Like many other people, I am outraged by the April 14 abduction of hundreds of young girls from their school in northeastern Nigeria by the insurgent group Boko Haram. The group attacked again on May 6, kidnapping eight more girls–this time from their homes–to prevent them from attending school. While we do not know exactly where the girls were taken or how they are being treated, it is likely that many of them will be raped and sold into sexual slavery. Some of the girls are as young as 12, and as a mother I can only imagine the nightmare the girls and their parents must be living.
I join the calls to the Nigerian government, the Obama administration, and other world leaders demanding that they do what needs to be done to free the girls and bring those responsible to justice. But bringing the girls home is only the first step in answering the contorted message the kidnappings were designed to send: that women are property and girls should not be educated.
The Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, who has spoken out against the kidnappings, reportedly asserted at a conference in March that the Boko Haram insurgency is an “anomaly” in the socio-religious environment of Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims live in harmony with each other and with people of other faiths. I do not dispute that position and sincerely hope that he is right. But while extremist organizations such as Boko Haram may be anomalous in Nigerian society, the assault on girls’ education globally is not.
We live in a world where, for some girls, simply learning to read is a courageous and life-threatening act of defiance.In March 2013, a principal in Karachi, Pakistan was killed when grenades were hurled into his school, which specialized in enrolling girls. A teacher in a different part of Pakistan was gunned down in front of the all-girls school where she had taught only a week earlier. In the spring and summer of 2013, over 400 girls in Afghanistan fell ill from suspected gas poisonings in at least half a dozen schools. The assassination attempt against Malala Yousafzai for promoting girls’ education in Pakistan is well-known.
The net enrollment rate in 2008 for girls in secondary school in Nigeria was just 22%. In northern Nigeria, where the kidnappings occurred, only 3% of girls finish secondary school and more than 50% are married by the age of 16. The situation in Nigeria is sadly representative of a wider pattern. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, girls in Pakistan had a secondary school enrollment rate of 29%, as compared to 40% for boys. Rates are even lower in Chad, where only 5% of girls received a secondary education, as compared to 16% of boys. Nor is the problem endemic only to countries with a majority Muslim population. In Nepal, school enrollment rates for boys are 14 percentage points higher than for girls. These statistics reflect a cultural undercurrent that creates powerful disincentives for girls to educate themselves, ensuring that women remain powerless, objectified, and vulnerable to forced marriages and sexual slavery.
I do not mean to suggest that we have it all figured out here in the United States. Sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses are on the rise, femicides are seventh in line as causes of early death among females in the United States, and our most recent census report confirmed that—despite decades of working for equality—women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. But I know that I am lucky. I am a shareholder in a successful law firm that not only supports me, but has been lauded as one of the best in the nation for women attorneys. I have been successful, first and foremost, because I was born into a family that never questioned whether I would go to college; it was simply assumed.
But is it possible to change cultural norms in other countries? And even if we could, what place is it of ours? To answer the second question, we are no longer isolated on this planet. The diminution of women everywhere affects all of us, by preventing economic growth, destabilizing societies and even planting the seeds that allow terrorism to flourish. Education is a fundamental human right that belongs to everyone, boys and girls, everywhere. It is everyone’s responsibility to address harmful cultural practices that result in human rights violations. We can and should work towards universal education in all parts of the world.
The notion that there is nothing we can really do is wrong. Since the fall of the Taliban, the enrollment of girls in primary school in Afghanistan has risen from virtually none to approximately 37%.
I know from personal experience that norms against educating girls can be changed. In 1999, the Advocates for Human Rights founded a school in a village in Nepal where education rates for children were extremely low. The school’s basic admission criteria were that the students must be low income, and the student body must be 50% girls. Parents of these children, when interviewed, expressed sincere doubts about the value of education for their children—especially the girls. Over time these views have changed dramatically. When I visited the school in 2011, the parents no longer questioned why they should educate their children. Instead, they demanded that The Advocates expand the school to include more grades. Many of the girls who have graduated from our school are now studying at the University. It’s only a drop in the global bucket, but it’s a start.
By: Dulce Foster, attorney with Fredrikson and Byron, is a long-time volunteer and supporter of the Advocates for Human Rights. She has provided immeasurable leadership for the organization’s Nepal School Project and for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Project.
In her legal practice with Fredrikson and Byron, Foster defends, investigates, and advises clients in criminal and civil matters involving financial fraud, healthcare fraud, corruption, FCPA, trade secrets theft, illegal immigration, False Claims Act and other regulatory concerns.