Adolescent girls are on the front lines of the ongoing crisis in Nigeria and the surrounding countries in the Lake Chad Basin. The mass abduction of 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria caught the world’s attention in 2014. As of today, some of those girls have yet to return home. Some parents have died while waiting for their abducted daughters to return. School abductions in Nigeria continue with horrifying frequency: there was an incident every month in the first half of 2021. In the face of this crisis, the Security Council must do more to understand and address adolescent girls’ rights in conflict.
Plan International addressed the Security Council on this subject in June 2021. Speaking from Nigeria, Education Specialist Laban Onisimus shared the words of a girl who regained her freedom after an attack on her school by armed groups: “After the attack, I told my parents I would never go back to school. Before [the attack], I was so passionate to study and achieve my dream of being a lawyer. But now, this experience has completely demoralized me.... I told my father that I will never go back because of threats and what I saw that night.” We are demanding that those in power prioritize the safety of adolescent girls in conflict-affected regions and ensure their right and access to education.
Fundamentally, the Security Council must play a stronger role in conflict prevention. The protracted crisis in the Lake Chad Basin has now spanned 11 years and has affected 17 million people, encompassing parts of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Conflicts today that could have been prevented or cut short, are lasting years, affecting countless lives.
Beyond this, the Security Council must also do more to recognize and address the fact that girls are being specifically targeted in conflict and are subject to all six of the grave violations against children in armed conflict. Girls are being disproportionately affected in distinct ways, from greater food insecurity and higher incidences of forced marriage, to the disruption and denial of the right to education. The delay or diversion of humanitarian access also affects them further.
It is critical that gender-responsive child protection is mainstreamed in conflict response. Adolescent girls are experiencing a wide spectrum of violence: at home, in the community, and due to the conflict. 2020 saw an alarming 70% rise in rape and other forms of sexual violence compared to the previous year in countries on the CAAC agenda, with girls comprising 98% of all victims. While this is a large increase, the true number is likely far greater.
Survivors often do not have access to adequate healthcare, an issue that has severely worsened due to targeted attacks on healthcare facilities. Violence and fear infiltrate every part of girls’ lives and limit the choices they can make about where to go and what to do. Violence also affects girls’ access to other rights, including freedom of movement and access to education. Girls’ traumatic experiences together with stigma impact their ability to pursue their education and move on with their lives in other important ways.
The Security Council must also demand and pursue accountability for all those who attack schools, kill and maim students and teachers, and abduct girls. Plan International has overseen the rebuilding of classrooms that have been destroyed as a result of the crisis – and later witnessed these same buildings later being burned down by armed groups.
Girls ought to feel safe in their own schools. And yet, thousands of adolescent girls have been denied their right to education and a dignified life because of this crisis, a root cause of which is hostility toward secular education. As a result of repeated attacks on schools, universities, teachers, administrators, and students, 2,295 teachers have been killed trying to protect children’s lives and their right to education. More than 1,400 schools have been destroyed. And to date more than 600,000 children have lost access to education.
The Security Council must also end the use of girls as a weapon of war. Girls associated with armed forces and armed groups have unique experiences, face specific risks, and must be included in the design of gender- and age-sensitive programs and policy. In Northern Nigeria girls are targeted by armed groups for use as suicide bombers. Between June 2014 and February 2018, 468 women and girls have been deployed or arrested in 240 suicide attacks, the most any terrorist movement has used - killing roughly 1,200 and injuring some 3,000. Almost all the female suicide bombers are adolescent girls who have often been unduly influenced or forced to carry out these attacks.
We cannot afford to let this crisis continue to claim lives and deny children their right to a future. Children and adolescent girls deserve to survive, to recover, and to have a youth full of safety, stability, and hope. We must not fail them.