Plight of missing Nigerian schoolgirls highlights an underlying lack of regard for female education

HUMAN RIGHTS CORRESPONDENT

The world can not even agree how many girls were abducted from a school in north-east Nigeria last month, never mind where they are now. But, as things get ever more desperate for the hundreds of families who await news about their loved ones, experts warn that the underlying social tensions which led to the attack have still not been addressed.

Groups of women in the country protested last week, outraged that the girls had not been found. But few are talking about the wider issues leading to the attack: namely that there are more children – and mostly girls – not in school in some areas of Nigeria than in any other part of the world.

"Ten and a half million children are not in school in Nigeria out of 57 million globally," said David Archer, ActionAid's head of programme development. "There are more children out of school in Nigeria today than back in 1999. Out of that 10.5 million, about six million are girls. Of those that do enrol, under two-thirds complete primary enrolment."

More than 300 schoolgirls, aged between 15 and 18, were abducted from their school dormitories in Chibok in Borno state on 14 April, according to recent updates by police. Many were attending the school only to take their exams because their own schools had been shut as a result of attacks by Islamic extremists. It is thought more than 50 have escaped their abductors, but aside from sketchy reports that some have been forced into marriage or taken across borders, there is no trace of the others.

It is believed the terrorist organisation Boko Haram, which opposes education for girls, is responsible for the kidnappings.

Literacy and the socio-economic status of women and girls varies dramatically depending on where in Nigeria they live.

More than two-thirds of girls in the north aged 15 to 19 are unable to read, compared with less than 10 per cent in the south, according to ActionAid. In the north, only 3 per cent complete secondary school and more than half are married by 16.

International attempts to help locate the missing girls are being stepped up. The US said it had offered its assistance last week, and Foreign Secretary William Hague has offered Britain's support.

Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, said on Saturday that the international community must "up the tempo". She added: "As each day goes by, concern is mounting. This needs to be put higher up the priority list. Young women's lives are at stake, and the principle that you can safely be educated as a woman in northern Nigeria."

The former development minister Andrew Mitchell agreed. He called the abduction an "appalling attack on civilisation in Nigeria", adding that if the Nigerian government asked for assistance, then Britain should take the request seriously.

Girls' education is seen as either not economically valuable in some parts of Nigeria, or as too expensive, according to ActionAid's Mr Archer, despite national legislation which is supposed to ensure free universal education. "The government is massively underinvesting in education," he said. "It spends about 1.5 per cent of its GDP on education when globally, the recommendation is [states] spend about 6 per cent. There is scope to significantly expand spending and that's where transformation will happen."

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan referred to the abduction publicly for the first time last week when he referred to "our missing girls". He said: "The cruel abduction of some innocent girls, our future mothers and leaders, in a very horrific and despicable situation in Borno state is quite regrettable." He added: "We shall triumph over all this evil that wants to debase our humanity."

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