Today is the International Day of the African Child, and for 2014 the theme is 'a child-friendly, quality, free, and compulsory education for all children in Africa,' taking the day back to the roots of the movement. Today, nearly 30 years ago, thousands of brave children in Soweto demanded a quality education, and hundreds lost their lives as a result. Today, nearly 30 years later, we are still fighting for the rights of children to have a free and quality education. It is now over two full months ago that more than 200 girls were abducted from a school in Chibok, northern Nigeria by the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram. This terrible situation is the worst nightmare any parent can experience. To send a child to school, and for that child not to return home, is an unimaginable horror. Schools are learning spaces - children receive not only their formal education, but also an understanding of themselves, their community, and the wider world.
Many children in northern Nigeria are not in formal education and often this is a question of circumstance and access; but, increasingly, in the north of Nigeria, this is down to the fear or threat of violence. According to an Amnesty International report published in October 2013, from the beginning of 2012, at least 70 teachers and over 100 pupils had been killed or wounded in northern Nigeria. Also, at least 50 schools have either been burned or seriously damaged and more than 60 others had been forced to close. Thousands of children have been forced out of schools and more than 1,000 teachers have been forced to flee from areas in the north. As a parent, myself, I know that, sometimes, we have to make difficult decisions for our children, but no parent should have to choose between giving their child an education and keeping them safe.
Even before the rise in Boko Haram attacks, girl-child education in northern Nigeria was much lower than in the south. Overall in Nigeria, from 1999 to 2012, the number of out-of-school children increased from 7.4 to 10.5 million, this is the largest number of out-of-school children in the world . Comparing regionally, we find an even more dismal picture, 84% of poorest girls aged 7-16 years in the north-west have never been to school, compared to only 18% of children in the south-east. Child marriage is prevalent in the north, and although many families are driven to this by poverty as well as traditional values, by marrying young, girls are being trapped in a cycle of poverty, as they lose out on educational and economic opportunities that would help lift them and their families out of poverty.
There are many charities, governments and international movements that are helping the plight of children the world over, and ever more so the girl-child. Last month I co-hosted the Women: Inspiration and Enterprise Africa (WIE Africa 2014) conference in Lagos, Nigeria, and moderated the Girl Effect panel titled Our Future: This is the Moment to Invest in Girls. I had the privilege of speaking with three of the Girl Hub Nigeria's Girl Ambassadors; three articulate, intelligent, ambitious and conscientious young women who will no doubt help to shape the Nigeria of the future. We need to nurture and encourage more girls to succeed and this is why The Wellbeing Foundation Africa and myself have both become signatories of the Girl Declaration, a call to action to put girls at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda.
Girls should be encouraged to enter education. Offering girls education and protecting their rights for equal opportunities is one way of investing in the nation's wellbeing. The positive implications of educated girls are boundless; these include increased earning capacity and improved health and socio-economic outcomes for themselves and their families. Above all, education is a basic universal human right.
The continued growth and success of knowledge-based economies cannot be over emphasised and vast numbers of Nigeria's children are getting left behind.
We should use Chibok as an opportunity to work harder, to work with local communities, government and the global community to improve education access and quality in Nigeria. To make schools safe and free from violence, especially for girls, all social and structural obstacles that prevent girls' education in Nigeria and elsewhere around the world must be overcome together, through global cooperation. Africa is a continent of young people- overflowing with untapped and unrecognised potential. We should protect our children, guide them, and nurture them. 30 years from now, I hope that Soweto and Chibok will be cases confined to history and commemorated as crises that were long overcome.
Follow Toyin Ojora-Saraki on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ToyinSaraki