When armed men came to our school, we were sitting at our desks. They called us—one by one and at gunpoint—to the front of the classroom. We kept our gaze on the dirt floor. Over years of war we have learned what not to do around men and boys carrying guns. Do not look them in the eye. Do not disobey. Do not smile. Do not cry. Look sick, puny, and worthless. Look dead in your eyes, as if all they could do to you has already been done.
They took 12 of us. We boarded a truck and drove to their training camp, where there was nothing but thornbushes and sand dunes. We saw small boys, eight and 10 years old, trained as suicide bombers. The older fighters treated those boys as if they were special. When they spoke about heaven, they meant death.
We girls were kept in a locked room, allowed out only to cook and clean and wash clothes for fighters during the day. At night they came to rape us. They called it marriage. The militants gave one 16-year-old to an old man, a commander. In the night she refused him. Maybe she cried. We do not know. In the morning he told his men to kill her. They filmed it as they cut off her head, then went back to the school and called the girls together. The militants tossed her head on the floor and said, “This is an example of what happens if you misbehave.”
After that, 150 more girls dropped out of school. It was impossible to study when the militants might arrive at any moment and take you away. There are so many reasons these extremists don’t want us to go to school. They claim it’s about religion, but barring us from an education is really about making us powerless. Schools are the targets. Girls are the targets.
If you think what you’ve just read is the story of the schoolgirls stolen by the Islamist militants of Boko Haram this spring in Nigeria, you’re wrong. This is the story of girls in Somalia, as gathered by Human Rights Watch in 2011—and by my own reporting—and these could have been the words of girls in India, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, or Afghanistan, among others. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has raised phenomenal awareness around the Nigerian girls, more than 200 of whom remained in captivity as Glamour went to press. But where are the cries for these other girls? How can we rally around them?
Consider the details: From 2009 to early 2013, armed rebels abducted schoolchildren in at least 11 countries. Girls are particularly vulnerable to being stripped of the right to an education, and when that happens, it’s a sign of a culture in crisis. “When girls don’t go to school, they aren’t the only victims,” says Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times and coauthor of the forthcoming book A Path Appears. “Their entire societies are the losers. Those countries marginalize half the population and end up like a bird trying to fly with one wing.”
Working for 15 years as a journalist in war zones—from Africa to Central America to Asia—I’ve met many girls denied an education. Some were abducted from school by armed men; others couldn’t go because just getting there was too dangerous or war had closed the school down. “They are bombed, burned, shot, threatened, and abducted precisely because of their connection to education,” says Diya Nijhowne, director of the Global Coalition to Protect Education From Attack. Of the hundred or so girls I’ve met with such tales to tell, the stories of three are tattooed on my heart.
The first, Forever,* was 15, with closely cropped hair and a long, delicate neck. She’d been held captive for about five years by the Lord’s Resistance Army, the rebel group led by the madman Joseph Kony, and had recently escaped when I met her in northern Uganda. Over nearly 30 years Kony has abducted an estimated 30,000 children. Forever was one of them: Taken while walking to school, she was raped and forced to cook and care for a commander who called her his “wife.” She longed to return to school and plotted how to escape. Then one day, while pretending she needed to go to the bathroom, she fled. “I carried ground glass with me,” she told me. “If they caught me, I was going to swallow it to be sure I would die.”
A few years later, in a rebel camp in the Colombian jungle, I met a 14-year-old girl soldier named Claudia with a glossy brown ponytail and camouflage fatigues. When she was about 10, rebels had come to her village and demanded that each family give up a child to their cause. “They put me in a truck and carried me through the mountains,” she said. “I will never see my family or a school again.” In the camp she was taught an ideology she didn’t believe in, but all she really learned was how to kill people. She told me this in bits and pieces among the rebels: She couldn’t speak freely, but it was clear her future had been stolen from her, a future that had just begun with an education.
In Afghanistan, Rahila was 13 when her father forced her to stay home; he claimed that since schools were under attack by militants, he feared for the safety of his beautiful girl. So she taught herself to write love poems by listening to women read poetry on the radio. When her brothers found out, they beat her, but she didn’t stop. Afraid that her family would kill her, Rahila took her own life—a protest against all she wasn’t allowed to do, beginning with attending school. When she died, only a poem survived her: I call. You’re stone./One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.
Each of these stories—a sex slave, a child soldier, a suicide—represents what happens when no one intervenes on behalf of the roughly 15 million young girls who can’t go to school as a result of war. (And that’s to say nothing of the millions more girls who are denied an education for reasons of culture or access.) Yet despite staggering risks, many girls in countries riven by violence go to great lengths to get to school anyway. To reach their classrooms, they defy death threats, bullets, the rage of their families. They go because many see school as their only shot at making a better life for themselves. Consider the Nigerian girls, who, on the day they were abducted, went to school because they were so determined to take their exams. Consider Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani student who boarded the school bus each day even as the Taliban threatened her life. It’s each and every one of these girls, armed with little more than outsize amounts of courage and the tenacity to take action, who will change the world.
We need to do whatever we can to support these girls—buying books or a backpack or even a bike if their school is too far away. “A lot of global problems are really tough to fix, but this one is pretty straight-forward,” says Kristof. “It’s not just about building schools but about subsidizing school uniforms and providing lunches as a kind of a bribe to send daughters to school.” In Afghanistan, for instance, some schools hand out bags of rice to families only if their daughters show up for class. “We can fight extremism not only with drones,” says Kristof, “but also with schools for girls.”
Meanwhile the Nigerian girls are still missing, as are countless others whose stories are less well-known and chances of rescue even slimmer. Let’s channel our hope into action; let’s learn about their plight and what we can do about it. Let’s bring back all our girls.
*For safety reasons, some girls’ names have been changed.
A school lunch, a uniform: When you provide these things, you can keep girls in the classroom. A $56 gift to the International Rescue Committee can pay for the tuition and supplies necessary to allow a girl in countries like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to attend school for a year.