#BringBackOurGirls. And, create a brighter future for all Nigeria’s youths.

With well over 2 million tags on Twitter and Facebook, the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign has catapulted the kidnapping of 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria, by Boko Haram onto the world stage. The incident is not only shedding light on the Boko Haram organization and the dynamics of the security and terrorism threats in Nigeria and neighboring counties of West Africa and into the Sahel, but at the same time reinvigorating and strengthening the movement for girls. The abduction in Nigeria and the cause of these girls is fueled by the momentum for girls’ education and empowerment that surged in response to the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan by the Taliban in October 2012. The world moved to its feet to #StandWithMalala, and the #IamMalala campaign highlighted the many challenges and abuses faced by girls and young women everywhere, especially in poor societies and weakly governed fragile states. As do these girls, she moved us with her courage and commitment to create a brighter future for herself in spite of the danger. On the occasion of her 16th birthday, Malala delivered a truly inspirational speech remarking that “one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” On that occasion I commented in “Why We Must All Hope Malala’s Birthday Wish Comes True,” and those sentiments reflect the two narratives we see again now—one of the challenges and one of opportunity.

The most recent Education For All report projects that at current enrollment rates it could take until the next century for all girls from the poorest families in sub-Saharan Africa to finish lower secondary school. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate youth are female, and roughly 50 percent of the world’s out-of-school children and youth are living in conflict environments and fragile states. Sadly, the horrible fate of these nearly 300 abducted girls reflects the disadvantaged and vulnerable situation faced by too many of the 26 million young women in Nigeria, where roughly 40 percent of female youth are illiterate, and less than half ever enroll in secondary education. Approximately 40 percent of girls are married off before their 18th birthday, and 16 percent are married before they turn 15. In the North East region, child marriage estimates are as high 68 percent. And, while statistics on human trafficking are difficult to gather, globally as many as an estimated 29 million men, women, and children are victims, and a significant majority of them young women.

While the young women of Nigeria face significant challenges and adversity, the situation and wellbeing of all youth—who total nearly a third of the Nigerian population—demands attention as well, for mounting research shows links among demographics, poverty and marginalization, and instability and conflict. Hopelessness and despair increase the susceptibility of young people to engage in illicit economies and black markets like human trafficking and weapons trading, and make youth that much more vulnerable to recruitment into groups like Boko Haram.

Estimates of the share of youth living under $2 a day are as high as 80 percent, and youth unemployment in Nigeria is measured at 38 percent by the World Bank, though this is likely far lower than actual unemployment given the large numbers of young people in the informal and rural sector (the National Bureau of Statistics estimates 54 percent). In our recently released Global Youth Wellbeing Index (published with the International Youth Foundation), Nigeria ranked last—30 of 30 included countries. Furthermore, Nigeria places 30 out of 30 in both the safety and security and education sub-indices, and 29 out of 30 and 27 out of 30 on the health and economic opportunity sub-indices respectively. At the same time, the Index also found that economic, social, and security factors are correlated as this tragic occurrence further demonstrates. And although regional data is more limited, we know youth in more rural and provincial communities are likely to be at further disadvantage.

Yet, while this situation reflects the seriousness of the plight of girls and young people in Nigeria and worldwide, let it also be a sign of hope. Hope in the courage and dedication of millions of young Nigerians to pursue their education under any circumstances, to seize their potential and bring positive change to their families and communities. Hope in the fact that gender parity in education is on the rise, rather than the decline, and that more educated women means smaller, more educated and healthier families and communities. Hope in Nigeria and Africa’s rising generation of innovative, entrepreneurial, young men and women fueling economic growth and social progress; like 25-year-old Dr. Ola Orekunrin who is changing emergency medicine with Flying Doctors Nigeria or Mene Blessing whose organization UNFIRE is providing low-cost seeds and increasing income of smallholder farmers while making protein-rich food more available and affordable.

Hopefully, the sustained public outcry will continue to pressure and advance the efforts by the Nigerian government and the growing number of international partners to find and bring these girls home. At the same time, perhaps the attention to these girls can also induce more robust and sustained public- and private-sector commitments to and investment in the wellbeing of girls and young people in Nigeria and around the world. Safe school initiatives, scholarship programs, leadership, entrepreneurship, and employability training and other projects funded by public and private organizations are indeed worthy efforts that can directly improve the lives of thousands if not millions of youth and their families. Advancing the young populace at large toward a dividend for the country, however, will take institutions, systems, and targeted policies that better and more explicitly protect, serve, and enable youth. In its diplomacy with Nigeria, the United States could elevate the policy dialogue and pressure on these youth matters such as employment, education, and rights alongside energy and governance. Efforts like the Young African Leaders Initiative are no doubt important in building a new relationship with Africa and its emerging and future leadership, but it cannot and should not replace putting all youth interests at the fore of our diplomatic and development agenda—particularly in countries like Nigeria where the costs of exclusion, and the benefits to inclusion, are clear.

Nicole Goldin is director of the Youth, Prosperity, and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and principal author of
The Global Youth Wellbeing Index (CSIS/IYF, April 2014) in partnership with the International Youth Foundation. She is on Twitter @nicolegoldin.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Nicole Goldin
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development