There’s a kind of backwardness so profound it is breathtaking.
It is a frame of mind that does not merely refuse to accept that knowledge accumulates and cultures adapt and grow as we add to what we know collectively, but it seeks to reverse all the advancement. And if it can’t do so by reason and persuasion, then it will do so by force. Thus it is that young girls and women in some parts of the world must do battle with the forces of backwardness simply to gain a foothold in the future through education.
Their battle belongs to all of us, too.
Not quite two years ago, armed men boarded a school bus in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. They were hunting — for a teenage girl who had made a habit of promoting education for girls. When they found her, they shot her in the head. Malala Yousafzai survived. It has turned out that her encounter with violent traditionalism has succeeded only in elevating her cause and her platform.
To those of us who consider it a matter of course that our daughters, sisters and nieces will go to primary school, proceed to high school and to college and find their place in the wide world, the idea that a penalty of death can attach to such an ordinary progression is mind-boggling.
Islamic extremists have been waging a campaign of terror for many years to prevent girls from getting a modern “Western” education. School burnings and vicious physical attacks on schoolgirls and the parents who permit them such liberties became all-too-familiar instruments of terror under the Taliban in Afghanistan.
If the preening of Pakistani extremists over the attack on Malala indicated what the costs would be to take on the retrogrades, so does a daring abduction in northern Nigeria.
On April 14, in an escalation of terror, the Boko Haram, a militia of Muslim extremists that has been staging bombing attacks with seeming impunity from its base in northern Nigeria, raided a boarding school at night, forced more than 270 high school girls into trucks and vans and took them away. In a region of the country where conservative Islam holds sway, Boko Haram raids on school campuses have occurred enough times, a few girls taken at a time, that female students live with the risks of abduction, rape and sex trafficking.
The kidnapping of a few girls at a time could be and has been overlooked in the past. Shock at the lawlessness fades; the outrage quickly dissipates that bands of illiterate men can upend at will the future for so many children. Relatives of the missing girls are left to deal as they may with their grief and the indifference of civic and religious leaders.
The kidnapping in April is different only in its brazenness. Government and school officials have said that about 53 of the 276 kidnapped girls managed to escape their captors. The whereabouts of the rest are not known, though the leader of the militia has taken credit for the raid and has vowed to “sell the girls in the market.” Like so many disposable goods.
This is the shame of the federal government of Nigeria, that even as it presents the country as a vision of progress, it cannot — or will not— protect its children, girls especially, from the blight of backward-looking thugs who wield very modern weapons.
This failure of Nigerian authorities — of the military as well as the state governments in the northern states under Boko Haram siege — is also the tragedy of a country that is struggling to catch up with the rest of the world in raising standards of living and alleviating the grinding poverty facing most of its teeming population.
Education remains the most reliable escape route out of poverty. Countries the world over are figuring out strategies to expand basic education as foundational steps to improve health, to develop their own native talent, to profit from their natural resources, to be a creative presence in a global environment.
All that takes education, the collective knowledge the world has amassed over centuries. A U.N. statistical report, “The World’s Women 2010,” notes that women comprise two-thirds of the world’s 774 million adult illiterates, and that wide gaps in school enrollment and completion persist in most parts of Africa between boys and girls. When parents show the gumption to set aside medieval religious and cultural traditions and to send their girls to school, the least their government can do is to back them up with secure premises.
It has been my privilege to share my thoughts with you on the commentary and editorial pages for nearly 25 years. I have enjoyed hearing from you when you have agreed with me and when you have given me a piece of your mind. But all good runs come to an end, and so has my time with our beloved Beacon Journal.
So long; and God keep us, everyone.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer.