More than 200 girls have disappeared from a school in northern Nigeria, abducted at gunpoint by a group of fundamentalist insurgents called Boko Haram. The girls had returned to the school to write their exams in defiance of the gang whose very name means “Western Education is Forbidden.”
Now they’re gone, reportedly taken by the militants into Chad or Cameroon, and sold as child brides for as little as $15. Their parents’ grief is unfathomable as they pressure the Nigerian government to hunt for their lost children. “The kidnapped girls were both Christian and Muslim,” wrote Alexis Okeowo in The New Yorker. “Their only offence, it seems, was attending school.”
Imagine, the temerity to want something better for yourself, to dream of a life that, perhaps, did not involve unending domestic drudgery. I fervently hope that the Nigerian children will be found and returned soon; their abduction is a reminder of the hardships that millions of girls around the world face every day just for the simple right to go to school.
It’s true that schoolboys are also targeted by Boko Haram, and that millions of boys are kept out of school by poverty and war. But girls are denied education in greater numbers and for different reasons. Some 65 million girls around the world are kept from school, Plan International estimates, 10 million of those because they were married off as children.
In Malawi, half the women are married by the time they’re 18, according to Human Rights Watch. The literacy rate for women is 57 per cent. You can bet women themselves would like to change that: “I really wanted to go back to school so that I can get a job and have a better life,” one woman who was married at 16 told the human-rights agency. “But I’m very busy with housework and my mother-in-law doesn’t support me going back to school.”
There’s no doubt that improving women’s education is one of the primary forces in driving a country’s economy and reducing its birth rate. Thanks to a concerted international effort, the number of girls in school has risen over the past 20 years – but there are still huge cultural and economic roadblocks in the way.
In Iraq, a bill before parliament would allow girls as young as nine to be married. Take a crumbling security situation and religious strife and you have a once-cosmopolitan country where, the UN says, 89 girls start school for every 100 boys – and many of them drop out the after primary years. “I have to convince my father that I should pursue my education and that I am still young,” says one Iraqi girl quoted in a 2010 report from the United Nations Gender Equity Initiative. The other girls in the report are heartbreaking in their enthusiasm: “I want to become an attorney, and an important person.”
If you ask girls to choose between a life of cleaning up after a husband and kids, or pursuing a useful job, you know which they’ll chose. Marrying off girls instead of educating them is a regressive, deliberate political act. As Malala Yousafzai, the world’s most famous proponent of girls’ education said in a speech this year, she refused to accept her fate when the Taliban closed girls’ schools in her district of Pakistan. “I could not believe that I would remain an uneducated woman for my whole life, and I would get married and my only job would be to give birth to children and look after my husband and my mother-in-law, and I would never be who I am.”
I recently saw The Backward Class, a wonderful documentary by Canadian filmmakers Madeleine Grant and Jessica Cheung about a co-ed school in India for Dalits, once called the “untouchable” caste. The girls in the film talk about how they would otherwise be married off or sold into prostitution if the school didn’t exist; their families are too poor to educate them.
The undoubted star of The Backward Class is Mala, a cheeky, gap-toothed teenager who can’t decide if she should study fashion or commerce. At the Toronto screening of the film, we heard that she had gone to university and now works at Ernst and Young. There is a pot of gold at the end of school for these girls, if their parents and their governments can be forced to see it. I only hope the schoolgirls in Nigeria find it, too.