Influencers from across the globe are expressing outrage over the abduction in April of nearly 300 teenaged girls from a boarding school in Nigeria. Hillary Clinton calls it an act of terrorism. Angelina Jolie has called for the arrest and severe punishment of the perpetrators -- who appear to be members of Boko Haram, a group whose interpretation of Islamicism condemns the education of girls -- an interpretation it enforces through the abduction of girls into slavery.
I've been feeling outraged, myself. But when Michelle Obama said on May 10 that in the kidnapped girls, she and the President "see their own daughters and can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now," I felt that outrage personally -- as a parent.
I felt it as a parent who sometimes forgets to be grateful that here in this country, education is a right, regardless of gender. And I felt it as the parent of teenage boys who on occasion have been heard expressing their own outrage over what they perceive as the indignities of their own pursuit of education -- to wit, being required to be in school by 7:40 a.m., having to show all their work on math tests, and having to read The Catcher In The Rye when they'd rather be watching SportsCenter.
And as that parent of teenage boys, I wondered: What do my teens feel about what's happened in Nigeria? Or about the fact that in some parts of the world, attempting to pursue an education could cost a girl her freedom and her life? What do the their teenage friends think? What's the buzz in the high school halls?
"I don't really know," said the 17-year-old, who had to get back to his pre-calc.
"Why you asking me?" snarked the almost 15-year-old. He was in the middle of Minecraft.
I realized I needed a different perspective -- that of a teenager not related to me.
And I had just the teenager in mind. I had become acquainted with "Elizabeth" through my work as a hyper-local news reporter for the comfortably affluent Westchester County suburb where she lives and attends public high school -- a high school whose emphasis on high quality education is well-known in the region and obvious from its curriculum -- which includes Latin and which has an AP program in which nearly 80 percent of the students participate.
Last summer, Elizabeth met and befriended a teenage girl who had escaped to the United States from a developing nation in South Asia for the purpose of obtaining an education --which she had come to recognize would be impossible in her home country without putting her life and the lives of her loved ones at risk.
"My friend is all alone here, having left her family, culture and everything and everyone she knew behind just so that she could go to school, something we take for granted here, but which was denied to her as a female in her home country," Elizabeth told me when we met through her mother in January, "and despite all the obstacles, all my friend wants is an education, -- to help girls with similar stories, all over the world. My friend is one of the bravest people I have ever met."
Indeed, Elizabeth refers to her friend only as "Najida" -- Arabic for "bravery" and not the girls name, which Elizabeth won't reveal for fear of putting her friend and her friend's loved ones in danger. So sensitive is the situation - as exacerbated by the recent events in Nigeria -- that "Elizabeth"'s parents asked that I not even name Najida's home country and that I not refer to "Elizabeth" by her real name either.
Notwithstanding that sensitivity, Elizabeth (with moral support from her family) has been raising awareness as well as funds to help Najida gain asylum in the U.S. One of the ways in which she has done so is by holding screenings of the 2013 documentary film, Girl Rising, which tells the stories of nine girls striving to become educated despite having been born into "unforgiving" circumstances in Cambodia, Haiti, Nepal, Ethiopia, India, Peru, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. Those circumstances include early and forced marriage, domestic slavery, gender violence and discrimination and lack of access to healthcare. And after careful consideration by her family and her pastor, Elizabeth was willing to weigh in for this story on both the crisis in Nigeria and how Nigeria provides just one glimpse into what is essentially a worldwide education, economic and human rights crisis.
"Nearly 60 million kids around the world have no access to school -- no education, no chance to better themselves or to better the world -- and most of them are girls," Elizabeth began.
I asked her how such a staggering situation could happen.
Elizabeth: In some countries school isn't public or free. It's expensive, and families that can afford it at all usually send only their boys. Sometimes religious pressure intimidates. Even if it's coming from some group the government doesn't support. We're seeing this in Nigeria. To send a girl to school in these situations, the families have to make huge sacrifices and take unbelievable risks - risks that people like me and my friends would never even imagine except when something like this happens or when we meet a girl like Najida. Then all of a sudden, it's like - whoa. That could be me.
Me: Is that why the hashtag is "Bring Back OUR Girls"?
Elizabeth: Well, they are "our girls" -- it's not just girls in one county, it's worldwide, and its about human rights -- the right to improve yourself, your family and the world without risking violence, slavery or death.
Me: In the past few days, I've seen some backlash - people making the case that we should stop with the hashtags and stop urging the U.S. to get involved. Your thoughts?
Elizabeth: I don't see how anyone can separate themselves from something that is just so morally wrong, so unjustifiable. But here -- I can give you some major global issues that make it clear that what's happened in Nigeria is really everyone's problem:
First, research presented by world leaders like the United Nations Secretary General indicates that educating girls will have the effect of boosting the world's economy -- putting more people into the workplace and cutting healthcare costs because educated girls tend to be healthier and have healthier children and fewer children. That also helps to reduce overpopulation and world hunger. And evidence shows that educated women are less likely to be victims of violence overall -- even counting the attacks like the one in Nigeria.
Then there's the fact that Boko Haram claims their actions are being done in the name of Islam, which is not a fair statement of the religion for all of those who practice it. Misinformation engenders hate that isn't warranted. The reality is that top Islamic theologians have come out and condemned the kidnapping and disassociated it with Islam.
Me: I can feel that your heart is really in this, but what are the other kids at school saying?
Elizabeth: Well, we're talking about it, and that's what's important. And the high school is screening "Girl Rising" twice in the next few months. This is a lightbulb-over-the-head moment. What happened in Nigeria isn't an isolated incident. It's the tip of the iceberg, and we're going to talk about it and keep talking about it because people need to know.
Note: I'd like to thank Elizabeth's family for facilitating this interview and allowing me to publish it. Elizabeth's family is just beginning to become comfortable with the attention that Elizabeth's involvement in the cause is drawing to her. But like their daughter, they feel morally bound to raising awareness on the topic. In closing, and in reference to not only the Nigerian girls and their families but also to the perpetrators of the abduction, Elizabeth's mom generously offered this prayer: "God help them and us all through these very difficult times."
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