On April 14, Boko Haram militants kidnapped more than 300 Nigerian girls from a secondary school in the northern Borno state and drove them into the remote Sambisa forest. Weeks later, the group's infamous leader Abubaker Shekau claimed responsibility for the kidnapping in a video message, threatening to marry off the students and sell them in the market.
The girls' disappearance has moved communities worldwide. Social media users around the globe called for the students' release using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. African leaders declared a "war on Boko Haram" at a conference in France. Israeli experts joined the search. Britain and the United States sent surveillance planes, and the Obama administration even deployed 80 Marines to help in the search.
But as Human Rights Watch's Nigeria researcher Mausi Segun points out in a blog post for the British newspaper The Independent, even if the girls come home, their troubles won't be over.
Segun told The WorldPost that there are concerns about what happened to the girls in captivity -- they may have been sexually and physically abused -- and that the students may face stigma and shame upon returning to their communities. "If the girls come home, they need to be seen as survivors and not as victims," she added.
That may be challenging, however. Segun explained that there are previous reports of attacks on women who had been married to suspected Boko Haram members, and that among the families of Christian girls that were kidnapped, religious issues may come up as well.
In addition, chances are that upon their return, the students will continue to face a range of range of hurdles familiar to so many girls and women living in the country, especially in the north.
Northern Nigeria has some of the highest child marriage rates in the world, with UNFPA estimates indicating nearly half of the girls in the region are married by the age of 15.
While the country's 2003 Child Rights Act puts the minimum age for girls to marry at 18, federal law is not always implemented equally on the state level. In addition, Nigeria has civil, customary and Islamic legal systems operating simultaneously, and federal law only applies to marriages that take place within the civil system.
Early marriage often comes with disastrous consequences for girls' development throughout the rest of their lives. Studies indicate that child brides are at higher risk of domestic violence, rarely attend school and suffer more complications during pregnancy and child birth.
In fact, Nigeria has one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates worldwide. While maternal death rates have declined around the world, numbers in Nigeria have remained painstakingly constant. According to UNICEF, the United Nation's children fund, one in 13 Nigerian women dies from pregnancy or childbirth. Only India loses more of its mothers.
Many maternal deaths in Nigeria are entirely preventable, the U.N. argues. They are often related to a lack of accessible health care or communities' insistence that mothers go through childbirth alone or without relying on modern medicine. UNICEF research indicates just 35 percent of births are attended by a skilled health professional. Less than 20 percent of health facilities offer emergency obstetric care. “I don’t think it is proper for a male doctor to attend to my wife, not to talk of assisting her during delivery,” Hassan Kurfi, a 48-year-old farmer in the village of Nassarawa, told IRIN.
In addition, reports indicate more than half of Nigerian women say they experience physical, sexual and psychological abuse in their villages, often at the hands of their partners. International human rights organization Amnesty International echoed those concerns in its 2010 world report, arguing that violence against women by state officials and private individuals remained pervasive throughout the country. In addition, the organization warned that the failure of state and non-state actors to address sexual violence had led to an entrenched culture of impunity.
- One in 13 Nigerian women dies from childbirth or pregnancy.
- Less than 20 percent of women in Nigeria's north are literate.
And while girls' access to basic education is already terrifyingly low in the north of the country, where less than 20 percent of women are literate and have attended school, the threat of Boko Haram may just make the education gap worse. As Amnesty International explains, the group's threats and attacks on schools in Nigeria's north have forced many teachers to flee and have prompted parents to withdraw their daughters from schools.
While the case of the missing girls is deservingly receiving worldwide attention, HRW's Segun argues that the horrors perpetuated by Boko Haram should not mask the routine violations of women's rights in Nigeria's north.
"Women's rights must be recognized as human rights and the government must recognize that women and girls require special measures," she told The WorldPost. "The double talk must end."