It is exactly one year since 276 female students were taken from their dorms by a group of Boko Haram gunmen.
We do not know how many of the girls are still alive, or what kind of horrors they have endured. Some of the girls managed to escape but over 200 are still unaccounted for.
Not just in Nigeria but across the globe, education is denied to girls for a number of reasons. Deeply ingrained cultural and social norms and practices dictate which roles are appropriate for women and girls. As a result, some consider that resources needed for education are ‘wasted’ on girls. Some will use extreme violence to deny girls the right to go to school.
Attacks on girls’ education are motivated primarily by fear. They know the potentially transformative effect of learning, that it can unleash progressive social and political change. Equal access to education is one of the most effective tools we have for addressing gender inequality and empowering girls. This is partly why it is so often denied.
It has been said that the right to education operates as a multiplier right; when guaranteed it enhances all other human rights. But when the right is denied, it can deprive a child of most, perhaps even all, of their most fundamental rights.
The ongoing conflict is having a truly devastating impact on children in the region. UNICEF has said that as many as 800,000 children have been displaced in Northeast Nigeria. Women and young girls are being subjected to a truly shocking level of sexual violence, including rape and forced marriage.
Nigeria’s recently elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, has pledged to combat the threat of Boko Haram.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who was also the target of terrorists trying to prevent girls from going to school, wrote an incredibly powerful open letter of support to the girls.
“Remember that one day your tragic ordeal will end, you will be reunited with your families and friends, and you will have the chance to finish the education you courageously sought. I look forward to the day I can hug each one of you, pray with you, and celebrate your freedom with your families. Until then, stay strong, and never lose hope. You are my heroes.”
Violence like the Pakistani Taliban bombing which killed more than 100 children at an army school in Peshawar in December 2014, the shooting of Malala, and the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, has profound consequences. Such attacks on education have a ripple effect, sending a signal to parents that schools are not safe places. But even in conflict and post-conflict situations, steps need to be taken to ensure that all girls can effectively and safely access education.
We need to understand the promotion and protection of education as central to effective strategies for preventing armed conflict. Without the full participation and inclusion of women in peacebuilding, stability in the region will not be achieved. The education of girls is, in many ways, our gateway to an equal and peaceful world.