The recent kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria by the extremist group Boko Haram has shed a bright light on the glaring gender inequality that exists in many parts of the world. In places like Nigeria, girls are often not allowed to get an education and are not empowered to fully participate in their society. This incident – and the wider circumstances that allowed it to happen – shows why the term ‘empowerment’ is not just a buzzword, but a tangible goal with real consequences. When we talk about empowerment, we’re talking about the fact that girls have an extraordinary amount of power – they just need the tools to unleash it.
Education is a key step in empowering girls. The positive effects of educating girls ripple through society, starting with the girl herself and spreading to her family, her community, and her country. Boko Haram, whose name roughly means ‘Western education is a sin,’ targets girls in school because they are a threat. Boko Haram knows that educated women pose a threat to extremism and the poverty that allows it to flourish, and so they try to prevent girls from getting an education by intimidation and force. In fact, educating girls poses a threat to many of the negative forces in our world. Educated girls are less likely to contract HIV, less likely to perpetuate the practice of female genital mutilation, are more likely to have healthy children, have more earning power, and are more likely than men to spend their incomes on their families.
The incredible courage of the kidnapped Nigerian girls to attend school when the risks of doing so are so high proves how valuable education is. But it isn’t always enough. Girls must also be empowered. They must have the opportunities and tools to use their education to affect positive change for themselves and their community. Much of the disease and hunger that afflicts so many would be greatly reduced if girls and women were empowered. This is why Shukuru doesn’t only provide girls with an opportunity to earn money to continue their education, we also give them the opportunity to learn new skills and prove to themselves and their community that they can achieve something great. When girls complete Shukuru’s program, they can not only pay for their education, they are equipped with the skills and confidence to take charge of their own lives.
In Nigeria, twenty percent of girls are married before the age of fifteen and forty percent are married before the age of eighteen. In the northern region, where Boko Haram is active, those numbers jump to forty-eight percent under the age of fifteen and a whopping seventy-eight percent under the age of eighteen. Girls are often valued exclusively for their ability to fetch a good bride price, and so educating them isn’t seen as a good investment. Fewer than two-thirds of the girls who attend primary school in Nigeria complete it; girls lag a full ten percentage points behind boys in primary school completion rates. They also lag ten percentage points behind boys in literacy rates. This, in a country where 10 million children don’t even attend school at all.
Governments, NGOs, and individuals must do more for girls in places like Nigeria, where they are seen merely as assets and their power and potential are suppressed, sometimes violently. The world must make both education and empowerment a priority. Girls must be educated and they must also be surrounded by opportunities to use that education. They must be allowed, enabled, and encouraged to participate fully in the economic, political, and civic life of their community.
Take power away from extremists like Boko Haram – empower a girl. Stop harmful practices like female genital mutilation – empower a girl. Unleash the full potential of humankind to invent, innovate, feed itself, and heal itself – empower a girl.
It could change the world.