was a huge movement — the leaders, the communities, the families, everyone was changing their views on women in science and technology. They became an example of hope, happiness, and a sense of pride for the Afghan community.”