Without Borders: A treasure too often plundered

Posted: May 19, 2014

Since a group called Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls in April and its leader vowed to sell them off, the story line that has coursed through news accounts has seemed so simple, so neat, so familiar.

The malevolent forces of an extremist Islamist group terrorize symbols of Western culture they find morally deplorable - in this instance, girls getting an education.

There is truth within that depiction: The local Hausa word haram translates to forbidden, while boko for this group has come to refer to Western education. No ambiguous message there, especially when those sitting in secular classrooms are girls.

Boko Haram's goal is to make northern Nigeria an Islamic state. The group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, even invoked Allah in a video in which he told the world of the group's plans for the girls.

"By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace," Shekau said.

The group's perverted views and actions led Muslims worldwide, including in Nigeria, to condemn the abductions immediately.

That story line, though, is not the whole story, and it might not even be the most significant part when it comes to protecting children around the world.

Like most other situations where children fall prey to abuse, Nigeria's context includes a complex mix of politics, poverty tinged with oil reserves that most people do not benefit from, and conflict.

But the common thread I keep coming back to, which weaves through Nigeria and through the mass kidnappings of girls and boys in Northern Uganda, Mozambique, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, is what seems to be an accepted proposition among many adults: that children are commodities.

If you think of children not as full-fledged human beings entitled to a full-fledged set of human rights, but as goods to be acquired, used, and thrown away, then you easily can snatch them from their homes, their families, and their schools.

You can lure vulnerable children and force them into sex trafficking on American streets.

You can turn them into soldiers and sex slaves, which was the sick specialty of Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army in Northern Uganda for so long, beginning in the 1980s. You can use children as political and economic bargaining chips.

Especially in conflict situations, "not only are children not protected, but they are used," said Carolyn Miles, the president and CEO of Save the Children.

"I think kids are abducted for various reasons, but largely because they can provide a function that's of value," said Neil Boothby, a professor at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and an internationally recognized expert on children affected by war.

That function may be based on children's subservience. It can be their small size, which makes them more attractive for work that bigger hands and bodies would have trouble doing, such as fine sewing or spending hours in cramped mines.

Children's own families can participate in the exploitation, trading their sons and daughters for a fee. Boothby points to Southeast Asia, where some poor, rural families sell their children "to work in garment factories in horrendous conditions."

The function Boko Haram seems to need from its abductees is symbolism, Boothby said.

The abducted girls, he noted, had been in school for years and reflected a global advocacy campaign promoted by gender and human rights groups - which would rankle Boko Haram all the more.

Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai also has raised the profile of girls' education, Miles said.

Malala was 15 in 2012, when the Taliban stormed a school bus she was riding and shot her in the head in "an attempt to silence her and end her campaign for girls' rights to go to school," according to the Malala Fund's website.

It didn't work. She recovered and has gained international admiration for standing up for girls going to school.

Maybe it's the higher profile of these issues, and of people like Malala, that made people react quickly and passionately to the plight of the missing girls. The children of Northern Uganda were stolen and brutalized for years with most of the world not even noticing, let alone putting up a fuss.

Now that the right to education for all has become a powerful movement, it is time for those who care about protecting children to step back and start etching an even more basic premise into the global consciousness:

Children are a living treasure to be protected, not a commodity to be plundered.


cdavis@phillynews.com

610-313-8109

@carolyntweets

www.inquirer.com/montcomemo

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|