Girls brave violence for their education in northern Nigeria

Abuja - Halimatu Usman, 14, spends her days doing house chores in her home of Marte, near Lake Chad in Borno state, Nigeria. Her school has been shut to pre-empt attacks from members of the Jama'atul Alhul Sunnah Lidda'wati wal Jihad or Boko Haram (meaning western education is forbidden) a group waging an insurgency to establish an Islamic government in Nigeria. As she fills the earthenware pot, she counts herself lucky not to be in a refugee camp in neighbouring Niger Republic or among the 234 girls abducted by Boko Haram insurgents from a physics exam in GGSS Chibok and taken to the Sambisa Forest reserve, leaving their parents and an entire country distraught.

Halimatu belongs to a generation of girls suffering from a fractured educational system in Borno state, primarily caused by the insurgency. According to an Amnesty International report in October last year, about 70 teachers and more than 100 school children have lost their lives. In neighbouring Yobe state, which has been in a state of emergency for nearly a year, 209 schools have been destroyed. In Borno state more than 800 classrooms have been burned down.

Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the sect, has continued to denounce western education through his YouTube channel. In one video he advises students to study the Qur'an instead of western education. In another video Shekau made an avowal that "we will continue to carry out such school attacks till our last breath". After a killing spree left more than 40 male students dead at a school, gunmen told the female survivors to go and get married and jettison their quest for education.

Girls in northern Nigeria faced challenges long before the insurgency. For instance, girls' education has always been under threat. The region has the lowest girl child enrolment in Nigeria – in 2008 the net enrolment rate for girls into secondary school was 22%. In northern Nigeria girls are married much younger than in other parts of the country, often shortly after puberty. According to the Population Council of Nigeria, 67.4% of girls are married by the age of 15 in the north, compared to 10.8% in the south. This has exacerbated high rates of fistula in the north of the country.

NGOs working to increase girls' enrolment, retention and transition to secondary schools in northern Nigeria include Action Aid and local groups such as the Federation of Muslim Women Association (Fomwan). While groups such as the Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment and the Adamawa Peace Council are implementing a mentorship project called Stellar, which involves university students adopting five pupils to enhance their knowledge in maths, sciences and languages.

Since the Nigerian army made a volte-face after the false claim that the girls have been rescued, the outpouring of grief from Nigerians has been huge. On Twitter, the hashtag #bringbackourgirls – propelled by the likes of former World Bank vice-president, Africa division, Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili – has garnered the attention of people from all over the world. While Chidi Odinkalu, the chair of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission, appalled by the near indifference of the country's ruling elites, said: "If the threat of mass casualty terrorism cannot give an elite cause for pause from the business of plunder, nothing can."

Across the country there's a unanimous call for the release of the girls. Women's rights groups and the parents of the girls are calling for a one-million-woman march in Abuja this week. This is remarkable in a country famed for its ethno-religious fault lines. Either out of school or in school, minors under the state of emergency have become terrified of the pervading insecurity. There are plans to fortify the schools when they eventually reopen, the abduction of Chibok girls has ensured that the children are scared of the classroom.

Girls such as Halimatu Usman in Borno and Yobe states just want to be able to attend school and play suwe (hopscotch) at break-time without the threat of insurgent gunfires. As it is, school has become a luxury enjoyed in the recent past. If and when the insurgency comes to pass, these memories will remain scars of a time when attending classes was a life-threatening danger.