LONDON – Demonstrations around the world were held this week to mark the 100th day of captivity for more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. Since their abduction in April, global outrage has not waned; on the contrary, it has spurred a worldwide movement to uphold all girls’ basic rights.
Campaigners from groups fighting child marriage, child trafficking, and child labor, and from groups demanding children’s right to attend school, free of intimidation, have united in the past few days to show the strength of global opinion in favor of universal education and a world free of child slavery.
But what is of greater long-term significance is that girls themselves are demanding that their rights be taken seriously. Girls have mobilized in Bangladesh, where the movement to establish child-marriage-free zones is growing; in India, where the Global March Against Child Labor started; and in Africa, where child protection clubs are being formed in almost every country.
The first demand is that the Nigerian girls be returned safely to their homes and that schools in Nigeria are made safer and more secure from threats by Boko Haram (whose name means “Western education is a sin”). France, the United Kingdom, the United States, China, and Israel have stepped up military and technical support, including the recent provision of helicopters and night-vision equipment for jungle warfare to fight the group, whose campaign of terror has cost 5,000 deaths in the past five years.
In Nigeria alone, six million girls do not attend school; around the world, ten million girls each year become child brides, and seven million school-age girls are full-time workers.
We can no longer assume steady, if rocky, progress toward vindication of girls’ rights. Iraqi legislators are considering reducing the age for child marriage to nine. Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology is calling for all age limits on marriage to be abolished. And India has passed up another chance to outlaw child labor.
The rising tide of adolescent rage at child marriage and child labor has yet to trend on Twitter and Facebook. And Bangladesh’s child-marriage-free zone in the Nilphamari region, Indonesia’s child-empowerment groups in the districts of Dompu and Grobogan, Uganda’s child-rights clubs, and India’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which combats child slavery, may not be household names. But the yawning gap between what girls are demanding and the opportunities on offer to them is fueling a liberation struggle led by girls themselves.
Last month, on the “Day of the African Child,” thousands of young people marched on the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and took over 20 African and Asian parliaments to demand universal education for girls. On July 23, girls took to the streets in Pakistan, led by Baela Raza Jamil of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, which is campaigning for what the Nigerian schoolgirls have lost: the right to an education.
In India, vigils making common cause with the Chibok girls were led by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which every day rescues children from trafficking and slave labor. Girls Not Brides mobilized in 45 countries, reminding its 145 sister organizations around the world that many of the Chibok girls will meet the same fate as the girls they seek to protect.
Increasingly, young people around the world see the connection between the abductions in Nigeria, the rape and murder of young girls in India, so-called “honor killings” of Pakistani girls who marry against their families’ wishes, genital mutilation of girls across Africa, and child-trafficking for full-time work, often in slave-labor conditions.
Seven decades after the adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, girls’ rights are still not taken seriously; so girls are taking action to make themselves heard. And, slowly but surely, local embryonic civil-rights movements are linking up with global leaders – Girls Not Brides, Walk Free, and A World at School – as part of an emergency coalition to eliminate child labor, child marriage, and educational discrimination against girls. The timetable for doing so will be set out at the UN General Assembly in September in the presence of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Girls should be able to study in a classroom, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets. This is a basic right; ensuring that it is respected cannot come soon enough.