This week we sadly remember the three-month anniversary of the kidnapping of the schoolgirls from Chibok. The world’s attention for these victims of brutal terrorists has underscored that the battle for equality in the developing world is inseparable from the battle for access to education for girls and women. Unfortunately, no hashtag campaign, no matter how popular, will liberate the girls from an army so convinced of its religious superiority that it rapes, tortures and murders with impunity. An international military effort is needed to defeat Boko Haram — otherwise a protracted civil war in Nigeria will further immiserate the poor in the entire region. Only when these terrorists are defeated will the people of the region have a chance to to share in the benefits that education brings.
Providing a safe place for girls and women to pursue their education is the best vehicle we know for combating poverty, disease and economic injustice. The demand that girls and women have a right to a full and equal education is not a parochial Western value — it is a fundamental human right. It is worth fighting for the ability of girls and women to have a safe, equitable and inclusive education wherever that right is compromised by the dogmatic assertion of male privilege.
Many in the United States have been focused recently on the ways our own culture denies girls and women equal educational opportunities. And the issue isn’t only one of gender. Gay, lesbian and trans students are often vulnerable to attacks — from the subtle to the most extreme. Violence against women, especially sexual assault, has rightly become a major issue for educators who want their campuses to be safe places at which all students can experience the freedom of a transformative education. Sexual assaults are dramatically underreported across the country in general and on college campuses in particular. This will only change when survivors know they will be treated with respect and care, and when the process for pursuing their claims is fair and timely. Schools have a responsibility to work with judicial authorities, but they also have a duty to ensure the safety of their students beyond what police departments and the criminal justice system can do. On my own campus, we know that any assault is deeply painful for the survivor and a serious blow to the community’s ongoing mission to create a challenging but safe environment for learning.
Violence of any kind has no place on campuses, and sexual violence is particularly pernicious in that it can have long-lasting traumatic after-effects and insofar as it plays on stereotypes and traditions of exclusion. When women, or any group, are made to feel more vulnerable, they are less able to receive the full benefits of learning. Activists across the country should be supported in their efforts to empower students to stand up for their right to study in environments free from discrimination, harassment and violence. This work is perfectly in accord with the mission to promote fair and equal access to education.
The free inquiry at the core of a genuine education often leads to challenges to traditional hierarchies. Genuine education challenges privilege and can empower people to change their lives. That’s why the girls in Chibok went to school, and that’s why American students demand access to educational opportunity without the menace of violence. Yes, Chibok is a long way from my university, Wesleyan, and the lives of women in the two places are so very different in many respects, but when we remember our commitment “to bring our girls home,” we remember too our commitment to fight everywhere for the rights of girls and women to claim an education free from the threat of violence.