LONDON – It has been eight weeks since the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram abducted more than 200 girls from their school dormitories in Chibok, in northern Nigeria’s Borno State. The geopolitical implications are now ramifying across Africa.
Chad, Niger, and Cameroon are being drawn into the crisis, owing to growing suspicion that some of the girls are being held on their territory. And, though a recently signed memorandum of understanding offers Nigeria security assistance from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other powers, residents of remote villages in northern Nigeria, fearful of night raids by Boko Haram and running out of food and supplies, are fleeing to mountain caves or bigger towns.
The governor of Borno State is warning that failure to help his embattled schools will be disastrous for the rule of law throughout Nigeria. Already, the country is being called the “kidnap capital of the world,” with 1,000 reported abductions in the last year alone.
We might have assumed that eight weeks after the schoolgirls were taken, there would be a glimmer of hope. But former President Olusegun Obasanjo has expressed a widely shared fear that many of the girls will never be returned to their parents. Indeed, little information has seeped out about the girls’ whereabouts, and much of the intelligence remains shrouded in secrecy for fear of terrorist reprisals.
Moreover, it is likely that in the month since Boko Haram released a video of the girls flanked by gunmen, the girls have been split into groups of 40-50. If one group is rescued by force, the others will be murdered, creating a serious tactical dilemma for the Nigerian government’s Special Forces.
And, as the world’s attention shifts to other global trouble spots, such as Iraq, intense international scrutiny is giving way to what seems like silent acceptance of the girls’ fate. The fight to maintain global support has become an uphill one for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, despite his direct appeal to the whole world for help in securing the girls’ release.
But on Monday, the international Day of the African Child, there will be a renewed attempt to highlight the girls’ plight and what failure to secure their release would mean for girls’ rights around the world. In addition to highlighting the need to invest in girls’ education, young people worldwide will mount an outpouring of support for Chibok’s abducted schoolgirls, including 20 sit-ins at national parliaments and a mass demonstration at the African Union’s seat in Addis Ababa.
If the protests boost international attention and support, Western governments may be persuaded to offer Nigeria’s government the night-vision equipment, helicopters, and air cover that it desperately needs to show Boko Haram that official forces have regained control of Borno’s forests and that the group cannot escape with impunity.
The focus on the abducted girls reminds us that a new civil-rights struggle is underway, with millions of girls around the world resisting the terror, murder, rape, and intimidation that denies them basic rights, including the right to an education. It is also a struggle to end girls’ exploitation at work and in domestic service, and to end the oppression of child marriage and child trafficking, which remain all too common in Africa and Asia. The Chibok girls – kidnapped simply because they wanted an education – have become a powerful symbol of this wider struggle for girls’ rights.
They are not the only symbols. There are also the Indian girls who were recently raped and hanged, the Bangladeshi girls now declaring child-marriage-free zones, the Pakistani girls demanding their right to education, and the African girls – from Ethiopia and Morocco to Mozambique and South Africa – demanding an end to child trafficking and genital mutilation. All of them are now more vociferous in demanding support for a world in which patriarchs no longer determine their rights and opportunities. It is their struggle, and they are increasingly leading it.
A few weeks ago, I spoke to 2,000 girls in Pakistan, 18 months after 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head for encouraging girls to go to school. Back then, I had found girls who were angry but cowed into submission; now, they had clearly become a resolute group determined not to allow Pakistan fail to educate its girls.
But girls like these need the world to see their freedom fight for what it is. The Day of the African Child, established by the African Union in memory of students massacred in Soweto on June 16, 1976, for protesting against injustice during the apartheid era, will feature events in cities worldwide, including Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Hanoi, Cairo, and Islamabad.
In Addis Ababa, a symbolic Youth Run will take place – a community race through the city symbolizing the fact that we are running out of time. With only 18 months to go to achieve the Millennium Development Goals’ target of universal primary education for all children, the world must step up its efforts to reach the finish line.
Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is UN Special Envoy on Education.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.