Nightmare for Nigeria’s School Girls

Girls in school in Nigeria Image: Naija247News
Girls in school in Nigeria
Image: Naija247News

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. 

INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE GIRL: Kanchi’s Story

INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE GIRL: Kanchi’s Story

by Jennifer Prestholdt

Every morning when I come into work, I am greeted by the smiling face of a young girl. Her hair is pulled neatly back into two braids, glossy black against her pink hairbands.  Her eyes, dark and alert, shine – I swear I can see a twinkle in them.  She wears the blue uniform of her school, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in rural Nepal.  The Advocates for Human Rights supports the school to provide the right to education to the most disadvantaged kids in the area and to prevent them from becoming involved in child labor.  Photographs from the school hang on the walls of our office, reminders to us of the lives that we impact with our human rights work.

Even though I see her every day, until last month I had never met this cheerful young girl, a girl whose smile – even in a photo – comes from her core, seems to light her entire being. Until last month, I did not know that her name was Kanchi.  And I had never heard her incredible story.

*****

In 1999, Kanchi was six years old.  She lived with her family in a village in the Kathmandu Valley.  Her parents were poor farmers; they had only a little land and some cattle and they struggled to feed their family.  Kanchi was the youngest of six sisters.  She and her sisters (and also her  brother) had to help their parents in the fields and with household chores.  Kanchi’s job was also to take the cattle to the forest to graze.   Kanchi did not go to school.   There were many children in Nepal that did not go to school at that time, but girls, like Kanchi, were more likely than boys to work rather than go to school – particularly in rural areas like the Suntole district where she lived.

Kanchi was a very smart and determined little girl.  She wanted to go to school.   So when she heard that a new school was opening in the Sankhu-Palubari community – a school for kids who were not able to go to school because they couldn’t pay or were discriminated against – she was very excited.  She rushed off to tell her parents.  But her parents, who had never themselves been educated, were not as excited as Kanchi.  Why should they let her go to school?  Who would help feed the family? Why should they send her to school if she was only going to get married in a few years anyway?

Kanchi says that she cried for a month and begged her parents to let her go to school.  One day, teachers from the new school came to visit Kanchi’s parents to talk to them about the school. The teachers explained that it would help THEM if Kanchi could read and write.  They explained why it was important for all children to go to school, even girls.  They told them that all children – even the poorest, the lowest-caste, members of indigenous groups – had a right to education.

Kanchi’s older sisters, who had never had the opportunity to go to school, took her side. Instead getting an education, they had all married young and were working in the fields.  Kanchi’s sisters argued that Kanchi should go to school, take this opportunity for a life that would be different from theirs.  Finally, their parents agreed to let Kanchi go to school.

Kanchi started at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in 1999, one of 39  students in the first kindergarten class.  To get to school, Kanchi had to walk one and a half hours each way.  There were many other obstacles along the way, too.  At various times, her parents wanted her to stop school and help them with farming.  But she stayed in school and worked hard. She told her parents,  “I want to do something different from the others.”

Kanchi liked her teachers and felt supported by them.  She felt that the best thing about the school was the teaching environment.  She stayed in school and was one of only two girls in the first class to graduate from 8th grade.  She continued on to high school and completed 12th grade at  Siddhartha College of Banepa in 2012.  The first in her family to go to school, Kanchi is also the first girl from the Sankhu-Palubari Community School to graduate from 12th grade.

Kanchi at her graduation from 8th grade

I met Kanchi for the first time in September.  Almost exactly 13 years after this brave little girl started kindergarten, she is a lovely young woman who is preparing for her university entrance exams.  She plans to study agriculture  starting in January.   Her parents are proud of her and they are happy now – she has chosen the family profession – but Kanchi is interested in learning more about organic farming so she can bring techniques back to her village.  “I want to live a healthy life and give a healthy life to others,” she says.

Sitting in the principal’s office at Sankhu-Palubari Community School, I asked her what the school meant to her.  Kanchi said, “I gained from this school my life.  If I hadn’t learned to read and write, I would be a housewife.”  When asked about her sisters, she told me that they had made sure to send their own children to school.

In her free time, Kanchi likes to sing and dance and make handicrafts to decorate her room.  She likes to play with her sisters’ children.  She has a smile that lights the whole world.  She told me her nickname, Himshila.  She smiled when she told me it means “mountain snow, strong rock”.  Strong rock.  That seems just about right.

*****

October 11, 2012 is the first International Day of the Girl Child.  The United Nations has designated this day to promote the rights of girls, highlight gender inequalities and the challenges girls face, and address discrimination and abuse suffered by girls around the globe.  In many ways, the story of Kanchi and her sisters reflects the experience of girls in many countries throughout the world.  All over the world, girls are denied equal access to education, forced into child labor, married off at a young age, and pressured to drop out of school because of their gender.

There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls like Kanchi, however. Educating girls is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development.

“Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”

The International Day of the Girl is a day to recommit ourselves to ensuring that girls like Kanchi have the chance to live their lives to their fullest possible potential.  To redouble our efforts to promote the rights of girls wherever they live. To shout out her story as an inspiration to girls all over the world. Girls with the same strength, bravery, and determination as Kanchi, but who just need the opportunity.

How will you celebrate the International Day of the Girl?

Jennifer Prestholdt is the Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

UPDATED:  Kanchi is a young woman of many talents.  After this post was originally published, she told me that she also likes to write poetry. She asked that we include the following poem that she wrote in this post.

When I was born in small hut,

i’d be a heavy load,

i’d be a heavy load,

 Anyhow i have to accept all the things

which were asked by father & mother

because i’m a daughter,

because i’m a daughter.

 Father& Mother always used to say

that i don’t have any right to read & write

because 1 day i have to leave birth place

& i have to be someone’s wife,

,i have to be someone’s wife.

 They says that i cannot do anything in my life because

my life is like an egg which can

Creak at anytime if it falls,

Which never be join back,

which never be join back.

 They say that to do household work,

that’s my big property &

during the time of my marriage

when i get more dowry,

during the time of my marriage

when i get more dowry.

 These heart pinches words

collided in my ear,

my heart nearly go to burst,

,my heart nearly go to burst.

 At that time my 1 heart says

that u have to leave this selfish world.

But another heart says that don’t get tired

to achieve goal u have to struggle more,

u have to struggle more.