The South Korean ferry tragedy is not the only bit of sad news about school children this month; days before, gunmen had stormed a girls’ school in Chibok in Nigeria’s north-eastern state of Borno, and abducted more than 200 students. Dozens managed to escape, with no trace of the remainder. The police called off the search this week, leaving frantic parents to search the forest themselves.
The mass kidnap was allegedly by Islamist group Boko Haram, which is linked to the al-Qaeda. Boko Haram means “western education is a sin”, and the group has been waging a violent campaign to impose shariah law, which appears to be particularly opposed to girls’ formal education. Earlier this year, it killed more than 50 students elsewhere in the country.
More people are obviously familiar with the story of Malala Yousufzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban in Swat Valley as she returned from school, for refusing to back down on her activism for education for girls. The U.N. has declared July 12 Malala Day.
There is very little media coverage, let alone accolades for the millions of marginalised children who are denied an education because of discrimination. A Human Rights Watch report this week highlights the widespread discrimination against Indian school children belonging to tribal groups, so-called lower castes and minority communities. It cites Unicef’s estimate that 80 million Indian children will drop out before completing elementary school and lays some of the blame on discrimination and intimidation. This, despite the passage of the Right to Education Act in 2010, which mandates free and compulsory education for all children aged 6 to 14 years. Most examples in the HRW report are of boys, because girl children are often not allowed to go to school at all.
What is a harder problem to have: fearing discrimination against your child in school or fearing your child’s safe return from school?
Moving as the film is, even more gut-wrenching is a global index published today that shows a staggering 29.8 million people serving as modern-day slaves in countries ranging from Nigeria to Myanmar.
Ten countries account for three-fourths of the world’s slaves, and India alone is host to almost half the total, according to Walk Free, an Australia-based rights group. While slavery is illegal in every country, the fight against it is not a big priority for most governments, and some forms of the practice – including forced marriage and trafficking of women and children for domestic work and as sex workers – may not be considered slavery in these countries.
Walk Free doesn’t break down the numbers to show how many modern-day slaves are women, but it’s likely to be a high proportion of the total. Yet there’s not much action on say, domestic workers in Asia or the Middle East, a practice that encourages the trafficking of women. Despite reports of violence against domestic workers in cities from New Delhi to Dubai, the demand – ironically fueled at least in part by greater numbers of working women – hasn’t abated.
Some Philippine recruiters recently decided to stop sending maids to Singapore till the issue of the payment of a placement fee is addressed – which often leaves maids with little cash in hand. Indonesia has demanded more safety for its workers in Singapore after a frightening number fell to their deaths cleaning windows in high-rise apartments.
Yet, while the decision in Hong Kong to not grant residency permits to domestic workers who have lived there for years has fueled the debate for greater rights, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to end slave-like conditions – or even grant a mandatory day off to domestic workers.
So for every country that steps in to try and protect the rights of its women who are trafficked to richer countries, poorer countries including Cambodia and Myanmar willingly send their womenfolk into slavery. Public apathy is as much to blame as government inaction.