CAMBRIDGE – The abduction of hundreds of young Nigerian girls by the Islamic militia Boko Haram has been front-page news for weeks. The global public is outraged by the group’s violation of fundamental principles and sensibilities: the prohibition of slavery, the protection of personal integrity, the obligation to protect children, and the right of adolescent girls to obtain an education and choose when and whom to marry.
Yet the presence of young Nigerian prostitutes on the streets of Western cities barely elicits a reaction. Indeed, most people simply avert their eyes. And the media barely mention the issue.
Each year, thousands of Nigerian girls are trapped by fanatical and mercenary thugs and forced into prostitution, often in the same wealthy countries that are now magnanimously offering help to Nigeria’s government. Six of every ten people trafficked to the West are Nigerian, and at least 60% of trafficked sex workers in Italy and Belgium are Nigerian girls. Across Europe, North America, Russia, and the Middle East, these young women are visible to all who bother to look – and have been for decades.
Why is no one outraged? The inconsistency is rooted in the girls’ circumstances: the schoolgirls are innocent victims crying out for protection, while the child sex workers are illegal immigrants, slated for deportation as soon as they are caught.
But they are the same girls. They all come from impoverished, conservative communities, where girls’ prospects are bleak, owing to the prevalence of child marriage, endemic domestic violence, a lack of educational opportunities, and pervasive unemployment.
In fact, according to one Nigerian survey, Nigeria has some of the world’s highest rates of early marriage, with 48% of girls married by 15, and 78% by 18, in the Northwest region of the country. Moreover, 81% of married women admitted to being subjected to verbal or physical abuse by their husbands.
Given high rates of adolescent marriage, it should come as no surprise that the net secondary-school enrollment rate for Nigerian girls in 2008-2009 was only 22%, compared to 29% for boys. While the specter of unemployment haunts all Nigerians, with only 10% of the nearly six million young people who enter the labor market each year managing to secure a formal-sector job, the problem is much worse for women, who account for only one-third of those who find a formal job. Most of the 54 million Nigerian girls and women who live and work in rural areas are forced into insecure employment in the informal economy.
Nigeria’s radical gender inequality reflects a widespread tolerance of discrimination against girls, which facilitates the brutal actions of extremist groups like Boko Haram and creates fertile ground for traffickers. In such dire circumstances, it is easy to lure girls with false prospects of attractive jobs abroad, often in bars, restaurants, and clubs. It is a short step from recruitment to a life of extreme exploitation.
As a result, despite the valiant efforts of human-rights activists, at least 200 Nigerian girls are trafficked to Russia monthly to work as prostitutes, according to Nigeria’s ambassador to Russia, Asam Asam. The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute reports that , there are at least 10,000 – and perhaps as many as 20,000 – Nigerian sex workers in Italy, most of them trafficked and many of them young teenagers.
As if that were not enough, to ensure that the girls do not run away or report their abusers, they may be subjected to so-called juju rituals, during which they are sworn to secrecy under pain of severe sanctions.
Though law-enforcement, anti-trafficking, and child-protection agencies have long known about these abusive practices, solutions – such as employment schemes, legal immigration status, and improved health-care access – remain absent. National and global leaders are not working to break the cycle of violence.
The problem is not invisible; people simply do not want to see it. Political leaders and law-enforcement authorities in the West and elsewhere know how Nigerian teenage prostitutes ended up in their cities, but choose to do nothing to help them – or, worse, punish them.
Ideally, Boko Haram’s abduction of the schoolgirls would galvanize worldwide support for efforts to protect the rights of African adolescent girls, just as the Pakistani Taliban’s shooting of Malala Yousafzai helped to combat complacency regarding education for girls in South Asia. The question is whether the global public will demand action to protect young Nigerian girls’ basic rights and freedoms, or merely continue to condemn distant brutality while acquiescing in it on a nearby street corner.
Jacqueline Bhabha is Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health, Director of Research at Harvard's François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, and Lecturer at Harvard Law School. She is the author of the forthcoming book Child Migration and Human Rights in a Global Age.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.