Wednesday, July 23, marks a tragic milestone. It is the 100th day in captivity for over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls. For an adolescent with plans, dreams and ambitions, 100 days must seem longer than an eternity.
And still, even now, there is mystery over what has happened to the lost girls of Chibok. Stories are whispered of mass rapes, shotgun marriages, violent beatings, forced starvation -- and even the murders of girls who won't comply and do the terrorists' biddings.
But they are uncorroborated stories because no one really knows the details after the girls were tricked by Boko Haram terrorists wearing Nigerian army uniforms and promised they were being taken to a safe place. It is inconceivable that even they were driven away from their school and their families into the vast forest areas of the Borno state, that 200 girls can just disappear forever. And no news is not good news. What is clear is that their childhood has been taken from them, never to return. Brutalized by the mass abduction, nothing will ever be the same again.
But the world will not forget these girls. Not for one day. Not for 100 days. On Wednesday, vigils were staged in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and the United States. Candlelight demonstrations were held in African countries from Togo and Tunisia to Tanzania, organized by the Global March Against Child Labour. Girls took to the streets in Pakistan, led by Baela Jamil of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, the girls' rights group campaigning for what the Chibok girls have lost -- their right to an education.
In India, vigils were led by Kailash Sakharti and the Bachpan Bachao Andolan group, which rescue children from trafficking and slave labor every day and have common cause with these Nigerian girls who have been taken from their homes.
With 145 sister organizations around the world, Girls Not Brides has called on its groups in 45 countries to protest, reminding them that many of the Chibok girls could meet the same fate as their members, married off against their will.
Walk Free, the anti-slavery organization led by Australian billionaire Andrew Forrest, who have exposed the extent of child slavery in the modern world, is throwing its weight behind the campaign. And across the globe, A World at School's 500 Global Youth Ambassadors, led by the U.N. youth envoy, will be marking the events, handing in petitions to embassies and consulates in the world's biggest capitals.
A new online petition by A World at School calls for the safe return of the girls and all messages of support will be passed to Chibok community leaders and families of the girls. The petition supporting the president of Nigeria in all of his military and diplomatic efforts to bring back the girls will also be sent to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Coinciding with the July 23 vigil is the deployment, by the Nigerian government to the Borno area, of helicopters and aircraft with enhanced surveillance capacity and night vision equipment, capable of identifying the captured girls.
Around the globe there is an understanding that Nigeria is simply the latest country (after America with 9/11 in 2001 and Britain with its 7/7 in 2005) to be hit by terrorist outrages, and that in its hour of need, Nigeria deserves the support of the world community against a terrorist sect that thinks nothing of killing and raping schoolgirls and seeks to deny them the basic right to education.
The petition is not just for the rescue of the girls but for the rebuilding of their Chibok school and the creation of safe schools throughout Nigeria, particularly in those areas where girls are not going to school for fear of terrorism.
The Safe Schools Initiative, a fund set up to pilot 500 safe schools in northern Nigeria and led by Nduka Obaigbena, brings the Nigerian government and Nigerian business leaders together with the international community to ensure that all children are secure when learning. The fund total currently stands at $23 million.
Ultimately, young people are demonstrating because they see the connection between the abductions in Nigeria, the rapes and murders of young girls in India, the so-called "honor killings" of Pakistani girls who marry against family wishes, the genital mutilation of girls in preparation for child marriages across Africa and the ever-present reality that 7 million school-aged girls are working full time, often in slave labor conditions, many of them trafficked out of their home country when they should be at school.
There is a common denominator: Seventy years on, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has failed to take girls' rights seriously. So, girls are taking action to make themselves heard. Incensed by the realization that it will take 100 years for them to have the same right to basic education as boys, girls will lead their liberation struggle. And the new divide across the world will no longer be between the educated and the uneducated but instead between the educated and those demanding to be educated.
Slowly but surely, local embryonic civil rights movements are linking up with global leaders: Girls Not Brides, Walk Free and A World at School are now umbrella organizations, pioneering the creation of hundreds of youth ambassadors and part of the emergency coalition to achieve zero child labor, zero child marriage, zero education exclusion and zero girls' discrimination at school. This has set a timetable for ending girls' exclusion from education and ending exploitation.
The Emergency Coalition for Global Education Action's work program will be launched in September during U.N. General Assembly week.
For years, we have assumed a clear if often rocky pathway towards human rights and universal education, but today in Iraq, legislators are considering reducing the age for child marriage to eight. Pakistan's Council of Islamic Ideology is calling for all age limits to be abolished. India has once again passed up another chance to outlaw child labor, and for the past three years, progress to get the 58 million out-of-school primary-aged children into school has stalled.
We are in reverse, and we now have to support a new world of youth activism. It explains why I, a former prime minister, am supporting a global civil rights struggle under the leadership of young people. I cannot live any longer with the idea that every day a vulnerable girl is forced into a child marriage against her will, or a child who should be at school is forced down a mine or into domestic service or being trafficked for money. I cannot feel comfortable as long as any child is condemned to poverty through lack of basic opportunities we in the West took for granted a century ago.
Girls should be able to study in a classroom, free of fear and without the need to demonstrate on the streets.