UN-Pakistani student activist Malala Yousafzai, who survived a Taliban assassination attempt last year, on Tuesday received, through a representative, the 2013 UN Human Rights Prize, an honour previously given to icons like late Nelson Mandela in recognition of outstanding achievement in human rights. Malala, 16, could not come to participate in the impressive award ceremony at UN Headquarters in New York because of her engagements at the school in Birmingham, England, where she now lives. The Chief Executive Officer of the Malala Fund for Girls’ Education, Shiza Shahid, flew in from London to accept prestigious award on her behalf as loud applause rang out from the distinguished gathering of diplomats, UN officials and civil society leaders.

A Pakistani diplomat at the event, Diyar Khan, thanked the United Nations for recognizing Malala’s contribution to promoting girls education and honouring her courage and sacrifice, saying Pakistan is proud of her. The top UN prize is awarded every five years and has previously been bestowed on Amnesty International and former US president Jimmy Carter. In 2008, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was posthumously conferred the prize for her commitment to women’s rights and strengthening democracy. Malala was honoured for speaking out on girls’ crucial right to education, women’s empowerment and the links between the two.  Despite an assassination attempt in 2012, the citation said she continued to speak out on behalf of the rights of girls and women.

“Malala’s courage, commitment and determination, and more so, her passion for human rights at a tender age makes us proud of her,” the Pakistani diplomat said.  “We’re grateful to the international community for the support to the  Malala Fund for Girls’ Education, and hope it would advance the cause of literacy in my country and around the world,” Khan added. Other recipients at Tuesday’s event were Biram Dah Abeid of Mauritania, a son of freed slaves who works to eradicate the heinous slavery; Hiljmnijeta Apuk of Kosovo, a campaigner for the rights of people with disproportional restricted growth; Liisa Kauppinen of Finland, the president emeritus of the World Federation of the Deaf and  Khadija Ryadi, former president of the Morocco Association for Human Rights.  Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice also received a prize, as a judicial body.

Presenting the prizes, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said that the walk on the road of respect for human rights should be a way of life.  Extolling the virtues of all human rights defenders, he honoured the legacy and life of Nelson Mandela.  “We are in this together and we can only succeed together if we are united in the pursuit of a life of dignity for all,” he said. Michel Tommo Monthe, Vice-President of the General Assembly, speaking on behalf of General Assembly President John Ashe, said:  “We cannot stand by idly or look away when we see oppression and discrimination.”

Remigiusz Achilles Henczel, President of the UN Human Rights Council, said the achievements realized in the field of human rights would not have been possible were it not for the efforts of those who raised their voice to denounce abuses and injustice. Ivan Simonovic, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said since the Declaration had been adopted, the human rights mechanism had grown stronger, as exemplified by the growing number of treaties and protocols, their ratification and special mandate holders. On July 12, Malala celebrated her 16th birthday with a passionate speech at the UN headquarters, in which she said education can change the world.  “Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution,” she told UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and about 1,000 youth leaders from over 100 countries attending an international Youth Assembly at the UN.

Malala, who was also nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, was given the European Union’s Sakharov human rights prize at a ceremony held on World Children’s Day last week. The UN speech was her first public address after she was gunned down while returning from her school. She has been credited with bringing the issue of women’s education to global attention.