© Akinkugbe Okikiola/ActionAid
Fons Coomans
10 October 2014

The world was shocked by the kidnapping of almost 300 schoolgirls and attacks on schools in the state of Borno in the Northern part of Nigeria by fighters from the Boko Haram armed group. It became very clear from a video message sent by one of the leaders of this extremist Islamic group that they are of the view that girls should marry at an early age, remain at home and work like slaves.

Boko Haram aims at establishing a pure Islamic state in Nigeria and rejects what they consider to be Western values, such as a democratic system, equality of women and men, religious freedom and Western inspired education. The name Boko Haram means: Western education is prohibited or sinful. What is more: they seem to deprive girls of their right to education. Put differently, they deny that a deprivation of the right to education has occurred. Their ideas are contrary to the universally shared fundamental value that each individual has a right to self-realisation, empowerment and moving up the social ladder through education. From a human rights perspective education is a key right which unlocks the enjoyment of other human rights. This right takes a central position in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Art. 10).

Some Islamic parents in the Islamic part of Nigeria agree with the views of Boko Haram, in the sense that they feel that education in Nigeria has too many Western influences by its emphasis on democratic ideas and by strengthening the social position of girls and their matureness. Boko Haram seems to argue that all knowledge of Western origin is suspect and should be seen as a plot against Islam and that educating girls is “Western cultural imperialism” (The Guardian, 3 May 2014). One can witness similar developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan where religious leaders oppose education for girls. Such ideas have been echoed by the Taliban who are also against a right to education for girls. This became very clear when the Pakistani girl Malala, an outspoken fighter for the right to education for girls, was shot in the head by the Taliban in October 2012.

What is important for understanding the current situation in Nigeria is that during British colonial rule before 1960 Christian missionary schools were established in the South, while this process was opposed by Muslim leaders in the North. The British ruled both regions separately from each other. Poverty in the North and economic and educational backwardness proved to be a breeding ground for the emergence and growth of Boko Haram which found and finds its supporters among uneducated, jobless and young men from the North. Currently, there are great imbalances in literacy rates of women between the North and the South (The Guardian, 14 May 2014).

All major religious and social beliefs, worldwide, agree that being able to follow an education is valuable, not only for an individual person, but also for society at large. Recent developments which seem to imply a denial of this key value and right are alarming and should be taken seriously. Should Boko Haram practices be seen as cultural relativism, in the sense of disavowing what they consider as an imposed type of Western education?

There is no need to establish in each country a Western type of education, but at the very least some form of pluralism and freedom to choose should be guaranteed. In the present case this would mean that the indoctrination should not occur, instead knowledge and skills must be passed on to girls in an objective manner, which would enable them to empower themselves and work towards self-development. Part of such a process is having access to information and new technologies in order to connect to the world and learn about their capabilities. This may strengthen their social position and emancipation, away from dependence and subordination. Is this all Western and subversive? It is certainly modern and entails a rejection of conservative views of religious leaders and heads of families. However, it also reflects shared ideas and values among and within societies. 

A process of awareness-raising through civil society of all stakeholders by applying a bottom-up approach through dialogue, starting at the local and family level would facilitate implementation of the right to education. An appropriate way to achieve this seems to be human rights education for girls and women (mothers) which departs from more modern interpretations of the Qur’an. This could first be framed as rights-based education outside the school system, for example organised by community-based organisations and through the introduction of female teachers, in order to promote awareness about human rights and literacy among girls and women.

Secondly, human rights education should take place within schools through, for example, a revision of curricula and textbooks in order to counter stereotypes and prejudice about the traditional roles of women and men in society. Such a strategy not only aims at promoting the right to education for girls, but also at fostering rights in education and rights through education.

These goals require the active involvement of all relevant stake-holders, such as central and local governmental authorities, religious leaders, school authorities, teachers, parents, community-based organisations and finally the children themselves. Such an approach would help in universalising the right to education in practice. In this regard it seems appropriate to conclude with a quote from An-Na’im and Hammond who wrote:

"The project of the universality of human rights is to be realised through a confluence of internal societal responses to injustice and oppression, instead of attempting to transplant a fully developed and conclusive concept and its implementation mechanism from one society to another. The way to get a universal idea accepted locally is to present it in local terms, which can best be done by local people. Conversely, local acceptance enriches the universal idea by giving it meaning and relevance to people’s lives" .[1]


Professor Coomans is an adviser to the Right to Education Project. In 1992 he received a PhD degree from Maastricht University. He has worked at Maastricht University since 1985. Currently he holds the UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Peace at the Department of International and European Law at Maastricht University. He teaches international human rights law and international development law at the School of Law. He is the Director of the Maastricht Centre for Human Rights, and Senior Researcher at the Netherlands School of Human Rights Research. His fields of research include the international protection of economic, social and cultural rights in general and the right to education, health and food in particular, as well as international monitoring mechanisms in the field of human rights and the extraterritorial reach of human rights law. Contact Professor Coomans: Fons.Coomans@maastrichtuniversity.nl   


[1] A.A. An-Na’im and  J. Hammond, Cultural Transformation and Human Rights in Africa, Zed Books, London-New York, 2002, p. 16.

This blog has been reposted with the kind permission of Fons Coomans. The original editorial can be found here


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