UN Matters: The abducted Nigerian girls and Malala: Gender-based violence at its worst and how the international community is responding

This column emphasizes the value of educating girls in developing countries in spite of continued gender-based violence.

By Juneau Gary, PsyD, and Neal S. Rubin, PhD, ABPP

In 2012, APA’s United Nations (U.N.) Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Team published a journal article, "Does Educating Girls Matter? A United Nations Perspective on Barriers and Promises" (Chitayat et al., 2012). We reviewed hardships and barriers, including gender-based violence, that girls, in mostly developing countries around the world, encounter while attempting to attain an education. We concluded, “Yes, education matters!” Educating girls in emerging economies and societies around the world is a necessity in order for full development of the individual, community and society to occur. It is vital that barriers to girls’ education be tackled and removed. Two years later, violence against girls in developing countries seeking an education continues in various parts of the world. Two high profile incidents demonstrate this point: 

  • In October 2012 in Pakistan, a girl named Malala, was traveling on her school bus to school when it was stopped and she was shot in the face by a member of the Taliban. The global community was outraged by the attempted murder. Miraculously, she survived and she has become an advocate for girls’ education. When Malala imagined an encounter with a terrorist who would challenge her beliefs, she wrote, “Maybe I'd take off my shoes and hit him, but then I'd think if I did that there would be no difference between me and a terrorist. It would be better to plead, ‘OK, shoot me, but first listen to me. What you are doing is wrong. I'm not against you personally, I just want every girl to go to school’" (2013, p. 7). Then in reality, when the Taliban entered Malala’s school bus she continued, "That's when he lifted up a black pistol. I later learned it was a Colt .45. Some of the girls screamed. Moniba tells me I squeezed her hand. My friends say he fired three shots, one after another. The first went through my left eye socket." (p. 9).
  • In mid-April 2014, nearly 300 girls were kidnapped by gun point from a residential secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria (northeastern Nigeria). Boko Haram, a local Islamist militant organization, took responsibility. Boko Haram opposes any social pursuit connected to Western society, including secular education (Chothia, 2014). It is feared that some of the girls may have been murdered while others may be forced into marriage, coerced into human trafficking in the sex trade business or sold into slavery. Some news reporters express concerns that if the girls return to Chibok and have been sexually violated or impregnated, they would carry the stigma of shame and might be ostracized by their families and/or community. They might be forced to reside elsewhere in Nigeria or in other countries without emotional or financial support, thereby perpetuating the cycle of illiteracy and poverty for the next generation. This incident has caused a global outrage, with support for the girls and their families found at #BringBackOurGirls. This abduction continues as we go to press.

Ayorkor Gaba, an APA U.N. representative and proud Nigerian American, was born in the northeastern region of Nigeria, near Chibok. She recently informed our APA U.N. Team that this region has been a known volatile and dangerous area for years. In May alone, Boko Haram:

  1. Burned at least three villages, killing over 200 people and abducted 11 girls and five police officers.
  2. Bombed a bridge that used to connect Nigeria to Cameroon, killing 30. 
Until April, atrocities in this region did not garner international attention. Finally, she reported that Nigerians and those across the Nigerian Diaspora feel helpless in supporting their compatriots in this region, who likely suffer from PTSD caused by the long standing and recurrent atrocities and threats of violence. 

Value of Education

Education represents one protective factor to shield girls from challenges to their health and psychological well-being as youngsters and later as adults. In our 2012 article, we quoted Kofi Annan, former U.N. Secretary General who stated, “study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, improve nutrition and promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS” (UNICEF, 2003). Therefore, limiting a girl's options for education may significantly endanger her fundamental human rights to safety and security in childhood and may compromise her potential opportunities for well-being, employment and empowerment in adulthood.

We also noted that for girls who are fortunate enough to attend school in developing countries, gender discrimination represents a barrier that threatens to thwart their educational progress. A UNICEF report (Reynolds, 2010) described progress in the attainment of education for girls, noting some countries are not making progress toward this goal and their failure to educate girls will leave girls abandoned to a bleak future. Does educating girls matter to their families? To their country? To the world?

In our previous piece, we created a composite of several girls residing in very poor countries and called her “Adama.” We noted the impact and confluence of poverty, entrenched gender roles, debt bondage, cultural traditions, HIV/AIDS, violence against school-aged girls, armed conflict and environmental catastrophes (e.g., famine) as many of the hardships, and consequently barriers, likely to adversely impact Adama’s academic achievement. There are millions of “Adamas” around the world, including Nigeria and Pakistan.

Trafficking, one of the barriers to education, is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force … abduction, fraud or deception … to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation” (United Nations, 2000, p. 2). It is difficult to determine the number of people trafficked (Saleem & Tummala-Narra, 2011). However, most are girls and young women. Although trafficking has been frequently associated with Asia, it is prevalent in other countries and trafficked victims are transported involuntarily all over the world. Once a girl is trafficked, her dream of an education is extinguished. For those trafficked to the U.S., the new "APA Task Force on Trafficking Women and Girls" (in press) provides useful information about:

  1. Public education awareness. 
  2. Prevention efforts. 
  3. Anti-trafficking policies.
  4. Training opportunities for clinicians who treat trafficked survivors.
  5. Community-based, culturally competent treatment programs.

Debt bondage, another barrier to education, is used by some poor parents who might be compelled to place their child/children into “labor” (or slavery) in order to satisfy mounting family debts. Abductors such as the Boko Haram are also known to engage in slavery. Debt bondage, slavery and other forms of exploitation thwart children from receiving an education because they must fulfill obligations of others.  

Recent U.N. Initiatives to Combat Violence Against Girls

In 2013, Marta Santos Pais, special representative of the secretary-general on violence against children, conducted a global survey designed to map and assess progress in the implementation of the U.N.’s 2006 study on violence against children. The current report, "Toward a World Free from Violence: Global Survey on Violence Against Children" (2013), highlights progress made since 2006, noting “progress has been too slow, too uneven and too fragmented to bring violence to an end” (Global Survey, 2013). Specifically, it discusses:

  1. Identifying risk factors impacting violence against children.
  2. Attending to violence in various settings, including schools.
  3. Addressing violence against children using a strong policy framework.
  4. Prioritizing prevention initiatives, including raising awareness.
  5. Promoting child participation in initiatives.
  6. Ensuring a gender perspective in initiatives.
  7. Highlighting positive and successful initiatives to reduce violence against girls.
Leaders of countries were invited to respond to the Global Survey on Violence Against Children. Eighty-two governments responded (Government Responses, 2013). Neither Pakistan (Malala’s homeland) nor Nigeria (homeland of the abducted girls) responded.

Male Allies: An Emerging Trend to Combat Global Violence against Girls

There is a strong need for the international community to work together to protect vulnerable girls such as other “Malalas,” Adamas” and those abducted in Nigeria. In our 2012 article, we concluded by describing psychology-based initiatives and individual actions to promote access to education for girls around the world. Since then, we have identified a new, emerging trend to combat global violence against girls whose only crime is seeking an education. Emerging research (e.g., Casey et al., 2013; Kimball et al., 2013) and presentations at the U.N. (e.g., Gary & Rubin, 2013) indicate that psychologists and other mental health professionals have begun to involve local men and boys in the global solution of gender-based violence prevention programs in developing countries. The establishment of men’s and boy’s ally programs is imperative in order to engage individual men and boys to intervene when (and before) girls are subjected to violence or its threat. Changing the plight of girls in developing countries requires systemic and multilayered culturally-sensitive interventions that involve male participation and are sustained over multiple generations in order to reshape the culture (Casey et al.; Gary & Rubin). This emerging trend focuses on the following:

  • Initiate male ally programs in which men talk directly to other men. In certain cultures, they listen only to each other, and not to women. Discuss how men can and should change their perception about supporting the education of girls while retaining their masculinity and sharing (not losing) power.
  • Introduce culturally-sensitive interventions and supports early in a male child’s developmental process. They should stress equality and respect within the family. If boys are socialized at home to respect women and girls, they should be less likely to display violence against girls when they mature. 
  • Train the (typically male) police force and officers of the court to take seriously all accusations of abuse, violence and murder perpetrated against girls and women (UNiTE, 2013). In Pakistan, for instance, women typically encounter indifference or bias from police and judicial officers when they attempt to press charges of abuse or violence (Critelli & Willett, 2010). Once a strong legal system is implemented, encourage women and girls to seek the support of and protection by the police force and courts. 
  • Validate (through research and demonstration projects) how the education of girls has the potential to benefit the local economy in a developing country. If girls are educated and later employed in adulthood, they have the potential to break the cycle of poverty and lift their whole family.

Psychological research is vital to evaluate the efficacy of male ally programs and other culturally-sensitive intervention programs designed to combat violence against girls.

Conclusion: When Will Gender-Based Violence End?  

Ending gender-based violence will be a slow process and is likely to disrupt current social, cultural, religious, educational and business systems. It will also consist of hardships and catastrophes along the journey. The well-publicized attempted murder of Malala in Pakistan and the abduction of girls in Nigeria represent hardships that girls have already endured. Educating girls in developing countries around the world must become a necessity and not remain a luxury. In developing countries, in which gender-based violence is often culturally ingrained and structurally embedded, the problem might be “invisible” because it competes with other pressing issues of poverty, illiteracy, civil war, food/water insecurity, genocide and inadequate health care. Gender-based violence, when competing against these other life-altering hardships, might have a low priority, if on the radar at all, for those who must forage for daily needs and exist on subsistence living wages.  

Consequently, we turn to the international community for support to:

  1. Articulate the “big picture” about the value of educating girls.
  2. Convince government leaders in developing countries to implement enforceable policies and legislation to support educating girls.
  3. Implement male ally programs in the cities and villages around the world in collaboration with local social service and educational organizations, UN agencies (e.g., UNICEF, UNIFEM), and NGOs.
  4. Protect the basic human rights for all citizens worldwide. 
International psychologists, in collaboration with other international professionals, U.N. agencies, local organizations and NGOs must continue to identify and implement culturally sensitive interventions to facilitate the current emerging trend of active involvement of men and boys in the change process in order to combat the global issue of gender-based violence. We are hopeful that the promise and possibilities of interventions already available, and those that continue to emerge, will be used to address this challenge.


APA. (2014, in press). Report of APA Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls. American Psychological Association Publication. Author.

Casey, E., Carlson, J., Fraguela-Rios, C., Kimball, E., Neugut, T., Tolman, R., & Edleson, J. (2013). Context, challenges, and tensions in global efforts to engage men in the prevention of violence against women: An ecological analysis, Men and Masculinities, 16(2), 228-251.

Chitayat, D., Dingman, S., Gary, J., Nolan S., Sigal, J., Vietze, D., Bvunzawabaya, B., Schaeffer, R., & Rubin, N. (2012). Does educating girls matter? A United Nations perspective on barriers and promises. International Psychology Bulletin (PDF, 2.79MB), 16(1), 12-19. 

Chothia, F. (2014, May 7). Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists? BBC News Africa

Critelli, F., & Willett, J. (2010). Creating a safe haven in Pakistan. International Social Work, 53(3), 407-422.   

Gary, J., & Rubin, N. (2013). When will violence against women and girls stop in developing countries? The struggle continues. UN Matters

Kimball, E., Edleson, J., Tolman, R., Neugut, T., & Carlson, J. (2013). Global efforts to engage men in preventing violence against women: An international survey. Violence Against Women, 19(7), 924-939.

Reynolds, B. G. (2010, April). The role of psychology in achieving universal access to education. Presented at the UN Department of Information Briefing, New York.

Saleem, R., & Tummala-Narra,U. (2011). Division 35: Special committee on violence against women report on trafficking of women and girls (PDF, 176KB). 

United Nations. (2013). Global Survey: Toward a World Free from Violence

United Nations. (2013). Government Responses to Global Survey

United Nations. (2013). Toward a World Free from Violence: Global Survey on Violence Against Children (PDF, 2.28MB).

United Nations. (2000). Article 3: Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons especially women and children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against transnational organised crime (PDF, 48KB). 

UNICEF. (2003). The global action week of the global campaign for education

UNiTE (2013). United Nations Secretary-General’s Campaign to End Violence Against Women

Yousafzai, M., & Lamb, C. (2013). I am Malala: The girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

*Special thanks to Ayorkor Gab, PhD, for her insightful comments and contributions to this column.  

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