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Malala Yousafzai, Student of the Year

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While Time magazine just named Barack Obama as its 2012 Person of the Year, the publication chose as runner-up Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old girl from Pakistan. Yousafzai became famous for her campaign to improve schooling for women, but became a hero after surviving an assassination attempt.

On Oct. 9, 2012, Taliban gunmen entered Yousafzai's school bus, calling out for her. One of the men summarily identified her, shot her twice, in the head and neck, and then fled after shooting two more girls, both of whom survived. Currently being treated at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham in the United Kingdom, Yousafzai has been steadily recovering, and is now able to read, write, and talk.

"Malala's classmates were already brave. She has made them, and girls all over the world, braver still," Time says.

The Taliban opposes equal educational access for women. In 2009, when they moved into Pakistan's Swat district, they imposed rules against girls going to school. This, in turn, prompted Yousafzai, a resident there, to keep a blog for the BBC, Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl, where she documented her struggles with the Taliban.

It was due to this kind of outspokenness that the Taliban targeted her. A Taliban spokesman, communicating with Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, defended the action, saying that Yousafzai was propogating anti-Taliban and "secular" thoughts.

Yousafzai's struggles represent one microcosm of the fight for educational access, though. As of September 2012, for instance, more than 30 universities in Iran banned female students from almost 80 different degree courses. In an August 2012 speech, the country's leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, called for Iranians to return to traditional values and have more children.

According to the World Bank, closing the education gap between boys and girls would result in an annual 1.2 percent increase in gross domestic product, to put just one quantitative assessment on the value of educating women.

While she's definitely not the only one fighting this fight, Yousafzai now seems designated as the spiritual leader of the movement to ensure equal educational access for women worldwide, as both a child and a child-rights advocate. A winner of Pakistan's first National Youth Peace Prize and a nominee for the International Children's Peace Prize, she is also a crowd favorite for the Nobel Peace Prize, too.

(Photo: Clay lamps burn next to a photograph of Malala Yousufzai during a day of appreciation in November in Islamabad, Pakistan, for the 15-year-old Pakistani girl who was shot by Taliban gunmen. —Anjum Naveed/AP)

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