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Malala’s Nobel Prize and the Question of Children’s Rights

I love Malala, but the Nobel Committee’s phrasing undermines children’s rights.

A little over a month ago, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced their award of the Nobel Peace Prize, for 2014, to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzay. The announcement stated that the prize is “for the right of all children to education,” and then it went on to say, “Children must go to school and not be financially exploited.” (The Italics here are mine.) Since the date of that announcement, I’ve received several emails asking for my thoughts about this award and the Nobel Committee’s wording. Here goes.

First, like millions of others throughout the world, I love Malala. She’s a model, to all of us, of the intelligence and courage that can be found in young people. She first started speaking out about the rights of girls to an education in 2009, when she was 11 or 12 years old, and described her own struggle to attend school in Pakistan under Taliban occupation. She continued to speak out, even after Taliban threats to kill her.

In October, 2012, after she boarded a school bus in the Pakistani district of Swat, a gunman boarded the bus, asked for her by name, and shot her. One of the shots went through the side of her face and left her unconscious, in critical condition. But her condition improved, and she was then sent to a hospital in Birmingham, England, for rehabilitation. She is now a high-school student in Birmingham and the youngest person ever to be awarded a Nobel Prize. The co-recipient of the award, Kailash Satyarthi, is likewise well deserving. He is a tireless and courageous, highly effective, long-time protestor against child labor and the exploitation of children for financial gain.

My only objection concerning this award—and it is a big one—lies in the Nobel Committee’s statement, “Children must go to school.” This statement—embedded in a declaration supposedly honoring the rights of children—unintentionally reveals the Committee’s, and the world’s, lack of respect for children's rights. Sadly, we see statements like this regularly.

One of the most offensive examples is in the wording of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of a Child, where Principle 7 includes the words “every child is entitled to receive an education, which shall be free and compulsory.” (Again, the Italics are mine.) In other words, according to the United Nations, every child has the right to an education that he or she cannot refuse! Such Orwellian doublespeak—the child’s right to be forced to spend day after day, for years, in a place that may seem to the child like prison—exemplifies perfectly our world’s lack of respect for children.

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world that declared that every child has the right to educational choice? Every child should have the right to refuse the education that the state offers. Millions of children throughout the world are suffering in schools. Some—an increasing number actually—are committing suicide because of what is being done to them in school. But they have no choice. School is compulsory. In many countries, home schooling is illegal. Likewise, in many countries it is illegal for families to enroll their children in schools that operate on different educational principles—principles that truly respect children’s abilities and dignity—from those of the state-run schools (for more on this, see here).

Yes, every child should have the right to an education. But every child should also have the right to the kind of education that he or she craves, in which he or she will truly learn, where he or she is happy! The state should not have the right to dictate education. The state should not have that kind of control over families and children. Why do we allow it? Why don’t we rise up and stop it, for the sake of our children? Yes, it’s wonderful to protect children from child labor, but if we then send them off to schools that are constructed as indoor forced workplaces and detention centers, are we doing them, after all, a favor?


What do you think? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, comments, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your thoughts and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to say. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.


Addendum, Nov. 24: For another view on Malala's prize and on "schooling the world," see this speech by Manish Jain, Coordinator of Shikshantar, The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development.

For more about young people’s need for freedom and capacity for sel-determined education, see my book, Free to Learn.

For more about routes to self-determined education for children see