It has taken some time for the international community to offer a worthy reaction to the abduction of the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the hardline group Boko Haram. Their fate is unknown, but there have been claims that they have been sold – into what fate, one can only imagine. Last weekend, Michelle Obama spoke instead of her husband about what seems to be an attempt to deter girls in particular from accessing education in that country. The inspirational Malala Yousafzai, whom I quoted in my recent ASCL Annual Conference speech on the subject of the importance of underpinning values in education, has also added her voice on this issue. The sight recently of some of the girls on television clearly having been coerced, in captivity, to speak and dress in a way that is unlikely to have been their choice, was profoundly chilling.
For some years now, I have supported an educational charity working in Ghana, like Nigeria, in West Africa, and, like Nigeria, with a generally Muslim north and a Christian south. We have long been aware that while it is relatively easy to get girls into the early stages of education in Ghana, attendance by girls at secondary school drops off markedly as they move into their teenage years. The need for domestic work, early marriage and pregnancy take their toll even for teenage girls, and where money is tight, hard-pressed families often prioritise the education of boys.
So alongside the anguish felt by the parents of the missing Nigerian girls, the message that this act of brutality sends out to communities in West Africa and beyond is a profoundly dangerous one. Girls’ education is already often fragile and prematurely ended both in parts of Africa and elsewhere in the world – now to many it may seem that sending your daughters to schools is dangerous as well. Fewer girls will end up completing their schooling as a result.
And why should that matter? First, because it is a matter of justice for the girls and women concerned. Second, because educating girls is one of the most effective ways to speed up development – educated women at the heart of families and communities change everything, especially the community’s health and the early education of the following generation. Those who have a vested interest in keeping their communities in ignorance and blind obedience have chosen the right target. It is also a timely reminder to us here in Britain that, despite the controversy, which so often surrounds education, and the challenges we face, our young people are profoundly fortunate to have the educational opportunities they have, and, in the vast majority of cases, to be able to go to school without feeling threatened.
The response must be strong and principled. We must resist the temptation to make the abduction into a struggle between men and women, or between Christian and Muslim. Education, justice, freedom and dignity are universal values espoused by all civilised people and written into the hearts of men and women. Where these values are compromised for some, however far away, we are all diminished.
Good can come out of bad. And if there is something good to come out of this appalling event, however it turns out, it could perhaps be a reminder around the world of the need to reaffirm the fundamental values that are the bedrock of our increasingly global community.