THE BLOG
05/12/2014 09:13 pm ET Updated Jul 12, 2014

Bring Back All Our Girls

In the weeks since the kidnapping of over 200 girls in northern Nigeria, people from across the world have condemned the terrible attack. The international community is rightly offering assistance and we all hope the girls can be brought safely back home and their kidnappers brought to justice.

But as the search for the missing girls intensifies, we should also ask: What kind of lives will they return to? And what future waits for the millions of adolescent girls who live in northern Nigeria today? The truth is that before they were taken at gunpoint, the Chibok girls led a life that was exceptional for a girl in northern Nigeria: They were in school.

There are over 14 million adolescent girls in Nigeria today, and only one in 10 finish secondary school. In the north of the country, where Boko Haram has carried out most of its terror attacks, fewer than one in 20 girls complete school. Most are even given a "graduation" ceremony after completing the early years of secondary school and are not expected to go on to finish their education.

More than half of all girls in northern Nigeria are married by the age of 16. Parents in the region keep their daughters at home rather than send them to school, partly because -- understandably -- they fear for their safety. The same fears lead parents to give their daughters to be married while they are still children, in the hope that a husband will protect them.

But far from keeping those girls safe, marriage restricts their future and even endangers them. Girls are expected to give birth within a year of their wedding, often so young that their bodies are not ready to bear children. This is not only true in Nigeria: The leading cause of death for girls age 15 to 19 across the developing world is pregnancy and childbirth.

Every day girls around the world drop out of school, are married young, are subject to assault. Their futures are lost. But this isn't just a personal tragedy. It's a generational crisis. If we cannot unleash the talent and potential of the 250 million adolescent girls living in poverty today, how will we end poverty tomorrow?

All the evidence shows that when a girl is able to finish her education, stay healthy, delay marriage and stay safe, she not only escapes poverty but her children in turn are more likely to be educated and healthy, and less likely to be poor. If this can happen for enough girls, they not only break the intergenerational cycle of poverty for families, but also for communities and nations. Isn't northern Nigeria missing out on the brilliance of their girls, potential scientists, engineers, artists and musicians who do not fulfill their potential because of barriers that they cannot overcome?

This is tragic, both for the opportunity lost and for the millions of girls who cannot exercise the most simple and basic of rights: to education, to the choice of when and who they marry, and to leave their homes without fear. The good news is the international community is beginning to recognize this. As Nigeria's finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has said: "We cannot really achieve any advancement for the world if we do not include girls."

It is time for the international community to take action -- not only in responding to the Chibok abductions, but also to prevent more tragedies. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have done an amazing job of marshaling global resources for development -- but by not prioritizing girls they missed a generational opportunity. As the MDGs are replaced in 2015, what follows them must put girls first in order to achieve the kind of transformational economic development that the world will need to end poverty by 2030.

By prioritizing education, health care, safety, citizenship and economic opportunity for girls living in poverty around the world, partners from government, business and non-governmental organizations can create a safer environment for girls to claim their rights and create a more sustainable economic flight path for the world.

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