JACQUELINE BHABHA: The Nigerian Schoolgirls Near You

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CAMBRIDGE – abduction of hundreds of young Nigerian girls by Islamic militia has been front-page news for weeks. global public is outraged by group’ violation of fundamental principles and sensibilities: prohibition of slavery, protection of personal integrity, obligation to protect children, and the right of adolescent girls to obtain an education and choose when and whom to marry. Yet the presence of young Nigerian prostitutes on the streets of Western cities barely elicits a reaction. Indeed, most people simply avert their eyes. And the barely mention the issue. Each year, thousands of Nigerian girls are trapped by fanatical and mercenary thugs and forced into prostitution, often in the same wealthy countries that are now magnanimously offering help to Nigeria’ government. Six of every ten people trafficked to the West are Nigerian, and at least 60% of trafficked sex workers in Italy and are Nigerian girls. Across Europe, North America, Russia, and the , these young women are visible to all bother to look – and have been for decades. Why is no one outraged? The inconsistency is rooted in the girls’ circumstances: the schoolgirls are innocent victims crying out for protection, while the child sex workers are illegal immigrants, slated for deportation as soon as they are caught. But they are the same girls. They all come impoverished, conservative communities, where girls’ prospects are bleak, owing to the prevalence of child marriage, endemic domestic violence, a lack of educational opportunities, and pervasive unemployment. In fact, according to one Nigerian survey, Nigeria has some of the world’ highest rates of early marriage, with 48% of girls married by 15, and 78% by 18, in the Northwest of the country. Moreover, 81% of married women admitted to being subjected to verbal or physical abuse by their husbands. Given high rates of adolescent marriage, it should come as no surprise that the net secondary- enrollment rate for Nigerian girls in 2008-2009 was only 22%, compared to 29% for boys. While the specter of unemployment haunts all , with only 10% of the nearly six million enter the labor market each year managing to secure a formal-sector job, the problem is much worse for women, account for only one-third of those who find a formal job. Most of the 54 million Nigerian girls and women who live and work in rural areas are forced into insecure employment in the informal . Nigeria’ radical gender inequality reflects a widespread tolerance of discrimination against girls, which facilitates the brutal actions of extremist groups like and creates fertile ground for traffickers. In such dire circumstances, it is easy to lure girls with false prospects of attractive jobs abroad, often in bars, restaurants, and clubs. It is a short step recruitment to a life of extreme exploitation. As a result, despite the valiant efforts of human-rights activists, at least 200 Nigerian girls are trafficked to Russia monthly to work as prostitutes, according to Nigeria’s ambassador to Russia, Asam Asam. The United Nations Inter-regional Crime and Justice Research Institute reports that, there are at least 10,000 – and perhaps as many as 20,000 – Nigerian sex workers in Italy, most of them trafficked and many of them young teenagers. As if that were enough, to ensure that the girls do run away or report their abusers, they may be subjected to so-called juju rituals, during which they are sworn to secrecy under pain of severe sanctions. Though law-enforcement, anti-trafficking, and child-protection agencies have long known about these abusive practices, solutions – such as employment schemes, legal immigration status, and improved health-care access – remain absent. and global leaders are working to break the cycle of violence. The problem is invisible; people simply do want to see it. Political leaders and law enforcement authorities in the West and elsewhere know how Nigerian teenage prostitutes ended up in their cities, but choose to do nothing to help them – or, worse, punish them. Ideally, ’s abduction of the schoolgirls would galvanize support for efforts to protect the rights of African adolescent girls, just as the Pakistani Taliban’s shooting of Malala Yousafzai helped to combat complacency regarding education for girls in South Asia. The question is whether the global public will demand action to protect young Nigerian girls’ basic rights and freedoms, or merely continue to condemn distant brutality while acquiescing in it on a nearby street corner.