Bringbackourgirls: Where do we go from here?

Friday, 30 May 2014 16:27 GMT

Investing in adolescent girls, including educating them, has the power to lift girls out of poverty and positively impact families, communities and societies. © WRC/Jennifer Schulte

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

For over a month now, there has been an international outcry about the plight of the more than 200 school girls abducted by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram from their secondary school in Chibok, a remote town in northeast Nigeria. These are girls who are treasured by their families and communities; girls with aspirations to become teachers, doctors and lawyers.

Through social media activism, public rallies and demonstrations, the bringbackourgirls campaign has garnered huge international support and attention as people around the world demand the girls’ return. The injustice merits the outcry and advocacy. Yet this abduction is not the first time Boko Haram has attacked young girls for attending school: since 2009, it has abducted unknown number of girls, burned schools, killed teachers and threatened countless families who support their daughters’ education.

As the days and weeks pass, there are few sign of the girls being rescued.

The girls from Chibok represent millions of girls around the world today who are denied safe access to schools, denied the right to choose when and whom to marry, denied access to reproductive health services and information, and face sexual exploitation and abuse.

Yet girls have dreams, hopes and ambitions that extend far beyond what their societies expect of them.

Girls who are affected by crisis and displacement face even greater challenges in realizing their right to an education. This includes the 15.7 million girls of primary school age whose education is disrupted due to displacement and the 10.8 million adolescent girls who are already out of school in conflict-affected countries—girls who, because they are female and young, are at heightened risk of sexual violence, abuse and exploitation, early pregnancy, forced marriage and forced labor.

The Women's Refugee Commission works to bring attention to the needs and capacities of girls in humanitarian settings, advocating on their behalf to remove barriers to their education, providing social support and skills to build their confidence, and empowering them to become agents of their own protection. Our Displaced Adolescent Girls Initiative is testing program approaches in refugee settings that have been found to show positive effects for girls in delaying marriage and childbirth, increasing literacy and attaining higher levels in education.

Growing evidence shows that investing in adolescent girls has the power to lift girls out of poverty and positively impact families, communities and societies. The international community must build upon the evidence: create safe spaces for girls to share their learning and experiences; invest in increasing access to secondary and tertiary education for girls and enabling out-of-school girls to return to school; work towards making schools safer places for girls; train more female mentors and teachers to serve as positive role models for girls; and encourage communities to put greater value on girls’ education.

While social media campaigns may bring some attention and redresses, it is important to invest in long-term violence-prevention strategies because they underpin all other efforts. Addressing gender and social norms that perpetuate violence is equally important–we must ensure that these solutions are in alignment with broader efforts to change societal attitudes that condone all forms form of gender-based violence, including early and forced marriage.

The tweets and hashtags can go viral, but we must also act to ensure that these campaigns will lead to real change in the lives of the girls.