Gordon Brown: Listen to the voices of girls around the world

Children in conflicts, Gordon Brown

By Gordon Brown, United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education and former UK Prime Minister
The civil rights struggle of our generation is being fought out, brutally and shamefully unobserved.

On one side, terrorists, murderers, rapists and cowards, hellbent on acts of depravity. On the other, defiant, relentless, brave-beyond-comprehension young people – girl heroes and boy heroes desperately fighting for a future but, sadly, in a world largely oblivious to their plight.

In the United Kingdom and in the United States we do find out. We do learn about abuse and  horror from across the the globe and we do react but it’s often too late and then, inevitably, it’s always too little. We should not fail young people but it seems like we always do.

More than 270 Nigerian girls, whose only crime was to go to school, are now entering their eighth week in captivity after being abducted. Of course you remember. It was only eight weeks ago, wasn’t it? How could you forget? There was a kidnap picture, girls draped in grey and grouped together for maximum impact, Boko Haram terrorists gloating in the background. Of course you remember, don’t you?

Maybe you thought they were back home with their mums and dads, or laughing and joking in the school playground. They’re not. They’re still going through God knows what.

Eight weeks. We can’t forget. We owe them. We can’t give up because they won’t have given up. Young people shouldn’t know how to fight but they do.

During this time the world’s attention has been drawn to India where a gang raped and then hanged two girls seen as property to be passed around 28 Indian youths. 

And there has been public outrage at the death sentence over a young Sudanese mother simply because a woman is considered to have no right to her own religion.

Some of the abducted girls from Chibok appear in a Boko Haram video

In recent days the focus has switched to Iraq, where extreme Islamists are fighting  for demands that include changing the constitution to legalise marriage for girls. Girls at the age of eight.

The killings, the rapes, the mutilations, the trafficking and the abductions shock western eyes because the assaults seem so out of the ordinary. Not isolated incidents but part of a pattern where the violation of girls is common place. A pattern where girl’s rights are still only what rulers decree and where girls’ opportunities are no more than what patriarchs decide.

Consider this. This week, and every week, at least 200,000 school-age girls in Africa and Asia – many just 10,11, 12 and 13 years old – will be married off against their will because they have no rights that can stop this occurring.

Thousands more girls will be subjected to genital mutilation because individually they have no power to stop a practice designed to make them acceptable as child brides and for adolescent child birth.

And girls as young as eight, nine and 10 will be in full-time work, down mines, in factories, working the fields and in domestic service. Many of them will be trafficked into prostitution as part of a subterranean world of slave labour. They are children. They have a right to be at school.

In 2014, almost 70 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we are in the midst of a liberation struggle that has yet to establish every girl’s right to life, education and dignity.

Fortunately the girls liberation struggle that is being waged to take girls out of exploitation and into education now stretches across the world. From the Nilphamari Child Marriage Free Zone  in Bangladesh, to Nepal’s Common Forum for Kalmal Hari Freedom and Indonesia’s Grobogan Child Empowerment Group, right across to Africa where  the Ugandan Child Protection club and the Upper Manya Krobo Rights of the Child club, are making progress.

These groups are not household names but embryonic civil rights movements in their own countries.

Young women who took part in the girls’ rally in Pakistan

It is girls themselves who are doing more than the adults, they are demanding their rights. A few weeks ago I spoke to 2000 girls in Pakistan, 18 months after Malala Yousafzai was shot. Back then I had found girls angry but cowed into submission. Now, during my event visit, they are a vociferous campaigning group determined not to allow Pakistan to fail to educate girls.

But they need the world to see their freedom fight for what it is.

So this month, on the Day of The African Child on June 16, we will make girls’ rights the centrepiece of worldwide demonstrations. We will stand in solidarity with all girls denied basic rights. We will think of the girls of Chibok in Nigeria who were preparing to sit their exams and saw years of hard work and planning for the future snatched away from them.

To an adolescent girl, 50 days away from your family in captivity will seem like an eternity – and unless the world makes its views heard, they will be quietly forgotten. We cannot allow that. We cannot fail them.

The Day of the African Child, designated by the African Union in memory of students massacred in Soweto in 1976 for protesting against education injustice, will see a flagship “Youth Takeover” of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – and then 20 parliamentary takeovers by young people who will occupy their national assemblies in support of the Chibok girls and girls’ rights to education around the world.

There will be events in cities across the world including Rio, Lagos, Hanoi, Cairo and Islamabad. In Addis Ababa, a Youth Assembly will be convened and a Youth Run will take place – a community race through Addis Ababa symbolising the fact that we are running out of time to get every child into school and learning.

There is an old saying that I don’t agree with but goes along the lines of “children should be seen and not heard”. It should be rewritten.

The girls and boys I have encountered in Nigeria and Pakistan and 100 other countries need to  be heard. They need to be heard loudly. They need to be heard often. Only then will the world listen.

Don’t miss news, views and pictures from Day of the African Child and Youth Action Month.

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