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Girls suffer most as Nigeria kidnap scourge hits school attendance

Mass kidnappings in Nigeria are closing schools and keeping girls at home, depriving them of education and opportunities

A kidnapping crisis in northern Nigeria is costing girls an education as parents choose safety over school a decade since the mass abduction of 276 female students in the town of Chibok caused global outrage.

Jihadist group Boko Haram carried out the 2014 Chibok raid, but since then hundreds of children have been seized by criminal gangs using the same tactic of mass school kidnappings to seek ransom payments from parents.

For some families, sending their children to school is a risk they cannot take.

“We now have a situation where children are starting to choose between going to school and staying alive,” said Allen Manasseh, a farmer from Chibok and a member of the BringBackOurGirls campaign group.

His nieces and other female relatives who were seized in 2014 are among the roughly 80 kidnapped students who have never been released.

Lost education

According to the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, some 10.5 million Nigerian children do not attend school, accounting for one-fifth of the total number of children globally who miss out on an education.

Due to the kidnapping crisis, hundreds of schools remain shut in northern states – which already had some of the country’s highest dropout rates, especially among girls in an area where they are often expected to marry young.

Child marriage is most common in Nigeria’s northwestern and northeastern areas, where just over half of women aged 20-24 were married before their 18th birthday, according to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership working to end child marriage.

A student attends a class at an Abuja secondary school, February 18, 2022.

A student attends a class at an Abuja secondary school, February 18, 2022.

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Those areas are also the worst-affected by mass kidnappings targeting schools, and that could exacerbate the gender education divide, said Cristian Munduate, UNICEF’s Nigeria representative.

“Families may be reluctant to send their daughters to school due to safety concerns, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and limiting opportunities for girls to pursue education and economic empowerment,” she told Context.

How many children kidnapped?

As Nigeria grapples with high inflation, unemployment and worsening hunger and poverty, abductions have become an almost daily occurrence in recent years – with authorities seemingly powerless to stop them despite tough penalties.

At least 735 mass abductions have happened since 2019, according to social and political research firm SBM Intelligence, which has described the surge in ransom kidnapping as an epidemic.

Aid workers say it is hard to know exactly how many children have been kidnapped since Chibok, but in 2022 Amnesty International put the number at more than 1,500.

According to the rights group’s findings, more than 780 children were abducted for ransom in 2021 alone. And as of 2022, more than 700 schools were closed in seven of Nigeria’s 36 states.

In one of the most recent incidents, 286 students – some as young as eight – and school staff were kidnapped last month by gunmen in Kuriga, a town in northwestern Kaduna state – an area which used to be considered safe.

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The captives were rescued by the Nigerian military a few days before the expiration of a deadline to pay 1 billion naira ($690,000) ransom for their release.

“It has become an industry. Kidnappers know, almost for a fact now, that they will get away with it. It’s low-risk, and they know they’ll get paid,” said Cheta Nwanze, lead researcher at SBM.

Under a law passed in 2022, anyone who pays a ransom can be jailed for up to 15 years, but the desperate relatives of kidnapping victims often turn to social media to crowdfund ransom fees, take on debt or sell their possessions.

“A lot of people I know personally have contributed to ransoms,” Nwanze said. “Your friend or relative could easily get killed, and the kidnappers know this.”

But keeping children out of school to reduce the risk could perpetuate the cycle of crime, by putting boys in particular at risk of recruitment by kidnapping gangs, said Dengiyefa Angalapu, a research analyst at Centre for Democracy and Development, a non-profit focused on West Africa.

“Children that are hungry and not in school are more likely to be recruited,” he said. “How do you convince … (those children) to love their society?”