The simple act of educating girls has been under attack for years. And not just in Nigeria.
The kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls last month by Islamist militants has highlighted the troubling reality for young females daring to learn.
And as Western nations pledge to help find Nigeria’s “lost girls,” their plight is raising awareness that in several countries, young girls’ education is in peril, according to a 2014 report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.
“In my travels, I’ve found that many families want to send their daughters to the classroom,” said Lisa Bender, an education specialist at UNICEF. “But they want to feel safe doing that.”
Countries where girls’ education is threatened share similar threads of violence, poverty and cultural oppression. Here are five countries where girls are fighting to overcome that:
Now 16, Malala Yousafzai was nearly killed when a Taliban gunman shot her after she boarded a school bus in 2009.
Despite the worldwide outcry — and Pakistani leaders pledging to support the right to an education — girls and their female teachers in the country continue to be targets of violence.
The Taliban still opposes any modern form of education for girls, said Mustafa Qadri, a Pakistan researcher for Amnesty International.
Girls are at a disadvantage, he said, because the country already spends so little on education, while females face cultural pressure to marry, have children and stay at home.
"Countless polls conducted across Pakistan from the lawless tribal areas to the urban heartlands in cities like Lahore indicate that the vast majority of parents want their girls and women to get an education and have full opportunities in the work place and public life,” Qadri told NBC News. "It is up to the state to enforce the right to an education, protect students and educators from attacks, and bring those responsible for these attacks to justice."
But that won’t be easy, Qadri added: "No government of Pakistan at the federal or provincial level has tackled this problem front on."
Schools are not immune to the war-fueled violence that has gripped Afghanistan over the past decade. There were at least 1,110 documented attacks at schools — including arson, explosions and suicide bombings — from 2009 to 2012, according to the United Nations.
Motives for the school attacks have included opposition to “Western teachings,” perceived affiliations with Western groups — and the education of girls.
JAVED TANVEER / AFP - Getty Images, file
An Afghan schoolgirl reads aloud during a lesson in Kandahar on April 21. The literacy rate in Afghanistan is about 30 percent.
In October 2010, at least eight children were killed when a girls’ school bus exploded in the Nimruz province in southwestern Afghanistan.
Just 19 percent of schools in the country are girls only, but they have suffered 40 percent of all school attacks, UNICEF figures show. Acid and gas have also been used or threatened against girls and their teachers, and there are reports of well water being poisoned.
Although Afghanistan lags the most in the world in terms of gender education parity, significant strides have been made since the Taliban was ousted in December 2001. Some 3 million more girls are now going to school, UNICEF reported.
Educators “are bringing schools to communities so that girls don’t have to travel quite so far and parents are comfortable with sending them to school,” Bender said.
Somalia’s schoolchildren have been victims of suicide bombings on school grounds in recent years. Al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda affiliate that masterminded the attack on a Kenyan mall last September, has reportedly targeted schools that don’t comply with a strict Islamic ideology.
“This violence and harassment has caused teachers to flee, hundreds of schools to close for varying lengths of time, and students, particularly girls, to drop out in large numbers,” according to the Global Coalition report.
NICHOLE SOBECKI / AFP - Getty Images, file
Somali girls take part in an after-school program at Sheikh Nuur primary school in Hargeisa on Feb. 19.
Human Rights Watch in 2012 reported evidence of girls being taken from schools and forced to become wives to al-Shabaab fighters.
At one school in 2011, “all the girls over age 15 ran away or dropped out,” a teacher told the organization. “One-hundred fifty girls dropped out of school.”
Poverty has been a major hindrance to education in this West African nation, where only about 56 percent of girls are enrolled in primary school — compared to 70 percent of boys.
Girls are under intense pressure to stay home to help with housework, according to UNICEF. Some are also expected to work as child laborers in the country’s gold mines.
Conflict in northern Mali two years ago, however, has only worsened the education gap as hundreds of thousands of children have become refugees with limited access to schooling.
The civil war that broke out three years ago has disproportionately affected girls. Whereas before the strife, most girls were receiving an education, they’ve since dropped out in larger numbers, Bender said.
“As people’s economic situations become more dire, the idea of marrying off children becomes more attractive,” she added.
There are fewer physical places to learn since the fighting erupted. The United Nations found in April 2013 that an estimated 2,445 of the country’s 22,000 schools were damaged or destroyed — and nearly 2,000 of the structures were converted from classrooms into shelters.
Violence has also frightened families to keep their children, particularly their daughters, at home.
“It’s gotten much worse,” Bender said.
First published May 8 2014, 12:10 PM