On the night of April 14, dozens of armed men showed up at the dormitory of the Government Girls Secondary school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. Dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, they told the girls that they were there to take them to safety and herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles. At first, the girls believed them. But when the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,” they realized that the men were militants from Boko Haram and that they were in serious danger.
Forty-three girls managed to escape by running away or jumping out of the trucks. But as many as 234 school girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were kidnapped, disappearing into the night without a trace. Two weeks later, their parents still have no idea where they are. And yesterday, village elders from Chibok told reporters that they had received information that the abducted girls were taken across the borders to Chad and Cameroon and sold as brides to Islamist militants for 2,000 naira (about $12). While unconfirmed, these reports are a chilling reminder of the threat of sexual violence faced by women and girls in conflict zones.
The girls who were abducted were targeted simply because they were exercising their right to go to school, out of the ordinary for a girl in Nigeria. Access to basic education for girls has remained low, particularly in the northern region which has the lowest girl child enrollment in Nigeria —in 2008 the net enrollment rate for girls into secondary school was only 22 percent. The girls (who were both Christian and Muslim) at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok must each have been determined to get an education in spite of tremendous odds. The fact that these girls were also risking violence to be in school illustrates how important the right to education was to each of them.
How could this happen? And why?
Boko Haram is a violent insurgent group that has killed thousands of people since 2009, purportedly in an attempt to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. Although the Nigerian government has issued a state of emergency in three northern states, attacks on villages in northern Nigeria have displaced more than 470,000 people—mostly women and children, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Since early 2014, Boko Haram’s attacks have been increasingly violent, targeting remote villages, markets, hospitals, and schools. Boko Haramis responsible for at least 1500 deaths so far in 2014.
Boko Haram also has a history of taking hostages as “slaves.” In May 2013, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Sheku released a video saying that Boko Haram had taken women and children, including teenage girls, as hostages as part of its latest campaign. These hostages would be treated as “slaves,” he said. This has raised concern among the family members of those abducted that “Boko Haram is adhering to the ancient Islamic belief that women captured during war are slaves with whom their ‘masters’ can have sex. Regardless of alleged rationale, enslavement, imprisonment, forced labor, rape and sexual slavery are all serious violations of international law. They are defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity.
The group has repeatedly attacked schools in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language. Boko Haram has set schools on fire and detonated bombs at university campus churches. In early February, armed gunmen abducted 20 female students at Goverment Girls Science College in the village of Konduga. On February 24, 2014, members of Boko Haram attacked and killed more than 40 male students at Federal Government College in Buni Yadi village and abducted an unknown number of female students. After these attacks, many schools in northeastern Nigeria were closed. The school where the abductions took place was closed as well, but local education officials decided to briefly reopen the Chibok school to allow the girls to take their exams.
The mass kidnapping in April was unprecedented and shocking. Even more shocking – after more than two weeks, the Nigerian government has done very little to find and rescue the girls.
The lack of government response has provoked outrage in Nigeria. On Wednesday, several hundred participated in a “million-woman protest march” in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital to demand that more resources be put toward finding and securing the kidnapped girls. The protesters in Nigeria are joined on Twitter with a growing movement under the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls, #BringBackOurDaughters and #234Girls.
One man, whose daughter was abducted along with his two nieces, said his wife has hardly slept since the attack. She lies awake at night “thinking about our daughter”. As the mother of a young school girl myself, I feel deeply for her. The continuing tragedy of these young Nigerian school girls is every parent’s worst nightmare.
It’s time for world to wake up to the escalating violence in Nigeria, as well as the Nigerian government’s lack of response.
By: Jennifer Prestholdt, deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights and the organization’s director of the International Justice Program. Ms. Prestholdt has a B.A. in political science from Yale and a M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she studied international human rights law and international refugee policy. She graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School.
Prestholdt has worked on refugee and asylum issues for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland and the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination Against and Protection of Minorities. Prior to becoming deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights, Prestholdt practiced asylum law for five years as the organization’s director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program. She has also taught International Human Rights Law as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School.