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A Generation Held Hostage?

LONDON – On April 14, 2014, the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from the government secondary school in Nigeria’s northern town of Chibok. Many escaped, but 219 remain in captivity, their whereabouts still unknown.

So deep is the despair and desolation felt by the girls’ parents that they are now considering whether to declare their daughters “presumed dead.” According to local custom, funerals are held after loved ones have gone missing for four months, so that a period of mourning can give families some closure. The girls have now been held captive for over five months.

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No one can overstate the families’ unspeakable anguish from not knowing if their daughters have been raped, beaten, or trafficked out of Nigeria – or even if they are still alive. The rest of the world may have moved on, but the girls’ parents wake each morning to a day of uncertainty and resignation. Hope is fast evaporating.

It is difficult to see how the girls could be returned safely. Launching a military rescue operation would be highly risky. It is believed that the girls have been split into separate groups, so that any attempt to rescue one group would imperil the others. Despite talk of the government negotiating a deal with the captors, this option, too, would be fraught with danger.

Even if all of the girls eventually do come home, nothing will ever be the same again for them or their families. For some, it is already too late. Seven parents, despite being relatively young, have died of heart attacks or strokes, to which the intolerable strains of their situation may have contributed.

But amid the gloom, there is, perhaps, a glimmer of hope. While we cannot know the future for the girls still in captivity, 15 of the 57 girls who escaped their kidnappers are now back at school, braving Boko Haram’s threats to return and abduct more students. Hundreds of thousands of other girls in northern Nigeria are now too afraid to go to school, but these girls refuse to be cowed. They are determined to make up for lost time.

This display of astonishing courage and determination to get an education should be an inspiration for us all in the fight against discrimination. To support and encourage more girls to attend school in the face of abduction threats, the Nigerian Safe Schools Initiative has been launched to fund fortifications, telecommunications, and security measures aimed at allaying children’s fears about going to what should be a safe haven.

Sadly, the world’s response to pleas for donations has been slow and miserly. This indifference mirrors similar reactions to other recent global appeals, such as for schooling for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The lack of concern seems particularly callous when one considers that the cost of educating a refugee child is no more than $8 a week.

There is simply not enough outrage – except from young people themselves. They are more assertive in standing up for their right to education than the adults who are supposed to uphold that right. It was particularly encouraging to see hundreds of global youth ambassadors from 100 countries descend on New York recently to demand the right to education and to support the Bring Back Our Girls campaign in Nigeria.

Bring Back Our Girls is the highest-profile campaign highlighting discrimination against girls. But it is only part of a growing global movement by young people for civil rights.

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The American civil-rights struggle that reached its height in the 1960s fought racial prejudice and discrimination at home and opposed colonialism abroad. But there is a war of liberation that remains to be won worldwide – against child labor, child marriage, child trafficking, and discrimination against girls. None of these evils will end until basic education is made compulsory for all – just as was done in the West more than a century ago.

The campaign for the 219 Nigerian girls – kidnapped simply because they wanted to go to school – is an iconic battle of this freedom struggle. That struggle will be won some day. No injustice can last forever. But for the missing girls and their loved ones, it is a struggle that cannot be won soon enough.