By Susan Orr
Evansville Courier & Press, Ind.
Shiza Shahid knows how much of a difference one determined person can make.
Shahid is the co-founder of the Malala Fund, an organization named for the Pakistani girl who became an international figure — and a Nobel Peace Prize honoree — for her work to promote female education.
Shahid visited Evansville Thursday to speak at The Victory Theatre during a fundraiser for Uncharted International, a local nonprofit group that works on poverty, education and justice-related issues in developing countries.
Shahid, who grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan, first met Malala Yousafzai when Shahid was a Stanford University student.
Troubled by the growing troubles in her home country, Shahid went back to Pakistan one summer to set up a camp for girls. One of the campers was Malala, who was then 12 years old.
“She was just a little girl with big dreams,” Shahid said.
Three years later, Malala was shot in the head by members of the Taliban, who targeted her because she had spoken out for girls’ education.
By that time, Shahid had graduated from Stanford and was working in Dubai. When she heard the news, Shahid flew to England to be with Malala and her family.
Even from her hospital bed, Malala expressed determination to continue fighting for girls’ education.
“In Malala, I see the most human form of bravery,” Shahid said.
Shahid made the decision to quit her job and help Malala and her father establish the Malala Fund.
“I didn’t feel prepared, but it was now or never,” she said.
Around the world, Shahid said, an estimated 66 million girls are not able to attend school for reasons including early marriage, the need to help care for siblings or to work, or lack of access to school facilities.
The Malala Fund works to improve educational access for girls in Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya and Sierra Leone. It also works with Syrian girls who are refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.
Last year the fund committed more than $3.5 million for projects spanning 2014-2016.
Shahid said she was fortunate to have grown up in a family that valued education, but she learned early that not everyone was so lucky.
Pakistan, Shahid said, “is consistently ranked among the worst places to be born a woman.”
As a teen, Shahid volunteered at a women’s prison. She also helped girls and women after a major earthquake.
“I understood then what it meant to be a woman in the harshest places in the world, to have your very existence be a source of shame,” she said. “What I learned in these situations I would never have known had I not looked beyond myself and the life I was born into. Yet, in understanding people and lives different from my own, I came to find my purpose and my passion.”
She challenged the audience to step outside their own comfort zone and make a difference.
“Everyone who has the opportunity to pursue his or her passions must do so,” Shahid said. “What is it that you plan to do with your one miraculous life?”