The need for the education of girls in northern Nigeria, which is predominantly Muslim, was first brought to the forefront by a program called Training of the Girl Child. It was my first experience working at a grassroots level with women agencies in Nigeria (Nigeria Council of Women Societies (NCWS). We held informal meetings with women, men and groups trying to push an increase in girls education. It was my first step into the world of social justice. It defines our attitude. We had to make a lot of adjustments so as to appear non-threatening but welcoming.
The program brought me in contact with a lot of educated women in the north that are huge role models in what they do. They carry out their task with great dignity, working within the boundaries of their religion, and still staying true to their profession. We went into homes not as educators but as friends and as fellow women wanting the best for our daughters. We shared the same dream with each other. We wanted a better life for our daughters. The result was slow but steadily building momentum each year. The number of girls enrolled and the retention rate in northern Nigeria continued to increase year after year.
I spent the next 17 years in the north of Nigeria where I lived before coming to Canada in 2000. One thing stands out. All women desire better opportunities for their daughters. They all support the education of girls and are proud to see their daughters go to school. Although for some, they would have wished they themselves had acquired some form of education; but for that regret, they emptied all their support on their daughters.
It is therefore sad that rather than building a support network for these moms/fathers whose daughters were taken, President Goodluck Jonathan and his wife seem to care more about their image. Rather than building a web of support around these families, Nigerians once again look at the divides rather than the uniting factors. The government reaction has once again brought to mind the fact that while we are one Nigeria, we seem not to understand each other. The south appears unsure how things work in the north.
Demanding that the parents show photographs of their missing girls is in some way ironical, since photos are often shunned. I wonder if the government of Nigeria seeks to understand the social issues in the north. Does that mean Nigeria's Ministry of Education has no database of all students enrolled in the schools? Does it mean that even the local government has no data of these students? The only way of getting photographs is from the already traumatized parents, who are afraid of more repercussions from Boko Haram should they release photos of their missing kids. The incident happened in a remote village and if it has taken this long for the government to find the girls, how much protection can they offer to families in case of retribution from Boko Haram?
As our girls are sold off to slavery, forced marriages and being raped repeatedly the president announced that "Nigerians are happy that the girls are not hurt and are still alive." I think someone should explain to the Nigerian government that abduction, rape and slavery is worse than death. I cannot imagine the sadness being experienced by these parents and what a nightmare. It is my hope that all Nigerians will unite together in ensuring that the government do something. Every girl abducted represents years of struggle of the Nigerian Girl Child toward education. It has been a steady growth in the north, it did not stop and it will not stop. We all should not allow it to stop.
I wonder what the response would have been if the missing girls had been abducted from a school in the south. I bet business would have stopped, cars set on fire as demonstrators fill up the streets. Now is the time for the educated to stand behind the less-educated, Nigerians in diaspora to help Nigerians within and render much-needed support.
Let us demand more action. Standing together transcends any divides.
Florence Okwudili lives and works in Winnipeg.