Bring back our girls

In rising, I would like to commend the member for Brisbane for putting this motion on Nigeria forward.

I have said in this place again and again that education is the great equaliser, the great transformer. It is through education that my sisters and I escaped a cycle of disadvantage. Education, and especially the education of women, is the bedrock of development. Education gives women options and control; it gives them choice. That is why the abduction of over 200 innocent Nigerian schoolgirls is so abhorrent. These young girls were targeted simply because they dared to seek an education, because they dared to improve their lives, and the lives of their families. The name of the perpetrators of this hateful act, Boko Haram, literally means 'Western style education is sin'. This terrorist organisation seeks to prevent the people of Nigeria from seeking an education, and to punish those who do.

I have been alarmed to learn that since this brutal abduction, teachers and members of the education community in Nigeria have been living in fear. Education unions in Nigeria have reported their fears that teacher recruitment will decrease to an all-time low because people are now simply too afraid to enter this most worthy and this most meaningful of professions. I fear too that school enrolment and attendance in Nigeria will be dramatically affected by this abduction. This abduction is not just an attack on these girls and their families but also an attack on every person in this world who believes that the right to education is a fundamental human right.

This morning about 50 girls from Girls Grammar School here in Canberra visited parliament, and I spoke briefly to them about this horrific abduction. In doing so, I wanted to imply how lucky they are as young women to have unhindered access to a good quality education. It is not just in Nigeria where the right of young women to access education is being threatened. Across the world millions of children and adults remain deprived of educational opportunities, some as a result of conflict, some as a result of oppression, many as a result of poverty, and some, like these Nigerian schoolgirls, as a result of fundamentalist ideology. According to the International Labour Organisation, of the 72 million primary school aged children not at school, 44 million are girls. That is 16 million more girls out of school than boys.

I have spoken in this place before about my very great fear that the ability for women to access education in Afghanistan may regress after the withdrawal of Australian troops and the troops of our ISAF partners. Enormous progress has been made in improving girls' access to education in Afghanistan over the last 11 years. Today, millions of Afghan girls and boys are now going to school. Many women now have access to education, to employment, to basic health care and to other essential services that previously were off limits to them. However, without constant vigilance these gains will easily be lost. We know too that in Syria conflict has prevented a generation of girls and boys from accessing education for much of the past three years.

Education is not just a fundamental human right, it is also essential for the exercise of all other human rights. The international community, including Australia, must stand together to protect the right to education for all girls and boys in this world. The international community, including Australia, must do what we can to ensure the urgent return of these abducted Nigerian schoolgirls. Inaction and complacency will only send the message that attacking the right to education is okay. Inaction will cause more Nigerian teachers to withdraw from the profession out of fear, and more Nigerian parents to pull their children out of school.

Today I stand with the teachers, unions and educators of Nigeria who have said they will not stop campaigning 'until our girls are brought back safe and alive and the perpetrators of the heinous crime are brought to book'. Today I stand with the parents and loved ones of these girls, who will not rest until their daughters are returned safely. Today I commit to do all that I can to ensure the fundamental right to education —the fundamental human right to education—for all is upheld the world over. We cannot have a situation where fear prevents children from accessing education. Bring back our girls.

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