Glory, Rejoice and Comfort. Three schoolgirls with unforgettable names. Three schoolgirls whose contribution to propelling girls’ rights onto the world agenda may yet rival what Rosa Parks achieved for U.S. civil rights a half-century ago.
One hundred days after Boko Haram’s abduction of Glory Dama, Rejoice Sanki, Comfort Amos and more than 200 other teenage girls from the Chibok school in northeastern Nigeria, their plight inspired a worldwide vigil. Last Wednesday, groups fighting for girls rights across the globe came together to act as one, unveiling what could become the great civil rights movement of this generation.
Demonstrations on behalf of the missing girls were mobilized in Pakistan by the girls’ education movement Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi, in India by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, in Africa’s Francophone countries by the Global March Against Child Labor and in capital cities around the globe by the 500 teenage global ambassadors of A World at School.
What have been, until now, relatively isolated local organizations, such as Nigeria’s Bring Back Our Girls campaign, are linking together across continents. They are converging around basic demands, originating from girls themselves, for an end to child labor, child marriage, child trafficking, genital mutilation, sex discrimination and other exploitive and abusive practices. In their place, they are demanding acknowledgment of a universal right to education.
In the next few months, we will witness concerted action on multiple fronts. Girls from Pakistan to Malawi will set up child-marriage-free zones as they borrow from the example of the Nilphamari region in Bangladesh, where local girls band together to rescue friends from forced marriages by standing up to parents determined to marry — and in some cases sell — them off. Joined by groups as varied as Uganda’s Amani Initiative and Indonesia’s child empowerment groups in the districts of Grobogan and Dompu, the work of what are popularly called “the wedding busters” is now being coordinated globally by Plan International and Girls Not Brides.
Linked by mobile phones and an enhanced sense of human rights, a global movement against child labor is also coalescing quickly. In November Kailash Satyarthi of the Global March Against Child Labour will hold the first anti-child slavery week, engaging groups from the Voice Against Child Labour and Nepal’s Kamalari Girls Freedom Forum in Asia to the Child Protection Alliance in Africa.
But the experience of 19th-century Europe and the United States is clear: Only when compulsory education was enforced and properly policed did child labor and slavery cease — and were the perpetrators of such evils shamed into accepting that children had rights. As countries implementing the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals to end poverty are discovering, when the education of girls improves, maternal and infant mortality rates fall, the devastation from diseases from AIDS to tuberculosis is reduced and the employment prospects of young people improves.
It is this demand for compulsory, universal education that is animating the student-led Yellow Movement in Ethiopia, the Street 2 Schools project in Tanzania, Kenya’s Mfariji Africa, Uganda’s child protection clubs and Pakistan’s Voice of New Generation. The pressure of such groups for investment in education locally is being coordinated globally by A World at School.
This is the freedom fight of the children of globalization, who have come through a world recession to find that the promises of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, declared in the austere 1940s, have yet to be made real for millions of girls even in the more affluent world of 2014.
Only a few days ago, Bolivia reduced the minimum age for child labor from 14 to 10. With legislators in Iraq now seeking to reduce the age for child marriage to 9 and Pakistan’s Council of Muslim Ideology ruling that any girl who has reached puberty should be able to be married regardless of age, a decade of progress to get 58 million out-of-school children into education threatens to shift into reverse.
Last month’s report from the UNESCO Global Monitoring Panel confirmed that, at the current pace, it would take 100 years for girls to have the same right to basic education as boys, and this month a major Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projection of the world from 2014 to 2060 revealed in stark detail the crisis in opportunities that awaits today’s young people.
The picture of the future that OECD report presents — a widening gap between a highly educated, high-earning minority and a poorly schooled majority shut out from opportunity — is at odds with conventional assumptions of the inevitability of advances in girls’ rights and universal education.
To alter this path and build upon the work described above, I and others have formed an Emergency Coalition for Global Education Action in pursuit of “four zeroes”: zero child labor, zero child marriage, zero discrimination against girls and zero exclusion from education. A timetable for action is scheduled to be unveiled at the U.N. General Assembly in September.
The girls of the world are showing us, by their example, how to succeed. The plight of Glory, Rejoice and Comfort during the past 100-plus days in northern Nigeria demands that we try. We must either find a way to protect every child’s right to an education and a life free of exploitation or face the dangerously uncertain consequences of sentencing another generation of young people across Africa and Asia to lives of frustrated aspirations.
Gordon Brown, prime minister of Britain from 2007 to 2010, is a U.N. special envoy for global education. He wrote this for The Washington Post.