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Listen to the voice of Nigeria’s newest businessman, a slave trafficker for the modern age: “I will marry out a female at 12; I will do same for a nine year old girl like it was done on my own mother. . . . I am the one that captured your girls and I will sell them in the market. I have my own market of selling people; it is the owner that instructed me to sell. Yes, I will sell the girls, people, I am selling the girls like Allah said, until we soak the ground of Nigeria with infidels’ blood.”
Such is the message to us from Abubakar Shekau, the fiery leader of Boko Haram, a militant Islamist organization whose very name means “Western education is forbidden.” Today, one month after the abduction of more than 200 girls from a Christian boarding school — and a few days after the dissemination of a video showing those girls as cowed, bewildered hostages “converted” to Islam — a worldwide campaign has been mobilized to save them from being sold off as sexual chattel in neighboring Chad, Cameroon and Niger.
How is their rescue being mobilized? The United States, in typical muscular mode, has rallied its military wherewithal and confirmed a military operation that is flying manned surveillance missions over the northern state of Borno. Gen. David Rodriguez, head of U.S. Africa Command, has arrived to forge an intelligence agreement with President Goodluck Jonathan’s generals. Taking another tack entirely, the Nigerian government has called Boko Haram to the negotiating table, insisting that “Nigeria has always been willing to dialogue with the insurgents.”
That “dialogue with insurgents” would most likely be, as my father might have put it, “a bobo loco with the devil.” You can’t make sane covenants with the insane.
But imagine for a moment that it would be possible to argue in a logical way to bring back those girls. What would that argument look like?
I imagine something like this:
Mr. Shekau, in stealing those girls, you are making away with gold. That much is true. They are worth millions, possibly billions, and very possibly the financial salvation of Nigeria. Not as slaves. Not as a means to extort a hefty ransom and a tidy purse for your future escapades, but as the most secure investment you could make in the future and prosperity of your people.
By now, years of research by social scientists the world over have pointed to a few proven facts: If you take an indigent, marginalized community and educate the girls between the ages of 10 and 15, you will improve that community’s economy, its well-being and the very fabric that binds it together. Educate them and, in the course of a single generation, you will break whole cycles of poverty. Invest a few years of education in the girls, and the incidence of AIDS goes down, sanitation improves, potable water goes up.
As Tom Yellin, a media executive and leader of the 10×10 “Girl Rising” campaign, has pointed out: “Educated girls marry later, they have fewer children. They earn more money. They’re far less vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. They immunize their children and educate the next generation, and that starts a ripple effect that transforms families, communities and entire countries.” As Lawrence Summers, economist and former president of Harvard University, put it: Educating this segment of the population may be “the single highest return investment available in the developing world.”
In other words, ask the experts to tell you how to end global poverty, and they will tell you: Educate the girls.
But statistics in a world bedeviled by the likes of Boko Haram tell a different story. Every year, an estimated 150 million girls are victims of sexual violence. Half of those assaults are inflicted on girls under 15. Moreover, it is very likely that at least 14 million girls under 18 will be married this year. Let me put that in clearer perspective for you: During the course of the next 24 hours, 38,000 child brides will be taken in forced marriages. Thirteen will be hustled off to virtual servitude in the time it took me to type this sentence.
Educate a girl, on the other hand, and the chances are that she will not be one of those ciphers. She will not die giving birth. Her children will likely survive past the age of 5; she will send them to school; and her entire family will stand to earn far more income than their illiterate cohort.
The tragedy you should hold in your mind when you see that huddle of girls in that nameless landscape of Africa is the promise that was never imagined in the first place. Putting it in sheer economic terms, that promise is far more lucrative than the $12 price Abubakar Shekau’s army reportedly has put on each head.
Yes, I will sell the girls, people.
Mr. Shekau, you sell them too cheap. In crude dollar figures, they are worth a great deal more to Nigeria.
A recent study found that if India enrolled a mere 1 percent more girls in secondary school, the country’s GDP would rise by $5.5 billion. Imagine that. Do the numbers. Apart from any social good an educated girl might do, it means that schooling one female child is worth a quarter of a million dollars to India’s economy.
Now multiply that by 66 million. That’s how many girls UNESCO tells us are out of school around the world. Imagine what a program to educate them could do for the global purse.
Any serious businessman — trafficker, international profiteer, even cunning revolutionary — would see what a paltry price Boko Haram has put on its hostages.
They are worth much more to Nigeria simply by being back in that little school in Chibok, working to change the face of things because they will be what every educated young woman promises to be — a confident mother, a natural educator, an economic stimulator, a community energizer: a human being who holds more revolutionary change than an entire army of fiery revolutionaries.
Just bring her back to that schoolroom.
Marie Arana is a writer-at-large for The Washington Post and author of the biography, “Bolívar: American Liberator.” She was the scriptwriter for the Latin American portion of the film “Girl Rising.”