Very concept of female education at stake in Nigeria

South Africans protest in support of more than Nigerian 200 girls abducted from their school, outside the South African parliament in Cape Town. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

South Africans protest in support of more than Nigerian 200 girls abducted from their school, outside the South African parliament in Cape Town. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA


The abduction in mid-April of nearly 300 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram has led to a gradual groundswell of international horror and outrage, evident both in the form of governments offering tactical assistance and in the #Bringbackourgirls campaign on social networks.

It’s safe to say most people had probably never heard of Boko Haram before this incident, despite a four-year-old insurgency by the group that has claimed more than 4,000 lives and caused half a million to flee their homes, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

In just the past month alone, various attacks by the group in rural Borno state and in the capital Abuja killed approximately 200 people, and in February this year it attacked a school in Yobe state, viciously killing more than 40 students aged between 11 and 18.

The fact it has taken this shocking mass abduction of teenage girls to secure the world’s attention is a sad reflection of how we tend to view military strife in Africa. Indeed, not a week ago, lots of people were wondering why the Chibok abduction wasn’t generating more attention, with some comparing the relatively scant early coverage of the abducted schoolgirls unfavourably to the blanket coverage afforded missing flight MH370, despite the greater number of missing people involved. That sort of comparison relies on a rather crude sort of media calculus, and in any case glosses over how the slow response to the incident was at least partially a result of the grossly inaccurate early reports emanating from Chibok, which suggested 129 girls were abducted and with national armed forces spokesman Maj Gen Chris Olukolade claiming in the immediate aftermath that only eight of the students were still missing after a military rescue operation.

But the story is certainly resonating now, with Boko Haram’s attack seen as part of a much larger pattern of intimidation against the education of women. The militant group’s name can be loosely translated from the local Hausa language as “western education is sinful”, and as such the attack represents a strike at the very concept of female education, with the grotesque punishment of sexual slavery the price paid for seeking an education and a better future.

Just as Malala Yousafzai was targeted by the Taliban in Pakistan for advocating education for girls, Boko Haram’s actions are intended to have a chilling effect on girls everywhere in the region who seek to learn. And just as Malala became a symbol of defiance in the face of forces who would try to limit opportunities for women, the fate of these girls has also come to represent something larger than themselves. Above all, it emphasises not just the right of women everywhere to be educated, but also confirms that for extremism to be defeated, it is vitally important that girls and young women everywhere have access to education.

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