It’s every parent’s nightmare: your child goes to school in the morning and does not return when the day ends. For thousands of Nigerian parents, whose children and schools have become potential victims of Boko Haram terrorism, this fear has become an everyday reality. On February 19, 110 young girls were abducted from the Government Girls’ Science and Technical Secondary School in the northeast town of Dapchi. Now, a new group of Nigerian parents fear they will never see their daughters again.
In response to this horror, which President Muhammadu Buhari described as “a national disaster,” the Nigerian government has indicated it will call on the international community to provide backup aerial surveillance and reconnaissance of the northern Nigerian forests so that fighter jets, helicopters and surveillance planes can scour the region to locate the kidnapped girls. Meanwhile, the Safe Schools Initiative is being revamped to provide more physical security for Nigeria’s northern schools and to reassure the schoolgirls of Nigeria that every effort is being made to protect them from Boko Haram.
The abduction has chilling echoes of the mass abduction in April 2014 of more than 219 girls from the Chibok school. It reminds us that over the past several years, the jihadists’ terror has led to at least 20,000 deaths. Last month, the UN Humanitarian Needs Overview suggested that in Nigeria’s three most affected states — Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, 3.7 million people are now in need of food assistance and 1.6 million have been displaced from their homes.
With schools a favored target of the terrorists, school attendance falls; girls and parents feel that schools, which were once a safe haven, are unsafe, so they stay at home. This is one of the reasons why there are still more than 10 million school-age children not in school in Nigeria.
In 2014, after the abduction in Chibok, the Global Business Coalition for Education worked with Nigerian business leaders, donor governments and the government of Nigeria to draft up the Safe Schools Initiative, aimed at deploying resources and expertise to improve the safety of schools in northern Nigeria. The initiative was managed by the Nigerian government and while progress was made initially — 2,400 children were relocated, school infrastructure was upgraded, psychological support was given to distressed children — it is now clear that a new priority must be placed on delivering safe schools.
At the time of the initiative, measures included building prefabricated classrooms; installing lighting, fencing and alarm systems; and training staff as school safety officers. To accommodate internally displaced children fleeing violence, double-shift schooling — with children taught at different times of the day in the same classrooms — was introduced in Adamawa, Borno, Yobe and Gombe and reached tens of thousands of children, including 20,000 girls. Learning in part from Nigeria’s 2014 initiative, safe school programs have been introduced in many countries — from Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan to Somalia and the Philippines.
But now we need to ramp up these efforts. We also need to do more to use modern telecommunications equipment to monitor what is happening on the ground and to produce early warning systems for schools at risk.
As the search is intensified for the lost schoolgirls, it is time to send a message that schools must never become instruments of war. There must be no hiding place or sleep for terrorists threatening the lives of young children. We must make it clear that while terrorist extremists may make threats, they will never, in the end, succeed in stopping education. We must do all we can to ensure that every child is guaranteed the right to a safe school.
Gordon Brown is the United Nations special envoy for global education and was prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2007-2010.