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Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai turns 21

She's spending birthday talking to girls in Brazil

(CNN) - The world has seen Malala Yousafzai grow up.

At age 11, she went from an average Pakistani child living under Taliban rule to an outspoken advocate for girls' education. By 15, she'd faced an assassination attempt that she was lucky to survive. And by 17, she'd become the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Today, Yousafzai turns 21. She's spending the day in Brazil, doing what she's done on past birthdays: speaking with girls who aren't able to go to school.

"Every year on my birthday I travel to meet girls who are struggling to go to school -- to stand with them and to make sure the world hears their stories," she wrote in a post a few years ago.

In Brazil, she said, more than 1.5 million girls are out of school. "They deserve the chance to choose their own future," she said.

She spoke for girls whose voices were unheard

Yousafzai was born in 1997 in Mingora, Pakistan.

Being a girl wasn't always easy in Pakistan. And when the Taliban took control of Yousafzai's town, it got even harder: they took away her ability to go to school.

That wasn't going to stop her. So at 11 years old, she started speaking out in support of letting girls go to school.

"I said goodbye to my classmates, not knowing when -- if ever -- I would see them again," her website says.

She became a Taliban target

Speaking publicly about girls' education got Yousafzai public recognition. She'd talk at local press clubs, and write blogs under a pen name that showed what life was like living under the Taliban.

But her publicity also made her a target for death threats.

One almost turned fatal. A masked gunman boarded her school bus in 2012, asked, "Who is Malala?" and shot her in the head.

Her father thought she was going to die. But the 15-year-old pulled through, and months later, she was back where she says all girls should be: at school.

"The terrorists tried to stop us, but neither their ideas nor their bullets could win, and since that day our voices have grown louder and louder," she told CNN in 2014.

Undeterred, she doubled down

The year after her attack, Yousafzai published her autobiography, "I Am Malala."

She went on to win handfuls of awards -- the International Children's Peace Prize, the United Nations Human Rights Prize and a spot among Time's Most Influential People of 2013.

She continued to travel and advocate for girls' schooling, grabbing widespread attention and creating a wave of support for her cause.

The Malala Fund, which was created in 2013, has received and donated millions of dollars to efforts worldwide.

She returned to Pakistan

In March, she announced her second book, "We Are Displaced," which focuses on the refugee experience, including her own.

It was the same month that Yousafzai returned to Pakistan for the first time since she was almost killed six years earlier. While she was there, she gave an emotional speech about her homeland.

"I couldn't control what happened, if it was my choice I wouldn't have left my country at all. I had no choice, I had to leave for my life," she said.

She spends her birthdays championing school-aged girls

Based on past birthdays, it's not surprising she didn't take the day off.

Last year, Yousafzai was in Iraq at a camp for internally displaced people. She tweeted about meeting a 13-year-old girl who left her hometown after an ISIS takeover, and how she, like many others, couldn't go to school.

"I know how Nayir feels," she wrote on her website.

For her 19th birthday, she was declaring #YesAllGirls in Kenya, where she visited the world's largest refugee camp.

"Every year on my birthday I travel to meet girls who are struggling to go to school -- to stand with them and to make sure the world hears their stories," she wrote online.

She still receives threats

Yousafzai is currently studying at the University of Oxford, but continues to speak out in favor of more than just education for girls.

She's also spoken out against policies like the Trump administration's separation of immigrant families at the US-Mexico border.

And it's not without a risk: she still faces plenty of threats.

But the 21-year-old isn't afraid of death. In a 2014 interview with CNN, she said she had a long life ahead. And her cause does, too.

"I'm totally not afraid of death. And when I look at the support of people, then I'm sure that this cause is never going to die," she said.

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