You Said It

Don’t Mess With Our Girls

A young Nigerian activist and mother’s thoughts on the recent kidnappings.

Photo of courtesy of Planned Parenthood Global. Collage by Minna.

Photo of Planned Parenthood volunteers in Nigeria by Mark Tuschman courtesy of Planned Parenthood Global. Collage by Minna.

It has been over a month since a group of terrorists in northern Nigeria broke into a boarding school’s dormitories in the middle of the night and kidnapped nearly 300 girls ranging in age from 12 to 15 years old. Since the kidnapping, the situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better. On May 5, 11 more girls were reported missing. And we have heard reports that some of the girls will be sold into marriage, or have been already.

The abductors are part of a militant Islamist group called Boko Haram. Boko Haram is a regional terrorist group with established links to Al-Qaeda in the North Africa. The name Boko Haram, roughly translated from the Hausa language commonly spoken in Nigeria, means “Western education is forbidden in Islam.” The group believes that girls should be confined to marriages, and that they should not be allowed to go to school. Boko Haram’s beliefs are unpopular amongst Nigerians, and especially Nigerian Muslims, many of whom believe the extremist group misrepresents their faith.

As a mother of two beautiful children myself, my heart is with with the parents of the abducted girls. I am a 29-year-old Muslim, patriotic Nigerian, and passionate advocate for women and girls. I obtained the better part of my elementary and higher education in schools spread across northern Nigeria. Throughout that time, I loved my peaceful, friendly, and accepting neighbors, schoolmates, and friends, and I find it hard to reconcile the warm community I grew up in with one in which women and girls are targets of kidnapping and other crimes.

What frustrates me most about this horrific story is that these girls had already overcome so many of the obstacles that the Nigerian government and international aid organizations (like Planned Parenthood Global, where I work as a program officer), work to break down every day. It’s not easy for a girl to grow up in Nigeria. In the north, it’s hard to say whether HIV or teen pregnancy is a larger threat to young women.

Nigeria has the second-highest number of new HIV infections reported each year, and women and girls are particularly affected. As of 2009, HIV was twice as prevalent among young women as among young men. Northern Nigeria also has some of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, according to the United Nations: In the northeastern part of the country, where Boko Haram is most active, nearly half of all girls are married by age 15, and 78 percent are married by 18. Many of them are forced or pressured into these arrangements against their will. Only 2 percent of married teenage girls are in school (versus 69 percent of unmarried girls their age).

When girls stay in school, everyone benefits. In recent decades, as more and more girls have been attending school in Nigeria, the number of women dying from unsafe abortions has dropped, as has the number of children who die before they reach the age of five. During that same period, the number of women pursuing careers and becoming government leaders has increased. (These improvements have mostly been in the southern part of the country, while the north lags behind.)

But Boko Haram does not represent the people of northern Nigeria. If there’s one thing we Nigerians value, it’s education. In some parts of the country, where school fees might prevent young people from continuing their education, elementary school is free.

For us, the missing girls are more than a statistic. Every time I read a news story or hear a TV program giving updates on the girls, I picture the young women I work with through Planned Parenthood—like Maryam,* whose mother died of AIDS when Maryam was only six years old. When she was 13, old enough to understand a bit about the disease that had killed her mother, became a youth outreach volunteer so she could help other young women like herself stay healthy, stay in school, and pursue their dreams.

Maryam volunteered all through high school, and a few years ago she decided that she wanted to become a nurse. Now that she’s in nursing school, she trains teams of teenagers to do the same kind of work, educating other young people about pregnancy, HIV, and STIs. Her activism is a testament to the power young women have to directly impact their surroundings, wherever they live.

Around the world, people are using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls to put pressure on governments and the media to focus on the swift and safe return of our missing schoolgirls. But it’s not only girls in Nigeria who face challenges. I encourage you to look for situations where people in your own communities could use a helping hand or a signal boost, and to get involved when possible. Let’s not get so swept up in what is happening across the world that we lose sight of what is happening under our noses. By thinking globally and acting locally, we send a clear message: not only to bring back our girls, but to never interfere with any young person’s education, health, or future. ♦

* Maryam’s name has been changed.

Foyeke Oyedokun is a program officer in the Nigerian office of Planned Parenthood Global, the international division of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

13 Comments

  • ghostgurl May 27th, 2014 9:29 PM

    A beautifully written piece. Foyeke is such an inspiration and such an incredible woman. This article reminded me about how lucky I am to have a free education.

  • DianeK May 28th, 2014 12:22 AM

    Thank you Foyeke for sharing this inspiring piece! I like that you suggested a feasible way for us to make a real difference, since it seems more impactful than simply using the hash tag. I will do my best to ensure that the girls and women in my community have the chance to reach their full potential!

  • Elsary May 28th, 2014 3:04 AM

    This is a really beautiful text. It’s so different to hear from the girls by someone who knows and understands in a different way than media. You managed to bring the subject close and make me feel. I also liked that you suggested us ways to do something, and that you reminded how important it is to do something. I’m really grateful to have a free education, and chance to chase my dreams.

  • elliecp May 28th, 2014 5:57 AM

    this is an amazing piece. It’s so unfair that people’s safety and opportunities has to vary so much from country to country. I’d rather we all are equally a little less developed, than have the western countries flying ahead whilst others do not even have clean water, or education.

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • flapperhatgirl May 28th, 2014 10:40 AM

    Wow, thank you for posting this article. It really disgusts me how little this issue has been addressed in the western news, and I really appreciate that rookie posts articles like this.

  • Libby May 28th, 2014 1:58 PM

    Thank you for writing this! I’d love to see more things like this on Rookie, great article! :)

  • Damsel May 29th, 2014 4:46 PM

    Thanks Foyeke for this inspiring and enlightening piece. I also believe the Boko Haram sect is misrepresenting the muslims. From my interactions with married adolescent girls in the north e.g. Adamawa, the girls are eager and would do anything to go to school. During a reintegration process ( of a project) back to school a girl said ‘this is the only opportunity I have to go to school and I don’t want to miss it’. Getting the abducted girls back is a joint effort. I mean we can’t affort to go backwards, education is the WAY forward!

  • diana94 May 31st, 2014 2:51 AM

    I think this event can open up the discussion to other issues like when rescuing women becomes an excuse for militarism. There is a reason the Nigerian government refused American and European military help for a while and it might have to do with the fact that once western militaries come into a country it takes them very long to leave and the attention is shifted to American and European neo-liberalist and expansionist interests

    I think this is a pretty interesting piece:
    http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/5/-bringbackourgirlsandthepitfallsofschoolgirlfeminism.html

    As a rookie fan I would like to see more discussion of intersectional issues like colonialism,racism, etc. in this website. I think its important for feminists, and specially white young feminists to pay more attention to these issues. We don’t want the feminist movement to be what it was in the sixties and for that I think its important to initiate discussions in wonderful websites like this.

  • josfemadee June 1st, 2014 11:53 AM

    What a touching story foye, Maryam pls keep up with the spirit never give up.

  • josfemadee June 1st, 2014 11:55 AM

    Foye pls let’s give our government more article to ponder

  • izik June 2nd, 2014 8:01 AM

    Excellent article. This issue has been the major distraction for the federal govt which we are still looking for ways to address it once and for all. one of the ways i think we can try is to conduct awareness to totally erase the ignorance about western education in Nigeria. education has been the major input which has brought about great success in Nigeria. I hope that by God’s grace with the effort of both national and international bodies coming together,our girls will be rescued back alive and in good health.

  • uzo June 2nd, 2014 8:16 AM

    This is realy fabulous and nice inspiration Mrs. Foyeke, and sincerely this article need to move to another level because the northern Nigerians are living in deformed state in education. Even after bringing back our girls campaign and when the issue is solved, the world will sit back and watch the pains, traumas, molestations and infidel happening in the north to continue because an adage said; “if you didn’t stop the source of fire outbreak, at next visit, it will take you unexpected and cause more damage than before. Anoher one said; after the burial, the family of the deceased continue with the pains of lost. Mrs. Foyeke keep up this campain with PPFA so that education can reach far places not only northern Nigeria, but global. Mr. Foyeke, you know the cause of the fire, so let the world hear you.

  • June 2nd, 2014 8:31 AM

    This is really an interesting and inspiring article. I believe Boko Haram is misrepresenting the Islamic Faith of the muslims and the abduction to the school girls who have been missing for over a month goes to show how inhuman these people are. In Kano, which is in the northern part of Nigeria, there is a 14 year old girl who killed her 35year old husband and three others because she was forced to early marriage by her parent, is in police custody. I believe this would have been prevented if she had been sent to school and old enough to make her own decision about getting married. I am a Nigerian and I plead with other Nigerians and foreigners to help combat the challenges of early marriages and support the future of our young ones. We should also help to put an end to the Boko Haram Islamic sect terrorizing our great country.

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