Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi won the 95th Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for their work promoting education rights for children in a year that has been anything but peaceful.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee cited the two “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”
Yousafzai, 17 and the youngest-ever Nobel winner, is from Pakistan and Satyarthi, 60, is from India — facts that bring added significance to the award given the tumultuous history between those two nations.
The committee “regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism,” it said.
In 2012, Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen, but recovered to advocate for education for girls around the world. In school at the time of Friday’s announcement, she is expected to make a statement later Friday (Oct. 10).
Satyarthi, the Nobel committee said, has spent a lifetime “focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain.” The committee said Satyarthi was “maintaining (Mahatma) Gandhi’s tradition.”
From Ukraine to the Islamic State to Israel-Gaza and Ebola — 2014 has seen the world stumble from one apparent peace-defying crisis to another.
But that just means there’s been no shortage of raw material for Norway’s Nobel committee to work with, said Øivind Stenersen, a historian of the prize.
“There’s always talk that with the world so full of troubles it’s time to just drop the prize because everything is in chaos, but I must say in times like these the prize has a really important role,” said Stenersen, who also runs Nobeliana, a publishing company devoted to the Nobel awards.
“It gives us hope it’s possible to find solutions to really difficult problems,” Stenersen said.
Since 1901, the committee each year has recognized, in Alfred Nobel’s words, “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Over time, the committee has widened its eligibility requirements to include efforts to improve human rights, fight poverty and clean up the environment.
On 19 occasions, the prize has not been given due to failure to meet the committee’s standard.
Officially, there is no list of candidates and nominations have been withheld from the public for 50 years. However, because the nominators themselves — politicians, academics and other Nobel laureates, mostly — are permitted to talk, it’s known there were 278 candidates for this year’s $1.2 million award.
That was winnowed down to a handful of serious contenders by the committee comprised of three women and two men. The Nobel committee indicated this year’s choice was especially difficult to make.
Ahead of Friday’s announcement, the smart money was on Argentine Pope Francis, who would have been the first Roman Catholic pontiff to pick up the award. British bookmaker William Hill favored Francis with odds of 7-to-4, while Ireland’s Paddy Power had him at 9-to-4 odds.
Known as the “rock star” pope, Francis was considered a strong favorite because of his forthright approach to speaking out on behalf of the poor and for his call for peace in conflict zones ranging from Iraq to Ukraine. In June, the pope met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israel’s Shimon Peres to pray for peace in the Middle East.
More controversial would have been Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor at the center of leaks exposing the spying activities of the U.S. government.
“Edward Snowden would have been a difficult choice for the committee, and for Norway, to make,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a think tank.
In 2013, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or OPCW, picked up the prize for its work destroying Syrian President Bashar Assad’s (and others’) chemical weapons. In 2012, the European Union won for its efforts in promoting democracy and human rights. President Obama won the award in 2009.
Technically, the prize is not supposed to be given to an organization, although it has been 25 times. The committee gets around this by naming the group in question’s leader as the recipient.
The prize has now been awarded to 16 women and has been declined just a single time, by Le Duc Tho, a Vietnamese politician who was jointly given the prize with Henry Kissinger in 1973. Just over half of all peace laureates have been born in Europe.
The award is notoriously difficult to predict. The Norwegian state broadcaster NRK has been successful the last two years in calling the winner.
The final Nobel prize to be announced this year will take place Monday (Oct. 13) when the economics winner is unveiled. Prizes in medicine, chemistry, physics and literature were announced earlier this week.