Radicals seek to diminish girls' power

A screengrab from a video released by Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram shows leader Abubakar Shekau confirming the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls. (AFP)

A screengrab from a video released by Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram shows leader Abubakar Shekau confirming the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls. (AFP)

What must the abducted girls in Nigeria be going through? The sheer horror of it is unimaginable. I watched and listened to the video posted by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau over the weekend, in which he said the girls would only be freed in exchange for Boko Haram militants who’ve been imprisoned.

The disdain with which he spoke of them revealed the scant regard he has for girls and it was very disturbing – and scary. He threw out the word “girls” as if their mere existence repulsed him.

It makes one shudder. Why would anyone be so angry or fearful at the prospect of educating girls?

No shortage of economic data will tell you that the continent’s growth and development will be driven by women. Former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano wrote recently: “Women and girls are Africa’s greatest untapped resource and it is they, not diamonds or oil or minerals, that will be the foundation for solid, sustainable and equitable progress.”

But, Chissano adds, this can only happen if certain key things are in place. “We Africans need to pay more attention to the situation of adolescent girls. More than a third of girls in Africa are married before reaching the age of 18 – often at the expense of their education, health and social aspirations.”

Hadiza Bala Usman, one of the organisers of the protests in Nigeria aimed at highlighting the plight of the missing girls, has been quoted as saying: “If the girls aren’t rescued, no parent will allow their female child to go to school.”

That’s devastating, as it would have achieved exactly what Boko Haram seeks; their name actually means “Western education is forbidden”. They believe girls should not be educated but married off. The terror and brutality of this organisation has gripped Nigeria for many years, with the government seemingly incapable of dealing with it.

It is striking that an organisation that owes its existence to limiting the freedom and rights of girls and women can take root and enjoy support in the 21st century. What is Boko Haram afraid of, when girls are educated? How would empowering a generation of girls to do as they wish threaten them?

It reminded me of Nelson Mandela’s words in Long Walk to Freedom, during a conversation with one of the National Party representatives he was holding secret discussions with while at Victor Verster prison: “You’ve always been afraid of us and it has made you an unjust and brutal people.”

Inexplicable and unjust discrimination is driven by fear and ignorance.

There is a power within these girls that Boko Haram wants to diminish. The seeming inertia of leaders in Nigeria and the African Union (AU) has been an even bigger blow. These are the custodians of the new vision and path Africa is trying to fashion for itself, but it took the Nigerian government weeks before it offered a concrete response to this crisis.

The chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has issued a brief statement. It would have been reassuring had she taken on a more prominent role and stamped her authority on so gross an abuse of human rights. Her statement does not inspire or give clues to what sort of action the AU is taking to make sure the girls are found and freed.

Other than calling for African countries to support Nigeria, she only managed to offer this lacklustre gem: “We have to campaign against the abduction of schoolgirls, because girls need education; girls need to be at school – it is their right.”

True. But what will you do, madam chair?

Beyond the rhetoric and platitudes, there seems to be no sense of urgency or strategy, or any concerted effort to do something. It is the people of Nigeria who have refused to allow this to fade from our minds and headlines. Their pain and anguish has translated into massive protests and the social media campaign using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, allowing this issue to catch fire across the globe.

It has propelled nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom to get involved and send assistance on the ground to scour and search for these girls. We hope these international efforts will bear fruit and bring the girls back home to safety.



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