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How a teenage girl won the world's most prestigious award

Taliban shooting victim Malala Yousafzai and Indian child rights activist

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(CNN)

By Griff Witte and Brian Murphy | The Washington Post

A teenage Pakistani activist thrust into the global spotlight in a horrific act of violence and a graying Indian reformer who followed Gandhi's creed of peaceful persistence were united Friday as shared winners of the world's most prestigious award.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to give the 2014 Peace Prize to Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi threads together two very different paths, but who hold much in common in their outspoken advocacy for the rights of children.

The selection also reaches across ethnic, religious and political lines to address tensions such as the longstanding conflict between India and Pakistan and the more recent — but more far-reaching — rise of Islamist militancy and intolerance.

Yousafzai survived a Taliban slaying attempt in her native Sway Valley on Oct. 9, 2012, when she was just 15. Two years and a day later, she became the youngest ever Nobel laureate after a stunning rise onto the world stage.

Co-winner Kailash Satyarthi, 60, has been a longtime crusader against child slavery and is credited with saving tens of thousands from abuses and misery.

The Nobel committee praised Yousafzai and Satyarthi "for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education."

It also cast an eye toward hopes for peace on the South Asian subcontinent. In recent days, the two nations have exchanged fire over a disputed border region in some of the most serious clashes in years.

"What we are saying is that we have awarded two people with the same cause, coming from India and Pakistan, a Muslim and a Hindu. It is in itself a strong signal," Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told reporters following the announcement.

Of the two winners, Yousafzai is far better known globally.

Yousafzai, the first Nobel winner to have been born in an independent Pakistan, became a worldwide symbol of Taliban atrocities after she was critically injured in a 2012 attack by militants who stormed the bus she was riding with other students. At the time of the attack, she was already known across Pakistan for daring to defy the radical Islamist group by speaking out against its policy of denying education to girls.

Rather than shrink from further Taliban threats after her recovery, she instead expanded her advocacy work, writing a best-selling book and giving addresses at major international gatherings, including at the United Nations.

"They thought that the bullets would silence us, but they failed," Yousafzai said in her U.N. speech. "And then, out of that silence, came thousands of voices."

Her appeals, however, have angered militants and others in her native country. Some in Pakistan have feared that a high-profile award such as the Nobel would only antagonize the Taliban and trigger further violence. Yousafzai herself has been forced to live in exile in Britain since her recovery.

Nonetheless, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Friday called Yousafzai the "pride of Pakistan."

"Her achievement is unparalleled and unequalled," Sharif said. "Girls and boys of the world should take the lead from her struggle and commitment."

Fittingly, Yousafzai was in class in the British city of Birmingham when news of the award was announced, and she was expected to comment publicly only after the school day had ended. In a brief tweet, she expressed her gratitude: "Thank You all Support And Love .?.?. !"

Satyarthi is less of a global figure, but he has long been celebrated in India. In making the announcement, Jagland credited Satyarthi with "maintaining Gandhi's tradition" by leading "various forms of protests and demonstrations, all peaceful, focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain."

Jagland said there are 168 million child laborers in the world today but noted that the figure is down 78 million from 2000.

Satyarthi has fought against child labor for more than two decades and is credited with helping free tens of thousands of children from harsh working conditions and other forms of forced labor, including in the carpet industry and traveling circuses popular in India.

That work has prompted a backlash. There have been attempts on Satyarthi's life, and his home was ransacked and his office in New Delhi set on fire in 1994.

"Even as a child, I was passionate about issues related to child labor," Satyarthi said in an interview with the Times of India this summer. "On my first day of school, I saw a child of my age sitting on the doorsteps of my school along with his father. They were cobblers. It was the first time that I saw a contrast in the lives of two kids. I asked my teacher, we are sitting in the classroom and that boy is sitting outside, working. Why is that?"

Following the announcement, Satyarthi said he was "delighted" by the award, which he described as "recognition of our fight for child rights."

"I am thankful to the Nobel committee for recognizing the plight of millions of children who are suffering in this modern age," he said.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his congratulations, saying that Satyarthi had "devoted his life to a cause that is extremely relevant to entire humankind."

The selection of Yousafzai and Satyarthi comes during a tumultuous year that has seen new conflicts emerge and old ones expand.

A proxy war in eastern Ukraine between Russia and the West has left more than 3,500 people dead and a country dismembered, all while raising fears of a new Cold War.

In Iraq and Syria, Islamic State militants have carved out a swath of territory larger than Britain and used it to carry out atrocities against ethnic and religious minorities, while executing American journalists and British aid workers.

The death toll in the Syrian war has more than doubled in the past year, with President Bashar al-Assad's forces continuing to battle rebels in a conflict that has taken an extraordinary toll on civilians.

A war between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza — the third in six years — claimed more than 2,000 lives.

Meanwhile, the Ebola outbreak — enabled by poverty and a lack of quality health care in West Africa — continues to spread, reaching new countries daily.

The selection of two individuals for the 2014 prize follows two years in which the Nobel committee has picked an organization. Last year, the peace prize was awarded to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons amid that group's efforts to disarm Syria of its stockpile amid a civil war.

In 2012, the prize went to the European Union for helping to "transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace." President Obama won the award in 2009, less than a year into his presidency.

The prize, which comes with a medal and a $1.24 million check, has been awarded annually since 1901. Unlike the Nobel prizes for physics, chemistry, literature, economics and medicine, which are awarded by specialist committees in Sweden, the peace prize recipient is selected by a committee appointed by the Norwegian parliament.

The prize is formally awarded during a ceremony in Oslo City Hall on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, who left a fortune in his will to annually honor whoever "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."

Murphy reported from Washington. Karla Adam in London and Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.