Update from Nigeria: Launching the Safe Schools Initiative

05/27/2014 10:45 am 10:45:29 | Updated Dec 03, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Six weeks on since 280 Nigerian girls were abducted from their Chibok school in the Borno state, there is, at last, a glimmer of hope.

The news from the head of the Nigerian air force that the girls have been located is the first ray of optimism for anxious families, many of whom were fearing they would never see their children alive again.

Until now, the only news that parents had was a photograph taken weeks ago within a few hours of girls' abduction.

Pleas for assurance of their safety that have come from around the world, including the White House, had been ignored by Boko Haram, the terrorist group that has continued to hold the girls as prisoners.

Now as we prepare to celebrate Children's Day in Nigeria, in America -- and in many countries around the world -- our thoughts are firmly focused on practical measures that we can ensure will result in the safe release of the girls and the end of the nightmare for their families.

But on Children's Day, the girls will still be held in captivity -- and their horror continues unabated. We still do not know whether they are being trafficked into slavery or whether they have been molested, as has happened to past hostages. And while the Nigerian government has sent more troops to the Borno state to back up the 15,000 already on the search and satellite and aircraft surveillance has been stepped up, it will take a delicate operation to secure every child's safe homecoming.

Ten days ago, I met with President Goodluck Jonathan in Paris and we agreed that the families of the kidnapped girls had a right to know now that, if and when the girls are released, they will be able to have a safe school where they can study.

And millions of Nigerian boys and girls who go to school in fear of another Boko Haram attack now also desperately need the reassurance that everything is being done to make their schools safe.

So this week, a Safe Schools Initiative has been launched by the Nigerian Government and international aid agencies with the aim of making schools more secure for Nigerian children and to help end a situation where 10.5 million Nigerian girls and boys do not go to school.

The aim of the plan is ensure that young people are not only safe in going to school, but that we also provide an environment ripe for learning, growth and development free of fear.

Boko Haram is a small faction whose resources are too small to enter every school in the north of Nigeria. But to diminish the fears prevalent in the area, it is important to ensure that all communities feel enough is being done to make sure schools are safe.

In the last few weeks, international experts have drawn up proposals for physical protection of schools, community liaison teams, better early warning systems in the event of attacks and other strategies to protect education and learning spaces. Security measures for schools are long overdue and can draw on the experience we have gained from other conflict zones from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Somalia and Nepal. Our plan is to ensure that as in these countries, schools are protected spaces.

UN agencies in Nigeria and UNICEF experts who have implemented such programs in other countries will be working with security firms who have volunteered to develop operational strategies to start to secure the schools in the north that are most vulnerable.

I am inspired by the courage of Nigerian girls and boys. Despite intimidation and threats to their education, there are many young people prepared to stand up for the human right to education. In the past weeks, twelve Nigerian young people, recognized as World at School Global Youth Ambassadors, made a statement saying that they will not be cowed by terrorist threats, and declaring that they will continue their work for the right of every child to go to school safely.

Faith communities have also taken a stand. Pope Francis has asked for the release of the girls and Archbishop Desmond Tutu has agreed to observe the June 16th Day of the African Child, to be held in support of the Nigerian schoolgirls. Moreover, members of the Global Faiths Coalition for Education -- including Muslim Aid, the Islamic Society of North America and others -- have all united to condemn this attack on girls' education.

Teachers are also standing firm in support of education -- despite the threats that they face from Boko Haram. One hundred and seventy one teachers have been massacred in separate incidents in the Borno state alone over the last four years. Only two months ago, seven teachers were assassinated and their family members, including wives and children, abducted.

Business leaders are also working to support education. The Safe Schools Initiative itself is an indication of international business support for girls' education as it is the business community that has provided the initial support.

The international community has a vital role to play in making education a reality for all Nigerian children.

President Goodluck Jonathan's decision to invite international support is to his credit. He is facing a terrorism threat that crosses borders into Chad, Niger and Cameroon, and one that many countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have had to confront at different times over the years. Support from the international community will strengthen the Nigerian leadership as they try to grapple with what is not just a local but a global problem.