The abduction of more than 200 girls from a school dormitory in Nigeria has understandably shaken the world's consciousness. This reprehensible attack by Muslim extremists offends our collective sensibilities at so many levels, not only putting the lives of these innocent victims in jeopardy but denying them the best hope for the future - their education.
Sadly, it is perhaps only the scale of the abductions that has merited such widespread attention. But the reality is that young girls in many parts of the world have their futures cut short by keeping them from their schooling, and for a variety of reasons.
Abductions are the most horrific. Young girls taken forcibly from their families often are compelled to enter the seedy and dangerous world of sex trafficking, a business that some estimate to be upwards of $20 billion annually. Approximately 10 million children each year are subjected to various forms of sexual exploitation in the commercial sex industry. In some parts of the world, as many as one in three sex workers are between 12 and 17 years old.
There is no evidence that the Boko Haram abductions were connected to sex trafficking. By all accounts, these girls were removed from their school for religious reasons, by extremists who object to the education of girls. The episode is reminiscent of Malala Yousafzai, the now 16-year-old courageous Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban to keep her from her studies. Many religious extremists, it would seem, are more threatened by an educated populace than armed enemies.
For a great many young girls, their education is curtailed by for what Americans would find an unlikely source: their parents. In many developing countries, young girls are removed from school not only because their parents perceive that they cannot afford it (even "public" school comes with modest fees) but also to put them to work, either around the house or for modest wages. Just as common, fathers literally sell their young daughters in marriage, often to men many times the bride's age. UNICEF estimates that some 400 million women between the ages of 20 and 49 were married before their 18th birthday. An estimated one in three girls in developing countries is married before adulthood, and one in nine before they are 15. In some countries - Niger, Chad and Bangladesh, for example - the percentage of adolescent brides is upwards of 75 percent. Many of these marriages are forced or arranged, with some brides marrying even before their teens.
ChildFund is working across all of these fronts on helping girls continue their education. We are working to educate parents about the long-range value of keeping their daughters in school, and we often provide stipends to families so they can do just that.
We also are part of a global coalition called "Free from Violence," whose goal is to raise awareness about violence against children, and young girls in particular. Our objective is to advocate to governments that the prevention of violence and exploitation of children be included as one of the development priorities in the next set of Millennium Development Goals to be launched next year.
We also are working on the front lines to combat child trafficking. In the western African nation of The Gambia, for example, we established the PROTECT Project (PROTECT is an acronym for Prevention and Response to Child Trafficking, and the program is made possible by the U.S. Department of State's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons). In addition to providing guidance and technical advice to various government agencies, we support 10 community protection committees, which include representatives from schools, parents and health centers as well as religious leaders, village heads, even children themselves. The committees are designed to educate community members from the ground up on child protection issues and the dangers inherent in child trafficking.
Education about the issue is happening from the top down and the bottom up. In one rural town called Sibanor, the children themselves - ages 10 to 15 - created the community child protection committee, and, after receiving training by PROTECT Project, they have been educating the rest of the village by staging community plays and holding other awareness-raising events. Broader training, including to hundreds of law enforcement officials and social workers, also is taking place.
I recently joined other NGO leaders in signing a letter to Secretary of State Kerry, encouraging the United States to step up efforts to find and return the Nigerian school girls (action which the U.S. government has since undertaken). Much as I have tried to express here, that letter sought to put this more celebrated abduction into a broader context. Attacks of this kind on school children - as well as on their teachers and other education officials - are unconscionable, and our efforts should not stop with the safe return of these girls. We must raise our commitment toward ensuring that young people around the world have safe and unfettered access to enter the doors of education. Their future, and in many ways ours as well, depends on it.