The world has been transfixed and horrified by the brutality of a group of extremists toward nearly 300 schoolgirls and unnamed others in northeastern Nigeria. The plight of these girls has rightly captured the global public's heart and mind. For daring to seek an education, these girls and others have become the face of unspeakable violence at the hands of Boko Haram.
Unfortunately, they are not alone. Women and girls in staggering numbers are beaten, sexually abused, married off as children, mutilated, and killed every day around the world.
They are also specifically targeted in times of conflict, with reports of hundreds of thousands of rapes used as tools of war in the DRC, Bosnia, and Syria. And while official figures vary, we know that millions of women and girls around the world the world are deceived, forced, and compelled -- including here in the United States -- into forced labor and the commercial sexual exploitation industry.
Boko Haram and terrorists worldwide have targeted girls in school because they know that societies armed with educated girls will reject the call of terrorism and religious extremism. The State Department has been working to carry the message that empowering women and investing in girls -- and particularly in girls' education -- leads to enormous economic, health, and development benefits, not only for girls, but for entire communities and nations. Adolescent girls who attend secondary school not only get a chance to fulfill their potential in life, but will also gain increased individual earning power, marry later, give birth to fewer children later in life, are less likely to be infected by HIV, and enjoy greater gender equality. And these gains last generations: a child born to a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to live past age five.
The promise of education is precisely why girl's schools are routinely bombed; why teachers are threatened; why Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by Taliban terrorists; and why the parents of the Nigerian girls are living in fear and anguish, hoping for their return. These forces dread the progress of women, because they fear society's progress.
We all want to bring back the girls in Nigeria. The United States is advising the Nigerian authorities to help them locate and reunite these girls with their families. We must not let up until they are found. But even as we focus on the safe return of these girls, we must also look to building a future in which all girls in Nigeria -- and around the world -- can go to school without fear. No parent should have to choose between educating a daughter or keeping her safe.
The United States and the global community must double down on our efforts -- both diplomatic and development -- to advance the status of women and girls around the world. We can begin by working with public and private partners to ensure that all girls, even as they enter adolescence, can gain a quality education. This includes safe schools, well-trained and committed teachers, and the resources to stay in school until graduation. We need to make sure that women and girls are protected from gender-based violence from the very onset of emergencies around the world. In my office, we dedicate ourselves to this work every day, working both publicly and behind the scenes to advance the role of women in foreign policy and address the issues faced by women and girls today.
Investing in girls, and in future generations of girls, is the ultimate rebuke to Boko Haram.
For all of the Nigerian girls, and for all of the women and girls around the world who have experienced violence simply because they dared to dream, let's get to work.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears on The Huffington Post.
For more information:
- Ten Things the United States Is Doing To Counter Boko Haram
- Boko Haram: The Growing Threat to Schoolgirls in Nigeria and Beyond, Testimony Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, May 21, 2014
- Addressing the Growing Threat of Boko Haram, Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on African Affairs, May 15, 2014