How many girls are lost? Consciousness is growing of the massive tragedy in Nigeria, where nearly 300 schoolgirls are kidnapped and possibly sold into sex trafficking rings by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Closer to home, the face of Relisha Rudd haunts us as citizens pursue the search in the underbrush of Kenilworth Park. But there are more, so many more, do we know how many girls are lost in this world?
UNESCO estimates that 80 percent of the 2.4 million victims of global trafficking are girls and women. A U.S. Department of Justice report indicates nearly 7 million women and girls are in forced labor, bonded labor or prostitution around the world. That same report says that in the United States alone, nearly 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation in the nearly-$10 Billion domestic trafficking industry. A story from Atlanta says that 200 or more black girls suffer exploitation each month in that city. The problem is worse in cities with international airports and high tourism.
Nearly a month has passed since the Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped 276 Nigerian girls who were taking final exams at their school on April 16. News of this horrific abduction was scant for about three weeks, but finally, the world woke up to the developing tragedy. But why did it take so long?
Theories abound, but some conditions are very clear. Girls don't really count in too many places around the world. 65 million girls around the world are not in school. The girls who do dare to go to school -- like the kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls, like Malala Yousafa, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban -- pose such a serious threat to the established tradition of repressing girls and women that they must be punished, repressed, even annihilated. Writing in the New York Times Columnist Nick Kristof got it right when he noted that educated girls are the "worst nightmare" of extremists. "The greatest threat to extremism isn't drones firing missiles, but girls reading books."
Some of this is done in the name of religion. On the CNN.com website we read this horrific quotation: "I abducted your girls," Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video released last week. "There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell."
Really? The abuse of religious principles to justify criminal activity is disgusting. No faith tenet can justify the abuse and subjugation of human beings. Religious leaders of all faiths must denounce the perversion of faith principles in terrorism. At the same time, religious leaders also should examine their own practices to root out injustices against women that, in the most extreme twisted minds, become justification for the most horrific crimes against women and girls.
But abuse and degradation of girls and women is not just a problem of terrorists, religious extremists or seedy pimps in dark alleys. Sexual violence is not just a product of ignorance and poverty. On some of the most elite college campuses in America, the problem of sexual violence against women is so acute that the U.S. Department of Education has had to issue extreme regulations to force institutions of higher education to root out predators and criminals from campus communities. The president of Dartmouth had to take the extraordinary step of issuing a public denunciation of his campus culture in the wake of numerous reports of sexual assaults and a "general disregard for human dignity."
The degradation of women on too many college campuses deprives women of the fullness of higher education, curtails their opportunities and impedes their academic success. The victims of campus sexual assault become another tribe of lost girls adrift on the hostile landscape of sexual exploitation and abuse.
The education of girls and women may well be the single greatest force available to humanity to reduce poverty and violence, and to promote opportunity and economic security across generations. Stifling educational opportunity for girls and women stunts all human development.
Girls are still suffering punishment just for going to school -- whether Chilbok or Dartmouth, the lost girls are everywhere. The injustice is enormous, the loss to human society is incalculable.