Their voices were low and quiet: “Educate our girls…educate our girls.” Leading the march on campus with other students, faculty and staff, were the 15 “Chibok students” who have come to the American University of Nigeria (AUN) for a better education and life. They escaped the night Boko Haram terrorized their boarding school. They now are in individualized academic programs and working very hard to prepare for their national exam (JAMB) and regional tests (WAEC) next spring. As I left last week for a trip to the United States, I asked them what I could bring them from America. Unlike most teenagers around the world, I suspect, they only had one request: dictionaries!
They are fortunate young women, unlike many of their friends. In fact, all that is needed to represent the failure of educating girls and women around the world is to mention one word: Chibok.
While the status of girls’ education globally has improved significantly during the last decade, girls still lag behind boys in terms of access to education, degree completion, and literacy. There are still more girls not attending primary school compared to boys (35 million compared to 31 million) and close to half girls not attending school world wide are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Does educating girls really matter that much?
Yes, it does. Many studies around the world have demonstrated the strong, positive linkages between women’s empowerment, economic growth, and the democratization process. A World Bank study of one hundred developing countries found that countries that promote women’s rights and increase their access to economic resources and education grow faster, have less inequality, and less corruption than countries that do not support women’s’ rights.
The voices were getting louder: Bring Back our Girls!
For the past six months the world’s attention—attention but not action- has been focused on a terrible story and a grainy video of over 200 girls who were kidnapped from Chibok, a very poor, but typical village in Northeastern Nigeria. There has been so much talk, but so little action, and no results. There were reports that the government of Nigeria had negotiated a ceasefire with Boko Haram and was arranging for the release of the kidnapped girls, but once again false hopes were raised for the girls as well as the citizens of Nigeria. The fighting continues and the girls remain in captivity.
Their voices were stronger: We Miss our Girls, We Miss our Girls!
Last week six more Chibok students who escaped the night of the Boko Haram attack joined the 15. Now they are 21 in number. There were hugs and tears–these friends had missed each other, and wondered if they would ever see their missing sisters again.
In 1990 the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote an article in the New York Review of Books called “100 Million are Missing.” He asserted that in a world where girls and boys, women and men have equal access to health care, nutrition and medicine, the sex ratio favors women (because of higher survival rates). Based on these assumptions, he calculated how many women were missing especially from India and China, because of infanticide, sex selective abortion, and lack of access to nutrition and health care. He concluded 100 million girls and women were dead or never born. The Chibok students are missing solely because they are female and wanted an education.
As we turned the corner toward the cafeteria where the Chibok march would end, my male colleagues said we were almost running. “We Love our Girls, We Love our Girls.” No soft voices this time.
Loving our girls is not the response of many governments, and certainly not that of the terrorist groups that have recently exploded around the world.
We love our girls. One of the common denominators of most of the active terrorist groups around the world is deep misogyny, a desire to subjugate girls and women. From ISIS to Boko Haram, terrorism equals slavery for girls and women.
Countries with fundamentalist regimes-those where terrorism is more likely to be generated-are those where women’s access to education and participation in social and political life is the most restricted. Working to free and then educate these women, and increase their voice and participation, is far more likely to lead to democracy than any “war on terrorism.”
It is telling that instead of talking about these issues, and how to expand girls’ education (as well as women’s political participation around the world) we continue to be stuck in a paradigm that thinks that force is an effective way to solve many of our problems–including those related to terrorism. Why not talk about the conditions that prevent the development of terrorism? Why not talk about the conditions necessary to build sustainable, equitable societies?
Look what happens when governments are committed to good governance and gender equity. In Rwanda, twenty years after the country was destroyed by genocide, 64% of Parliamentarians are women. This is the highest in the world. Has it mattered? Life expectancy has more than doubled in twenty years, a million people have been lifted out of poverty, the economy is growing faster than most others on the continent, corruption is almost nonexistent, 95 percent of the population has health insurance, and it is ranked as one of the safest places in the world to live. Yes it matters.
Until the majority of people in the world–the world’s girls and women– are educated and have a voice, we will never build safe, equitable, open, and participatory societies. We will always be trying to bring back our girls.
Professor Margee Ensign is the President of the American University of Nigeria (AUN), which has established a foundation to support the Chibok girls and vulnerable children from Northeastern Nigeria (www.aunf.org). She writes a monthly column for PREMIUM TIMES.