Gordon Brown: Where children are scared to go to school

Orphaned by Boko Haram: 'They are slaughtering people'
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Orphaned by Boko Haram: 'They are slaughtering people' 01:59

Story highlights

  • Gordon Brown: Boko Haram's tactics have hit a new barbaric low
  • Boko Haram's abuse of children is growing more vicious, he says

Gordon Brown is U.N. special envoy for global education and former British Prime Minister. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Boko Haram's murderous tactics have descended to a new barbaric low.

Last Saturday, a bomb strapped to a schoolgirl exploded in the center of Maiduguri in Borno state, killing at least 20 people. Then, on Sunday, two girls simultaneously blew themselves up in a market in Potiskum in Yobe state, killing three and injuring more than 40.
Gordon Brown
It is clear that girls as young as 10 ​are being lined up as suicide bombers to further Boko Haram's cause. And these new bombings come as Boko Haram has also caused outrage around the world with its indiscriminate massacre of innocent men, women and children in the towns of Baga and Doron Baga.
    Indeed, new photographs obtained by Amnesty International show the devastation of more than 3,​700 homes, local shops, local churches and their local schools.​ Nothing, it seems, is sacrosanct.​ Daniel Eyre, Nigeria researcher for Amnesty International, said this was the "largest and most destructive" Boko Haram assault his organization has ever seen. The Nigerian government estimated 150 people were killed, but some widely reported private estimates put the figure as high as 2,000.
    Days earlier, on January 4, 40 boys and young men, ages 10 to 23, were abducted from a village in the Nigerian state of Borno.
    This willful destruction of even the most innocent of lives destroys any illusion that Boko Haram will try to shield any civilian, however young or however frail, from its​ attacks and killings. As a result, this year is poised to be a year of infamy that could exceed the horrors of the last one.
    In November, for example, at least 120 people were killed in a bomb attack on a central mosque in Kano, the principal city of northern Nigeria. A few weeks earlier, the terror group kidnapped at least 97 people, including many children, during raids on villages in Borno state. When earlier in the year they invaded the northern village of Izghe, Boko Haram militants went door-to-door, killing any man, woman or child they came across.
    ​And perhaps most infamously, last year some 220 girls were abducted from Chibok by Boko Haram. Sadly, there has been no news on their whereabouts, meaning none of these families know whether their daughters are safe.​ No one knows if his or her daughter has been married off, raped, violated or even whether she is alive or dead. Every waking hour remains a nightmare for these families.
    Boko Haram's ever more violent and ever more vicious abuse of children as weapons of war -- as victims, as slaves and as suicide bombers -- must be addressed, because the threat is only likely to grow.
    After all, the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau​, who has a $7 million ​bounty on his head​, was seen last week in a video praising the jihadists who killed 17 people in the Paris attacks.​ The Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium has described Shekau as a "religious intellectual, yet also a gangster and vigilante as well as a mad leader."
    With all this in mind, I am urging the international community to step up its pursuit, exposure and surveillance of Boko Haram and to do more to coordinate action against their cross-border incursions into Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and other countries.
    Following the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, a special initiative for children was launched -- the safe schools ​plan. It was in response to the news that children, fearful of further terrorist attacks,​ had been staying away from school. The idea behind this is admirable -- the notion of safe schools and a universal call for every child to have the right to education, free of fear and intimidation. This plan is being put into place, and steps are being taken to fortify and guard schools, to improve security and to create a line of communication between schools and police and army.
    These new initiatives are backed by the Safe School Guidelines, passed by the United Nations to stop the use of schools as military targets and to ensure that they are havens free from exploitation by terrorist groups.
    Just as hospitals are regarded as protected under international law, so should schools. While better fortifications will of course not ultimately stop the carnage if a terrorist group is hellbent on an attack, the deterrent effect​ of enhanced security measures offers at least a first line of defense. And it also sends the important message to parents that everything possible is being done to make schools safer for their children.
    Over the last few weeks, $23 million has been raised for safe schools from the international community, and in the last few days the United States and Britain have announced further help for the initiative. But we are calling on all aid agencies to support this innovative plan, one that could, if applied round the world, help children worried about the threat to their schools, in countries from Pakistan to Lebanon.
    It is hard for many of us in the West to imagine what it is like to be scared even to travel to school, yet too many children around the world confront that fear every day. It is time for that to change.