Nigerian Girls' Kidnapping Spotlights The Impossible Choice They Have To Make: Education Or Safety?

At nearly 170 million people, Nigeria's population is the largest in South Africa. And for Nigeria's women, few tools are more important than education — but Boko Haram's April 14 kidnapping of 240 Nigerian schoolgirls made clear that attaining an education in the region as a woman is a serious challenge, and one that deserves global attention. In particular, the state of education in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno, from where the girls were abducted, is dire.

The northern areas of Nigeria are particularly troubled by an insufficient and failing school system. More than two thirds of young women aged 15 to 19 are unable to read a full sentence, and only four percent of women finish secondary school. More than 50 percent of women are married by the time they are 16, and expected to bear a child within the first year of their marriage, making school completion nearly impossible.

Worse yet is the quality of the teachers expected to educate young men and women in Borno. According to the Telegraph, when primary school teachers recently took the primary school exit exams, almost two thirds of them failed. And in the face of this destitute educational landscape, Boko Haram's reported commitment to eliminating non-Islamic education in the region only exacerbates an already pressing problem.

In Chibok, the village from which many of the schoolgirls were taken, the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria estimates the nearly three quarters of children never see the inside of a classroom. The gender gap is particularly pronounced, with the ratio of girls to boys standing at around one to three. The parents who do send their children, particularly girls, to school are already braving the odds and defying the norms. The northern Nigerian society is one that expects young women to enter the workforce young, finding work for themselves in low-skilled and low-paid jobs. Education is often a luxury that cannot be afforded.

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This makes Boko Haram's message all the more chilling — the group has announced that they intend to sell the kidnapped girls as brides to militants for as little as $12. That one could even begin to place monetary value on a human life is horrifying enough, and that it is as low as $12 only provides further troubling evidence of the lack of respect held for women in northern Nigeria.

In the video first obtain by the Agence France-Presse, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau proclaims, "Allah ... commands me to sell. Girls, you should go and get married." It is precisely this belief that women's roles are rooted in matrimony that are so damaging and so dangerous for the girls of the Borno region. And it is also why education is so necessary for the improvement of women's lives.

It is a travesty that women might find themselves in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario when it comes to education. Without an education, women lack many of the necessary skills and tools to make themselves a productive part of the workforce, and in a country where women comprise only 21% of the non-agricultural paid labor force, these differential skill sets are of paramount importance. By refraining from school, young girls only perpetuate a dangerous cycle in which women continue to be uneducated and disempowered.

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But with Boko Haram's attacks on these young women attempting to better themselves by way of an education, attending school becomes an immediate danger. According to Amnesty International estimates, Boko Haram has killed over 2,300 people since 2010, and the schoolgirls' kidnapping is just the latest in a string of violence. If the mere act of learning attracts violence and anger, and results in being sold in a marriage market, it appears that girls are forced to choose between their safety and an education.

Chibok leader Pogo Bitrus called the girls' kidnapping and subsequent selling "a medieval kind of slavery." This is a perfect description for the horrors these young women are being subjected to. The status of women in Nigeria is already deplorable, with the primary expectation for women largely remaining to be marriage and childbirth.

If their attempts to raise themselves out of such a situation through education are attacked, it seems that options are truly limited. And this is a problem the world needs to pay attention to.