Four weeks have passed since Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group in Nigeria, kidnapped hundreds of high school girls from their dormitory beds; 276 of the girls currently remain in their clutches. In a video released in early May, a Boko Haram militant said they planned to "sell [the girls] in the market" and "give their hands in marriage."
The scale and audacity of this attack makes it especially shocking, and the case has triggered an extraordinary outpouring of indignation across the globe -- on a scale that isn't necessarily typical in cases involving violence against women. As FP commentator Lauren Wolfe observed in her recent article, women are often abducted in conflicts around the world without generating much of an international reaction. And as the New York Times recently pointed out, Boko Haram's ransom video suggests that the group itself has been surprised by the degree of global outrage.
The militants, indeed, don't seem to have any pronounced sense that they're doing anything wrong. "This [northern Nigeria] is a place that is very conservative about women's roles," says Sally Engle Merry, a professor of anthropology and law at New York University. "The extremists may have assumed that girls were relatively powerless and unimportant." The idea that girls cannot make their own choices was taken for granted. To the militants, kidnapping is not radical; education is.
It's important to stress that these men are extremists who don't represent northern Nigeria as a whole. Yet it's hard to imagine their actions outside of a context where young women are seen as incapable of deciding their own fates. In Nigeria, according to a 2013 Ford Foundation survey, 39 percent of girls are married off before the age of 18, and in 2009, 26 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 were in polygamous unions. In general, child marriage has disastrous consequences: Victims of child marriage are more likely to suffer domestic violence, contract AIDS, and experience complications in birth and pregnancy. They are also far more likely to be illiterate, undereducated, and poor. The same study found that more girls are affected by child marriage in Nigeria than in the rest of West African countries put together, and that child marriage is most prevalent in the country's north. It's precisely to combat the widespread nature of this phenomenon that Nigerian activists have set out to build a network of programs that are making headway in combating the practice of child marriage -- especially in the north, and especially through education programming for girls. The fact that the abducted girls were in school is testament to that fact.
The Boko Haram attack is a particularly radical version of the various forms of coercion that are applied to girls in Nigeria, and across the world, every day -- and which all too often go unnoticed and unreported. In some societies in South Asia and the Middle East, young women forced into marriage are punished and sometimes even killed when they resist the choices their families have made for them; such "honor crimes" typically only make the headlines when the consequences reverberate into Western countries unused to such practices. In this case, the victims are individuals, and the perpetrators are members of their own families (typically older brothers).
To be sure, child marriage doesn't always take forms that are so overtly malevolent as the kidnappings in Nigeria, says Archana Dwivedi, deputy director of the Indian feminist organization Nirantar, and lead researcher in an upcoming report on child marriage. Yet even with the best of intentions, Dwivedi explains, such practices can entail a radical violation of the rights of young women (up to and including their freedom of movement). In much of India, where family is considered the only strong and reliable support structure for girls and women, parents arrange early marriages for their daughters out of an earnest desire to protect them and guarantee their futures -- even if the girls are, by any standard, old enough to make their own choices. Dwivedi argues that those trying to combat forced marriage need to place greater emphasis on agency and choice -- by helping young women to achieve the freedom to make their own decisions.
From an Indian parent's perspective, there appear to be few alternatives to early marriage for daughters, says Javid Syed of American Jewish World Service. That's why efforts to curb the problem should focus on the underlying failings and anxieties that lead people like India's well-meaning parents to consider child marriage a viable option. That, of course, implies a much bigger and more complicated task. It involves filling in the gaps where local institutions have failed to provide girls with better options. It involves changing the hearts and minds of communities by making the dangers of child marriage known. And it involves educating girls not only in math and reading, but also on their rights as women, safe sex, and options for stability outside of marriage. If we actually want to help these girls, we need to let them determine how to lead their own lives.
It's important to note that both Nigeria and India have laws on the books banning child marriage. In Nigeria, the 2003 Child Care Act banned marriage for anyone under the age of 18. In India, the legal fight to ban child marriage began in the 19th century, bolstered by legislation like the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929. Both countries have signed and ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and participate in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Yet the problems persist. (The photo above shows a mass child wedding in Madhya Pradesh in 2006.) To Dwivedi this contradiction is not surprising: "Laws cannot do much unless women and girls are empowered to use those laws."
Boko Haram has aggressively and ruthlessly taken away these girls' right to determine their own futures. But we can also see the mass abduction in Nigeria as a more dramatic and visible manifestation of the way we undermine our girls every single day. Forced marriage and other forms of everyday violence against women are all too easy to overlook, dismiss, or rationalize away. The response to the Chibok abductions has been vocal and fierce, putting the militants in the global crosshairs and allowing Nigerians to voice their grievances about their government's neglect of its mission to protect its own citizens. That's a good thing. But I also hope we won't neglect to take a hard look at the way we treat our women and girls -- not excepting the United States and other Western countries -- and at the ills that deprive them of their agency and choice. Only then will we be in a position to protect their freedom.