Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Bring Back Our Girls: Women's Education and the Fight against Terrorism

By Gabriella JohnstonPublished November 9, 2014

In April 2014 Boko Haram abducted more than 260 school girls in northern Nigeria. As of October 2014, those girls have still not been returned to their homes. Why have our counter-terrorist efforts failed? The answer: we've been fighting with guns, what we should be fighting with books.
By Gabriella Johnston, 11/09/14

Roughly translated, Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden." Living up to its name, the terrorist organization, a homegrown Islamist insurgency based in Northern Nigeria, has killed approximately 7,000 civilians, burned more than 300 schools, and deprived over 10,000 children of an education. Above all, Boko Haram fears secular education, particularly the education of women, viewing it as a threat to their harsh version of Sharia law that they seek to impose across the country. The northeast, where Boko Haram has been most active, is economically depressed and among the least educated regions in Nigeria. The counterterrorist actions taken against Boko Haram should therefore fight to empower those that threaten it the most—young girls and women. 

On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram abducted 276 school girls from a secondary school in Chibok, a rural town in Borno State. Although this was the biggest single incident of abductions by Boko Haram and one that garnered global attention with the successful #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign, it was just one of the numerous abductions, bombings, and killings committed by the terrorist organization since its creation in 2009. While Boko Haram has taken some victims arbitrarily, it seems to target students and Christians in particular.  The group threatens its victims with whipping, beating, or death unless they convert to Islam, stop attending school, and wear the veil or hijab. The Human Rights' Watch's recently released 63-page report entitled "'Those Terrible Weeks in their Camp': Boko Haram Violence Against Women and Girls in Northeastern Nigeria," details physical and psychological abuse, forced labor, and rape that the women and girls abducted by the Islamist group endure while in captivity.       

Designated by the U.S. Department of State in 2013 as a foreign terrorist organization, Boko Haram's terrorist motivations run much deeper than a violent and extremist interpretation of Islamic law. Its origins, in fact, appear rooted in grievances over poor governance and sharp inequality in Nigerian society. Nigeria is Africa's most populous country with more than 174 million people and nearly 350 ethnic groups speaking 250 different languages. Nigeria also has one of the world's poorest populations. The economic disparities between the north and the south are particularly stark with 72% people in the north living in poverty compared to 27% in the south. This dramatic inequality and the corruption that "is so pervasive in Nigeria that it has turned public service for many into a kind of criminal enterprise," result from deep-rooted sectarian, ethnic, and religious divides. Boko Haram exploits and deepens these divides through its terrorist attacks. 

Combatting Boko Haram and formulating a strategy to "Bring Back Our Girls" begins with understanding the historical, socio-cultural, and economic situation of Nigeria. It ends with reducing inequality and mending ethnic divides. The in-between, the most important part of the process, is the education of women and girls.  

We fight terrorism with armies and agencies, with imprisonment and interrogation, with trials and torture. We fight terrorism with guns and bombs and drones. We even, at times, fight terrorism with terrorism.  What we often fail to do, however, is identify and implement long-term solutions to prevent terrorism by addressing the underlying cultural and economic issues that are at the root of the problem. Education is the key to this process.