It was the brutal suppression of that fundamental right by Taliban militants in 2008 that prompted the young Swat Valley schoolgirl, at just 11 years old, to write a critical diary for the BBC about living under the Taliban.
Yesterday, thanks to the brutality of those same extremists, it was unclear whether she could ever return to her studies.
Less than 24 hours after Malala was shot point blank in the head by militants as she travelled home in a school van, government and medical spokespeople confirmed the 14-year-old was slipping in and out of consciousness, with swelling to the skull and neck.
While Pakistani doctors successfully removed a bullet yesterday morning, they were still debating by the afternoon whether she should be flown abroad for further emergency treatment.
“We have thoroughly examined her – she is in critical condition,” one doctor from Peshawar’s Combined Military Hospital said yesterday. “The bullet travelled from her head and then lodged in the back shoulder, near the neck.
“The next three to four days are important for her life.”
The targeted attack on the Pakistani student, who received a National Peace Award in August for her outspoken advocacy for girls’ education and children’s rights, has managed to shock a nation whose senses have been dulled by so many terror strikes.
A blistering editorial in the English language daily The News yesterday said: “Malala Yousafzai is in a critical condition today and so is Pakistan. We are infected with the cancer of extremism and unless it is cut out, we will slide ever further into the bestiality that this latest atrocity exemplifies.”
Both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf condemned Tuesday’s attack by gunmen, in which three other schoolgirls were wounded, and promised to cover medical expenses for the four girls. Malala and her family have also been given 24-hour protection.
The shooting has prompted worldwide outpourings of anger and support – including from the US State Department – which yesterday condemned the attack as “barbaric” and “cowardly”. But the Taliban were unrepentant, vowing it would try again to kill the young activist if she survived. “She is a Western-minded girl. She always speaks against us. We will target anyone who speaks against the Taliban,” said Tehrik-e-Taliban (Pakistan) spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan.
“We warned her several times to stop speaking against the Taliban. This is a clear a message for the rest of the youth as well. Whoever is found following Yousafzai will meet the same fate.”
Saidu medical college chief executive Taj Mohammad told The Australian Malala was responsive and stable on Tuesday afternoon, before she was taken by helicopter to the Combined Military Hospital.
“I asked her if she was okay and she replied, ‘Yes, I am okay’,” Professor Mohammad said, adding he had seen only one bullet entrance wound despite reports she had been shot in the head and neck.
Former Swat Valley nazim (mayor) Jamal Nasir said Malala’s family had feared this day, ever since she was placed on a Taliban hit list early last year.
“I know the family very well,” Mr Nasir said.
“She is just a small kid who wanted to study and spoke in public about it.
“This was her crime. We are all very angry about this.”