'Bringing back our girls' is not enough [Commentary]

In light of the recent kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls and the worldwide call to #BringBackOurGirls, it is important to note that the difficulties facing young females in Sub-Saharan Africa extend far beyond this tragedy. Last week Jean Waller Brune, the Head of Roland Park Country School, wrote a moving piece about the challenges of girls' education around the globe ("Bring back our girls," May 8). I am a proud alumna of RPCS and remember Mrs. Brune fondly. Her words affected me profoundly, now more than ever, as I am a resident of Africa and witness these types of atrocities daily.

While the job that brought me to Africa (I'm a Fulbright Scholar and professor of tourism at the University of Botswana) involves tertiary education, my extracurricular experiences have given me insight into the disadvantages associated with being female on this continent. I am also reminded on a daily basis of the significant appreciation I have for having been born and raised in the United States.

Prior to the April 14th kidnapping, the students from Chibok Government Girls Secondary School would have been considered the lucky ones. To attend an all-girls school is an opportunity few have here, but it makes a world of difference for one reason: toilets. Due to the lack of toilet facilities in many schools, once female students begin to menstruate, their attendance is interrupted each month, causing them to fall behind or cease attending lessons altogether due to the related social stigma.

While latrines could be easily provided with a few donations from a charity organization, marriage is a more permanent obstacle. In some areas of Africa, female education is terminated so that daughters can be married off early. Many families force marriages on their young daughters in order to obtain a higher bride-price, which is viewed as a possible means of elevating the family out of poverty. Unfortunately, female genital mutilation (FGM) is often associated with this practice. Though I have never witnessed this custom myself, I have heard the screams, which are made all the more harrowing by the fact the community is well aware of the pain being inflicted, yet is celebrating with the same enthusiasm we demonstrate when someone graduates from college in the U.S.

One of the motivations behind FGM is the belief that it makes women less promiscuous. But chances are high a girl's innocence will be taken long before she has the opportunity to realize her own impulses. In Botswana nearly 20 percent of females say their first sexual experience was rape. In South Africa, more than 40 percent of women will experience rape during their lifetime. This means the average woman is more likely to be raped than to complete high school. Unfortunately, the long-term consequences of sexual assault in this part of the world extend far beyond the psychological. Nearly half of all teenage girls in the region become pregnant and even more terrifying is the likelihood of HIV/AIDs infection. I live in the country with the second highest HIV/AIDS rate worldwide, which makes the prospect of rape a possible death sentence for the victim.

I was recently at an event where a government minister discussed the detrimental effect of brain drain. He highlighted the importance of Batswana men remaining in country to contribute to forwarding the national priorities. Loosely quoted, he went so far as to say, "take our women [abroad], but men, you must remain here."

I was born long after women's suffrage and the civil rights movement, and I am forever thankful for that. As someone who has never had to experience those injustices, it is heartbreaking to bear witness to similar circumstances in my adopted home. I implore everyone reading this to stand behind the #BringBackOurGirls movement. But I would also remind you these 276 girls are not the only ones who need our attention.

Kelly Virginia Phelan is an alumna of the Roland Park Country School, a Fulbright Scholar and visiting professor of tourism at the University of Botswana. She maintains a blog (drphelanipresume.blogspot.com) about her life and experiences in Africa. Her email is kelly.phelan@ttu.edu.

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