Indian children’s-rights activist Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani teenager shot by Taliban militants after campaigning for girls’ education, were awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, in the same week that cross-border violenceflared up between their countries.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee sought to draw attention to problems that persist globally: child labor and the limits imposed on women and girls by radical Islamists.
In its statement announcing the prize, the committee said it is “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.”
The joint honor came at the end of a week in which fighting between India and Pakistan left 17 people dead and more than 100 injured.
Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947 after the partition of the South Asian subcontinent along religious lines.
Nobel committee chairman Thorbjørn Jagland said this year’s prize was unrelated to the current confrontation between the countries but, he said, “any contribution to resolving any conflict is of course good.”
In its prize citation, the committee said that 17-year-old Ms. Yousafzai, the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize, had fought for girls’ rights to schooling “under the most dangerous circumstances.”
Ms. Yousafzai, speaking in Birmingham, England, where she lives, said she felt honored to be chosen as a Nobel Laureate and that the award made her feel more powerful and courageous. She said her teacher had taken her aside in class to tell her the news.
“I’m proud that I’m the first Pakistani and the first young woman, or the first young person, who is getting this award,” she said. “This is not the end, this is not the end of my campaign, this is the beginning.”
She also said she was happy to share the award with another campaigner for children’s rights, Mr. Satyarthi, and appealed for peace between India and Pakistan.
Mr. Satyarthi, who leads the nonprofit Save the Childhood Movement, had shown “great personal courage” while “focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain,” the Nobel committee said.
“This prize is a recognition and honor to hundreds and millions of children who are still languishing in slavery, who are still deprived of their childhood, their education, their health care, their fundamental rights,” Mr. Satyarthi told journalists in his New Delhi office.
The 60-year-old has for decades been a leading voice in the fight against child trafficking and forced labor in India. Save the Childhood Movement says it has rescued 83,000 Indian children from servitude in India since 1981.
He said that he thought the prize carried a pointed message: “It has to be read between the lines—not by the governments alone, but by the public in general, by every Indian citizen and every Pakistani citizen.”
Globally, the incidence of underage work is declining, but remains widespread, with children toiling in brickyards, factories and as domestic servants. The United Nations says there were 168 million child workers in 2012—78 million fewer than in 2000.
India has more than 280 million children between the ages of 5 and 14, according to the country’s 2011 census. Unicef says 12% of them are child laborers, though India’s official figures put the number as low as 1.5%, or about 4.3 million children.
Not all child labor is illegal in India, where the government imposes limits on the number of hours and kinds of work children can do. Poor-quality public education and families’ need for children’s wages are among the main reasons children leave school for the workforce, development groups say.
Asked Friday if he thought India’s government had failed the country’s children, Mr. Satyarthi said: “Absolutely, they have failed. Not just them, it is a collective failure of the international community.”
Ms. Yousafzai rose to prominence in 2009 when she started writing an online diary about her experience living under the Taliban in Pakistan’s northern Swat Valley.
She criticized restrictions on education for girls and became a campaigner for women’s rights and education, drawing the ire of the Pakistani Taliban. On Oct. 9, 2012, when she was on her way home from school, two gunmen stopped Ms. Yousafzai’s school van and shot her in the head.
Fifteen years old at the time, she survived and—undeterred by the attack—has continued to campaign around the world to raise awareness about education.
“I think it’s absolutely fantastic,” said Christina Lamb, who co-wrote Ms. Yousafzai’s book, “I Am Malala.” “I don’t think it could’ve been given to a better person. She really is out there trying to make a difference.”
The pair was honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee for showing great personal courage in “their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children” to schooling.
Indian President Pranab Mukherjee congratulated Mr. Kailash on the prize and his work aimed at abolishing child labor in India.
“The prize should be seen as recognition of the contributions of India’s vibrant civil society in addressing complex social problems such as child labor,” Mr. Mukherjee said.
The five-member Nobel Committee picked the winner out of a record 278 nominations that included former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowdenand Pope Francis.
The committee has come under fire in recent years for selecting winners such as the European Union in 2012 and President Barack Obama in 2009, but the eight million kronor ($1.1 million) cash award is still considered one of the most prestigious honors in the world.
This year’s winners were widely praised and regarded as being more in line with the traditional spirit of Alfred Nobel. “This is an excellent choice,” said Anna Ek, chairwoman for the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society. “This is a way to acknowledge people who are trying to change the world with peaceful means on the grass-roots level.”
Ms. Ek added: “there’s a very nice symbolism in sharing the prize jointly between an Indian and a Pakistani. Hopefully, this can be a positive injection in that conflict and put pressure on the leaders to approach each another.”