The ‘Malalas’ Among Us
By Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri
On October 9, 2012, 16-year-old Pakistani school pupil, and activist, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck by Taliban gunmen while returning from school. That attempt to assassinate and silence her forever boomeranged when their acts of cruelty catapulted their victim to unprecedented stardom and historic distinction. Today, apart from her iconic status as a torchbearer of education for young girls, the name, MALALA, means many things to different people. To some, she represents uncommon bravery and determination to challenge the forces of terrorization and subjugation. And to some others, she is a symbol of a struggle for learning, especially in climes locked in deadly conflicts and religious extremism. As with other parts of the world, Malala’s inspiring story of survival as well as her strong message of equal learning opportunities for all children resonated loudly in Nigeria, evoking polarized emotions at the same time. Particularly instructive is that her home country, Pakistan, shares strong similarities with Nigeria. Both countries are sharply divided along religious lines and overwhelmed by internal terrorist activities. The right to education is equally under severe threat in the conflict-affected regions of both countries. Of late, the scale and intensity of the terrorist activities in the northern part of Nigeria has reached frighteningly alarming dimensions, which has seen hundreds of young college students and their teachers brutally killed and their schools bombed. An Islamic insurgent group, Boko Haram, which means, western education is forbidden, has claimed responsibility for these attacks. Even before Malala’s story gained prominence in October 2012, an array of independent investigations by local and international watchdog organizations have exposed the escalation of lethal attacks and arson on educational institutions across many parts of North East Nigeria, plummeting school enrolment and attendance rates. According to Human Rights Watch, between February 26 and 29, 2012 at least four schools were burned, and on March 1, five schools were set ablaze, including Sunshine Stars Secondary School and Success Secondary School, which had an enrollment of 700. In its June 2012 report, Demolishing Foundations of Peace, Spaces for Change, a Nigerian youth-focused advocacy group detailed the systematic pattern of violent attacks targeted at the youth populations by both the Islamic sect and the Nigerian security forces. As at the time Malala’s shooting incident occurred in October 2012, 46 students of Federal Polytechnic in Mubi, Adamawa State were massacred by gun men during a midnight raid on their hostels. Just a month ago, the sect again opened fire on students sleeping in their dormitories at the College of Agriculture, in Yobe State, leaving over 60 dead! Confessions extracted from captured insurgents in security custody reveal that the attacks on schools and students form part of the sect’s agenda to allow “only Islamic schools and wipe away the secular schools”. Destruction of school buildings and the potential threats to life often result in girls being married off early, further widening the glaring imbalances in girl-child enrolment attendance and completion of studies. In a context where ingrained cultural and religious practices encourage child marriages and early child-bearing, there is no doubt that the right to education is an uphill struggle for many young girls living in the region.
[eap_ad_1] Undeterred by the worsening security situation in their communities and the potential threat to their lives, thousands of young boys and girls continue to defy the odds, persisting in their pursuit for quality education. While working on a project to monitor and document the human rights atrocities linked to internal armed conflict situations in northern Nigeria, I visited crisis-ridden communities like Budum, Gomari and Kaleri in Maiduguri where I came across some of such brave youngsters with an unquenchable appetite for learning. Some of them narrowly missed getting killed by devastating bomb blasts in their schools or neighbourhoods, while some others that have witnessed the brutal killings of classmates, friends, relatives and neighbors remain unshaken by those tragedies. At the Kashim Ibrahim College of Education, I met a number of young girls that showed up in school to sit for their second semester examination despite an explosion that rocked the city the previous day. Notwithstanding the extreme levels of insecurity which forced the closure of most educational institutions across the state, large numbers of young girls were seen in their classrooms at the Federal Government Girls’ College in Maiduguri! Lots more dare the psychological trauma and mobility limitations to seek opportunities for learning, knowing quite well that they might not return home alive. These are the Nigerian unsung heroes of education! Their stories are waiting to be told! The Malala example has shown how a single story can change perceptions and galvanize action at all levels. It has demonstrated that a lone story that is well told can send out a very strong message of hope and inspiration beyond borders. Malala’s story has shown how strategic communication combined with powerful information dissemination can build bridges of solidarity and influence global policies and programs and inspire collective action. Today, that single story is a beacon of light burnishing the determination of young girls like her living and schooling in similarly-situated contexts and regions around the world. No doubt, Nigeria has many Malalas. That the stories of these largely unknown young heroes are not coming out is an issue that the Nigerian local media should be concerned about. As recent as last week, a 16 year old secondary school boy launched a home-made rocket into space from his village in Okigwe, Imo State. Why are these stories of bravery and extraordinary determination deafeningly unheard? Why would local newsmen dither in beaming focus on the shining examples all around them? Do they have to look so far for role models when many compelling stories around them remain untold? Why aren’t these stories allowed to reach the farthest locations and audiences that could attract help to those in urgent need? One fact I could deduce from my interviews with several Maiduguri-based journalists is that some of the crisis-torn communities have been labeled off as no-go areas. Accordingly, journalists live in panic, fearing either possible attacks by the Islamic sect, or to avoid being caught in deadly crossfires between security forces and insurgent groups. Is this a good-enough reason to delay action? In the few reported cases, why do these stories hardly pick the imagination of Nigerians beyond brief commentary? Malala represents a global cause that no government can afford to ignore. In the Nigerian context, her cause is a reminder that there is so much work to be done. This is the time for the Nigerian government to rise up to its legal obligation and international commitment to protect, promote and fulfill the right to education for all Nigerian children. Among other things, the government must take immediate and urgent steps to resolve the lingering strike action embarked upon by the academic staff unions of university lecturers; increase the budgetary allocation to education; provide critical learning infrastructure and enact policies that enhance equal access to quality education for all. The stories of bravery of ordinary Nigerians in difficult circumstances are the tonic required by a nation which seems to be grounded by apathy and cynicism. Malala’s story should inspire us to do well for the Malalas in our midst; children and their parents who brave danger, including social, economic and cultural obstacles to get what should be their social right – education! Let all hands be on deck to realize Malala’s campaign promise of ensuring that those ‘without a voice can be heard”!