Below is my Thought for the Day broadcast on Radio Kent this morning:
It has taken some time for the international community to offer a worthy reaction to the abduction of the more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the hardline group Boko Haram. Their fate is unknown, but there have been claims that they have been sold – into what fate, one can only imagine. Yesterday, Michelle Obama spoke instead of her husband about what seems to be an attempt to deter girls in particular from accessing education in that country.
For some years now I have supported a educational charity working in Ghana, like Nigeria, in West Africa, and, like Nigeria, with a generally Muslim north and a Christian south. We have long been aware that while it is relatively easy to get girls into the early stages of education in Ghana, attendance by girls at senior school drops off markedly as they move into their teenage years. The need for domestic labour, early marriage and pregnancy take their toll even for teenage girls, and where money is tight, the education of boys is often prioritized by hard pressed families.
So alongside the anguish felt by the parents of the missing Nigerian girls, the message that this act of brutality sends out to communities in West Africa and beyond is a profoundly dangerous one. Girls’ education is already often fragile and prematurely ended – now to many it may seem to be dangerous as well. Fewer girls will end up completing their schooling as a result.
And why should that matter? Firstly, because it is a matter of justice. Secondly, because educating girls is one of the most effective ways to speed up development – educated women at the heart of families and communities change everything, especially the community’s health and the early education of the following generation. Those who have a vested interest in keeping their communities in ignorance and blind obedience have chosen the right target. It is also a timely reminder to us here in Britain that, despite the controversy which so often surrounds education, our young people are profoundly fortunate to have the educational opportunities they have.
The response must be strong and principled. We must resist the temptation to make the abduction into a struggle between men and women, or between Christian and Muslim. Education, justice, freedom and dignity are universal values espoused by all civilized people and written into the hearts of men and women. Where these values are compromised for some, however far away, we are all diminished.
Good can come out of bad. And if there is something good to come out of this appalling event, however it turns out, it could perhaps be a reminder around the world of the need to reaffirm the fundamental values which are the bedrock of our increasingly global community. This should be the prayer of all of us.