In many ways it is the best of times – and yet also the worst of times – for the world’s schoolgirls.
In numerous developing countries, more girls are in school and staying longer than ever before, as families and governments grasp the economic and social benefits of girls getting an education.
Afghanistan is one example of a country spurring global gains in girls’ education, with the proportion of girls in school rising over the past 15 years from 3 percent to just shy of 40 percent. More developing countries than ever are nearing parity for boys and girls in primary education – although secondary schooling remains a challenge.
And Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai in December became the youngest recipient ever of the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy of girls’ right to an education.
But along with the progress in girls’ access to education has come a backlash – leaving schoolgirls from Africa to the Middle East and parts of Asia exposed to mounting pressures to forgo the schoolhouse and, as in days gone by, stay home until marriage.
The reaction to growing numbers of girls getting an education comes increasingly but not exclusively from radical Islamists who oppose – increasingly with violence – advances by women.
“The international community has made a priority of getting girls in school and keeping them there longer, and there has been success,” says Gaynel Curry, gender adviser to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in New York. “But this issue of rising extremism threatens the gains we’ve made.”
Underscoring this increasingly hostile environment is a report from the UN’s human rights agency that finds attacks on schoolgirls “occurring with increased regularity” over the past five years.
“What we found in studying the period from 2009 to 2014 is an increased frequency of attacks by groups whose perception of women’s role in society is such that they shouldn’t be educated,” says Veronica Birga, a human rights officer with OHCHR in Geneva who helped compile the study.
“But just as important, the study found that these attacks are not just on the girls going to school, but are also aimed at society’s support for girls in education,” she says. “The objective is to reverse a growing acceptance of the value of expanding girls’ and women’s human rights.”
The report was prompted by the kidnapping last April of more than 270 schoolgirls in northern Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram. But what UN human rights officials soon realized is that attacks on girls exercising the supposedly universal right to education are widespread and growing.
“What we realized is that attacks on schoolgirls are more frequent and happening in more societies than what one might have in mind,” Ms. Birga says.
According to the report, more than 3,600 attacks on schools, teachers, and students occurred in 2012 alone, and occurred in more than 70 countries over the five years addressed by the study. While no definitive numbers are given, the report concludes that many of the attacks were “specifically directed at girls [and] parents and teachers for gender equality in education.”
Many of the attacks came at the hands of Islamist extremists bent on frightening girls and families away from schools.
“It’s no surprise that the rise in the kind of violent extremism we’re seeing would be accompanied by increasing attacks on schoolgirls,” says Ms. Curry. “The first target is often girls because of the view of the role of women.”
In addition to the Boko Haram kidnappings (Birga points out at the group’s name means “Western education is forbidden”) were cases of schoolgirls being poisoned and attacked with acid in Afghanistan, and the 2012 shooting of Malala Yousafzai.
But the report also notes that girls daring to go to school in parts of India brave rising threats of sexual assault, while girls have been subjected to gang violence in Central America. Schoolgirls have been kidnapped by guerrilla armies in Colombia and Central Africa – in some cases to become sex slaves or perform menial tasks such as cooking and cleaning, but in other cases because of skills they learned in school.
One of the most troubling findings of the study is that in many communities where girls have only recently made gains in access to education, that progress can be reversed by violence.
“In many cases when there are these kinds of attacks, the community support can quickly withdraw,” says Birga. She points to one example in Pakistan in 2009, when a rash of attacks on schoolgirls and women teachers resulted in more than 120,000 girls and 8,000 teachers dropping out of schools in just one district of the country.
“Obviously this works,” Birga says. “It sends a very clear message that schools are not safe, and that girls who continue to go to school face very serious consequences.”
Yet despite the evidence that targeted violence can have the desired effect of discouraging families from sending their daughters to school, officials say there are actions that governments and communities can take to blunt and reverse the extremists’ success.
At the top of the list is ensuring girls’ safety getting to and from school, they say, and making school itself a safe environment (That the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have not been freed nearly a year later does nothing to instill confidence in parents).
Community demonstrations of support also send a strong message, and rallies of girls and families from Pakistan to India and Africa have confronted extremists with a refusal to bow to the fear they’ve sown.
For some officials, all the focus on girls’ education from governments and international agencies will mean little if local communities don’t alter their practices and customs to value girls and women.
Robert Piper, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel region of Africa, says his agency goes to great lengths to provide “emergency education” to the 700,000 school-age children in the refugee camps they oversee. But he says that may mean little in the long run if schoolgirls eventually return to communities where they are undervalued.
“We have become much more aggressive about pressing governments on these longer-term issues like girls’ education and women’s rights,” Mr. Piper says. “But most often we send these girls back to the same homes where they may be discouraged from staying in school, there may not be clean water and sanitation, and where there will be the same pressure to marry at 15.”
Human rights adviser Birga says “nothing is more frightening” to opponents of girls getting an education than communities that stand up and support their girls and women.
“Courageous young girls and women are very important,” she says, citing the example of Malala. “They are role models who give courage to other girls, and together they can change attitudes,” she says. “That’s why they are so dangerous.”