The real message of the Chibok girls

Story highlights

  • April 14 marks two years since Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria
  • Frida Ghitis: Boko Haram's main targets are education and women

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Let's face it: tragedies that occur in Africa don't often capture the world's attention. It is a shameful reality. This time, however, it was different. When women in Nigeria spoke out two years ago after terrorists kidnapped hundreds of girls from school, they stirred a sense of global outrage reserved only for the greatest of injustices in a world where suffering and injustice are all too common.

Two years later, despite the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign and the forces it unleashed, the girls from the town of Chibok are still not back. Yet the feeling of outrage continues. As it should, because bringing back our girls and keeping in mind the horrors perpetrated against them by their captors, Boko Haram, is as important now as it was then. Indeed, it could be even more important now that they have come to symbolize the broader struggle.
    Frida Ghitis
    Just before the April 14 anniversary of their capture, CNN obtained a video showing 15 of the more than 200 girls that remain in captivity from that mass abduction. It was sent by Boko Haram as "proof of life" in negotiations with the government. If the video is legitimate and the girls are still alive, this should increase the pressure on the Nigerian government to do whatever it can to secure their release and eventually destroy Boko Haram.
    After all, the girls from Chibok have come to symbolize the battle against Boko Haram and similar ultra-extremist Islamist groups -- and the costs of this conflict.
    We often think of the war against radical insurgents as a clash between a state and a paramilitary organization. But at its heart, it is a battle over everyday people. The most powerful message from the Nigerian students' kidnapping is that there is an enormous human toll to all this.
    Imagine the families of the girls, waiting for years and hearing the stories of sexual slavery, of being forced to convert to Islam and become suicide bombers. Imagine not knowing for sure what is going on, day after day, year after year. Imagine the girls, who on the day they were kidnapped were preparing to take exams, their dreams for a better life suddenly dashed, enduring who-knows-what horrors at the hands of the most brutal of terrorists.
    Their plight is a reminder that jihadi insurgencies, for all their geopolitical ramifications, are destroying individual lives.
    Sadly, despite some progress in tackling the group, Boko Haram last year became the world's deadliest terrorist group, according to the Global Terrorism Index, killing some 10,000 people since 2009.
    The jihadis' main targets are education and women. Indeed, Boko Haram means (very roughly) "Western education is a sin," and the group forbids modern education, particularly for girls, and enslaves and sells women, forcing them to live by 7th-century norms.
    Yet while the Chibok girls have garnered much of the attention, they are far from the only victims -- nor even the only students taken by the group. In fact, Boko Haram has carried out other mass student abductions and, according to Human Rights Watch, has kidnapped more than 2,000 students, destroyed 910 schools, forced 1,500 to close and caused nearly a million students to flee.
    Boko Haram has pledged its allegiance to Islamic State, or ISIS, and has declared its own "caliphate" in northeastern Nigeria. In doing so, it shares many of the same objectives of other jihadis terrorizing civilians and spreading fear around the world, from the bombers in Brussels to the men who are hacking to death secular bloggers in Bangladesh, targeting Christian children in Pakistan or murdering hotel guests in a growing number of countries.
    Like other terrorist groups, Boko Haram operates in the context of its specific location, taking advantage of the singular circumstances afflicting Nigeria. But its vision is guided by a quest to seize power and impose the strictest form of Sharia, Islamic law, upon the people it rules.
    There is therefore much about the fight against Boko Haram and other ISIS affiliates that goes beyond the girls of Chibok. But for the sake of the girls, their families, and the battle to defeat this ruthless organization, these students must be freed.
    And they must also be able to return to their education, because education is a valuable strategic asset in the fight against extremism. Modern, high-quality education is the only way progress will come to neglected regions, and it is the strongest defense against radical ideologies. It is also the only effective way to ensure that individuals, particularly girls, can pull themselves out of poverty.
    With that in mind, those fighting extremism must protect and expand access to education for everyone, but particularly for those in the most isolated, impoverished areas.
    Ultimately, the Chibok girls have become a symbol of the conflict in Nigeria. Their rescue would underscore the importance that civilized society places on individuals, the ability of the state to protect its people, and the commitment the entire world has toward ensuring everyone is allowed to live their lives in peace and pursue their dreams. That should be the message from Nigeria, from Africa, to the world.