On July 12 Malala Yousafzai celebrated her 16th birthday as she delivered a riveting speech before the United Nations. A young Pakistani girl with every reason to anticipate a bright future, Malala spoke with passion and enthralling commitment about the ideals of universal education. Yet that bright future was nearly extinguished in October of last year. On October 9, 2012, the Taliban shot Malala at deadly range for the most atrocious of crimes. Her crime was simple and straightforward. Malala went to school.

As a Millennium Development Goal, the pursuit of universal education by 2015 has been a noble endeavor for some time. The international effort involves universal coverage in primary education, an increase in domestic spending on education, an elimination of school fees, and the training of teachers. Although this UN program has been in place for years, Malala Yousafzai’s introduction to the world stage has reenergized the push for education and, more salient, has broadened the effort’s appeal to young people. It is one thing for seasoned diplomats to urge domestic reform back at home. It is another thing entirely for young people to understand the significance of education itself as a tool for economic and social growth. Malala’s address included the signs of such a change.

“Today is the day for every woman, every boy, every girl who have raised their voice for their rights,” she began. “I speak not for myself, but for those who have fought for their rights, their right to equality of opportunity…their right to be educated.” While Malala’s words largely focused on a call for universal education, there was a pervasive demand for gender equality that could not go unnoticed. Education and gender equality are actually interconnected. Currently about 57 million children are out of primary school, and about 120 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 lack basic reading and writing skills. In both samples, women account for the majority. Whether a result of poverty or social discrimination, gender inequality certainly has a significant role to play in the discussion concerning universal education, a discussion that Malala has reignited.

At her oration’s most moving moment, Malala describes last year’s tragedy and her current triumph. “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 would 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.” She went on to say “the power of education frightens them [extremists]. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them.” Malala’s powerful, resonant words were as emotionally driven as they were insightful, and they should remind us that for millions of children universal education is not merely an academic subject.

One critique often launched at the United Nations involves its heavy workload. You might say focusing on eight separate Millennium Development Goals, ranging from HIV/AIDS to the environment is too unwieldy. Universal education, the effort that Malala has brought back into the international spotlight with her bravery, for its part indeed helps deal with the other Goals on its own. Imagine for a moment that universal education comes to Sub-Saharan Africa before 2015. With that education comes an economic and social transformation previously foreign to those countries, and over time many of the issues which the Development Goals address may in fact disintegrate.

Yet universal education cannot solve every problem alone. The issue intertwined with universal education that Malala could not ignore in her speech before the UN is gender equality, and the reason is rather homely. Women are disproportionately discriminated against concerning education. For example, a vast crisis in countries where education is a penetrative problem involves the lack of schools. The situation, however, is even worse than that. Not only is there a shortage of schools in many Lesser Developed Countries, but the schools that are built are strictly ‘boys only’ schools. Further, ‘girls only’ schools are not erected across the street. So the two sexes are not even separated when it comes to education. Rather, women are completely forgotten or, worse, ignored. It is for this reason that the United Nations has undertaken its push for universal education and included gender equality in that effort. Simply put, the empowerment of women cannot be divorced from education.

Universal education remains a vital discussion to have in the international arena of ideas. With Malala Yousafzai’s remarkable contribution, that discussion has gained more than just another fighter on the front lines of human rights. The need for education in Lesser Developed Countries can now be effectively communicated to young people through this young role model for many girls across the world. Malala ended her speech before the UN with the following words: “One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world.”