The recent abduction of girls from a school in Borno state in the north east of Nigeria has sent shockwaves not just through the country but around the world. Within the space of two years, two separate violent incidents involving schoolgirls in the two countries with the highest number of out of school girls, Pakistan and Nigeria, remind us of the enormous obstacles they face in accessing their right to education.
In Nigeria, despite great anticipation, the return to democracy in 1999 was not followed by an improvement in education outcomes. With more children out of school than any other country, Nigeria is now one of only a handful of countries that will still have more than 20% of its primary school aged children not enrolled in 2015, as the latest EFA Global Monitoring Report has projected. In Borno state, where the 276 girls were abducted three weeks ago, 44% of 10-year old girls had never been to school in 2011.
Contrary to expectations, the introduction of the universal basic education law in Nigeria and the transfer of responsibility for delivering education to state and local governments exacerbated already huge disparities instead of reducing them.
As shown in the visuals in our World Inequality Database on Education (WIDE), the gap in the percentage of adolescents completing lower secondary school between the North East and the South West zones of the country increased between 1999 and 2008.
The inequalities affect girls the most. In the North East zone of Nigeria, just 5% of girls completed lower secondary school in 2008 compared to 31% of boys – and 80% of boys and girls in the South West zone.
It is not surprising that such extreme inequalities help fuel grievances. But what is exasperating is that the negative effects fall on the very children who are defying the odds and persevering with their schooling such as these Nigerian girls.
These schoolgirls have been targeted because they were benefiting from an education which would have helped them avoid early pregnancy and child marriage, overcome discrimination and have the freedom to make decisions that affect them – the very elements that they are now being denied.
This attack, just as with every attack on a school or a teacher, is an attack on the very institution which could reduce the inequalities that are fuelling the unrest.
Our latest Report shows that the expected risk of conflict, such as we are now witnessing, is highest in countries that have both a large youth population and low education attainment, as in Nigeria. For example, in a country with a high ratio of youth to adult population, doubling the percentage of youth with secondary education, from 30% to 60%, would halve the risk of conflict.
The lesson to be learnt is that, by accelerating growth and promoting employment, education dampens incentives for disaffected youth to engage in armed violence. Over the past decade or so, Nigeria has had one of the highest economic growth rates, and yet the largest growth in the number of out of school children in the world. It is time that this wealth trickled down to its school system to address the roots of the instability being witnessed today.