Sara Lawan’s dream of becoming a lawyer was cut short a month ago when Nigerian Boko Haram insurgents raided her all-girls school in Chibok village, snatching 276 students.
Lawan, 19, and her schoolmates were put into trucks and driven to the edge of the remote Sambisa forest. When the gunmen ordered them to get down and follow them, she and a classmate made a dash for freedom, even though the militants had warned they would be shot if they tried to escape. After spending the night in the bush, they found their way back to the village.
“I thought I would’ve been killed that night,” she said by phone from Maiduguri, capital of Borno state and the birthplace of Boko Haram. “Now I fear to go back to school. I fear that I might be kidnapped again or killed this time.”
Boko Haram, which means “western education is a sin” in the local Hausa language, is fighting a violent campaign in the northeast to create an Islamic state, exacerbating an education crisis inAfrica’s biggest economy. About 10 million Nigerian children aren’t enrolled in school, the world’s highest number. Almost 60 percent of them live in the mainly Muslim north, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef.
The kidnapping will set back the cause of female education in rural areas of predominately Muslim northern Nigeria, which has the nation’s lowest literacy rates, said Asabe Kwambura, principal of the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, founded in 1988, from where the abductions took place.
“I believe that when you educate a girl child, you educate a nation because of the strategic role women play in bringing up their children,” she said on May 14 by phone. “Right now, parents of some the girls that escaped are preventing their girls from writing their remaining examinations.”
The militants are changing tactics from the early days of the rebellion when they typically carried out night-time raids on empty schools. Since 2012 they’ve been killing, abducting and threatening students and educators, according to Unicef.
Thirty teachers were shot dead, in some cases while in class, between January and September 2013, while more than 50 schools have been attacked and set fire mostly in Borno state over a seven-month period last year, Unicef says.
Boko Haram killed at least 29 students and burned classrooms and dormitories to the ground during a more than four-hour attack on a boarding school in Yobe state in February.
About 15,000 children have stopped attending school in Borno after the state government ordered some educational institutions to close because of the violence.
“There is a fear factor now: The parents are unwilling to enroll their daughters in school, the teachers are scared to teach, and it’s a vicious cycle,” Christophe Boulierac, a Unicef spokesman, said by phone from Geneva on May 7.
“You attack the teachers and students, create fear and you attack the future of the country,” he said.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau has said in recent video statements that women are supposed to become wives and have children rather than get an education, aside from learning the Koran.
The Chibok girls’ plight has galvanized social media campaigns joined by U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and Pakistani teenage activist Malala Yousafzai using the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. The U.S. is assisting in the search efforts by conducting surveillance flights, while Israel, France and the U.K. are also giving support such as advisers.
The perseverance of the kidnapped girls to get an education in the face of threats should be an example for students in the U.S. to take their studies seriously, Obama said on May 10. The ordeal highlights the importance of education for girls to escape the trap of poverty, by boosting their incomes and raising healthier families, she said.
Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer, is the continent’s most populous nation with 170 million people, almost evenly split between a mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.
The north has the country’s lowest adult literacy rates; about 67 percent of women can’t read or write compared with 51 percent of men, according to the Nigerian statistics agency. That compares with a national average of 50 percent of females and 35 percent of males, the data shows. About 58 percent of Nigeria’s children go to school, according to Unicef.
Factors including academic staff shortages, a lack of education investment by the state and unaffordable school fees lead Nigerian kids to drop out, according to a 2012 fact sheet by the U.S. Embassy in Abuja.
The western education system introduced by Christian missionaries in the mid-19th century was made most widely available in the south, according to the statement.
Almajiri, or Koranic schools, are popular with mainly male children who aren’t attending formal schooling in the north. In those institutions, they learn vocational and apprenticeship skills and some become involved in street begging, according to the statement.
“Education indicators are poor nationwide, and the greatest need for assistance is in the predominantly Muslim north,” according to the statement.
Part of the reason for the relative educational backwardness of the north date to the country’s colonial history, when the British reached an agreement with the pre-colonial Sokoto Caliphate that held sway in the region not to push western learning among the subjects of the emirs in return for their loyalty.
In a disadvantaged region, Chibok stood out as a place where parents remained committed to educating their girls.
A predominantly Christian area in the southern tip of Borno state, it’s part of a religious fault line where the Muslim north meets Christian ethnic groups across an area known as “the middle belt.” It was one of the few educational institutions still open to girls in the northeast.
Now it appears to have succumbed to the violence sweeping the region, scarring the dreams of young women such as Lawan.
“For now, I live with the pain that many of my school mates are still outside there in the forest,” she said.