On April 14th 2014, a ruthless militia kidnapped over 200 of Nigeria’s young girls from their school in Chibok in the dead of night. A year on, the girls have yet to be released by Boko Haram, nor rescued by our security forces, leaving their families waiting and praying for answers.
After the attack, I joined the international community in a global call to action to Bring Back Our Girls. Joining hands with Mo Ibrahim, Desmond Tutu, Bill and Melinda Gates, and others, I urged all local, national and regional governments, to dedicate their resources to #BringBackOurGirls. Yet, since that night in Chibok, Boko Haram has committed further atrocities including using children as suicide bombers, kidnapping scores of peoples from villages across northeast Nigeria, and murdering many, many more of my fellow citizens.
As a mother, I cannot imagine the pain that the families of the Chibok girls experience every day that their child remains in the hands of Boko Haram. Marking birthdays and religious holidays without their child, without knowing where their child is, and without knowing if their child will ever come home, is an unimaginable pain. Every day of their lives will be forever seared with this pain until their child is safely in their arms. Another year of pain cannot be endured — not for the missing Chibok girls, not for their families, and not for Nigeria.
As we observe a year since the events in Chibok, with prayers and vigils across Nigeria this week, I call upon our government and its regional allies to reinvigorate efforts to Bring Back Our Girls. I urge us all to remain vigilant in the fight against Boko Haram and steadfast in the protection of the rights of Nigerian children to an education.
Only a few weeks ago, Nigeria conducted free, fair, and peaceful elections. We demonstrated that our civic rights are undeniable and that we will rise peacefully to protect these rights. Education is an inalienable right for Nigerian children but the Education Under Attack 2014 report found that as a result of Boko Haram’s attacks, many parents have stopped sending their children to school, with at least 5000 children in Borno State unable to attend as a result of the destruction of their schools. However, education is the silver bullet that can destroy terror, dispel extremism and develop strong communities. Boko Haram is afraid of the power of education, and they show their fear by inflicting schools with their terror. We must protect the rights of our children to receive a safe education, and I join Gordon Brown and the Safe Schools Initiative in their efforts to make the safety of the world’s children at school, a priority for policy makers.
Education is vitally important for all children, but especially so for girls. As an institutional signatory to the Girl Declaration, the Wellbeing Foundation Africa (WBFA) believes that the empowerment of adolescent girls through education could be transformative. In Nigeria, 1 in 5 girls are forced into early marriages that take them out of education and into the adult responsibilities of motherhood. Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die during childbirth than women in their 20s, and children of child brides are 60 percent more likely to die before their first birthday than children of mothers who are over 19. Education is a key protective factor against child marriage as with secondary schooling, girls up to six times less likely to marry as children when compared to girls who have little or no education. Protecting the rights of girls to an education protects their health as they grow into women, and the health of their children.
Adolescent girls and women have been most affected by the conflict and fragility caused by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria. In many conflict settings, there is a rapid deterioration of health services, leaving pregnant women vulnerable to increased risks of maternal mortality. As we have witnessed in our frontline advocacy in donating Safe Delivery Kits (‘Mama Kits’) at Nigeria’s internally displaced camps at Damare and St Joseph’s Catholic Mission in Adamawa State, pregnant women are at great risk as a result of Boko Haram’s violence. Unless stability is urgently restored to the northeast, we will face a potential maternal health crisis in Nigeria.
As a nation, Nigerians demonstrated our ability to defend ourselves against the challenging threat of Ebola within our borders, by a dramatic increase of individual and collective vigilance, accountability and protective mechanisms in tackling and overcoming the biological hazard of the Ebola virus to our people. We need to re-birth these same instincts, to engender the safety and security of all our citizens against the threat of Boko Haram.
This week, my thoughts and prayers are with the Chibok girls, their families, and all those affected by extremist violence around the world. The attack in Garissa University that saw the death of 147 promising students emphasises the universal pain that we are suffering at the hands of fearful extremists attacking education. As a global community, we must band together to work towards the swift return of our missing Chibok girls and a swift end to extremist violence as a whole in Nigeria, and across the world.
Toyin Ojora-Saraki is the Founder-President, The Wellbeing Foundation Africa