A guest blog by the Rt Hon Dame Caroline Spelman MP.
Today is the 15th birthday of Leah Sharibu. But, unlike most young girls around the world, she will be spending her birthday in captivity.
On 19 February 2018, Leah was among 110 girls who were abducted from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi, north eastern Nigeria, by the al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram. The oldest abductees were 18 years of age; the youngest were 11.
On 21 March 2018, over a month after their capture, Boko Haram returned 105 of the girls to Dapchi, following negotiations with the government. Five had reportedly died during the arduous journey to Boko Haram’s hideout.
However, returnees confirmed that Leah Sharibu, the sole Christian among them, remained in captivity due to her refusal to convert and wear a hijab. Her friends said they begged her to feign conversion so they could all leave together. However, a tearful Leah is reported to have informed them she could not live with herself if she did so. She also asked them to tell her mother, Rebecca Sharibu, to pray for the will of God to be done in her life. In a comment to Nigerian media her father Nathan Sharibu said: “They gave her the option of converting in order to be released but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad… but I’m also jubilating too because my daughter did not denounce Christ.”
Facing mounting criticism for brokering a deal that left one child behind, the presidency issued a statement on 22 March pledging that it would “not relent in efforts to bring Leah Sharibu safely back home to her parents.” The UK Government has also expressed concern, stating “Attacks on schools and abductions of children are abhorrent and must stop”, and has called for the release of all those abducted.
Despite these efforts, Leah is yet to be returned. And with every passing day her parents have become increasingly despondent, fearing that the world’s attention has moved on to other crises, and their daughter’s plight has been forgotten.
Moreover, 14 April 2018 marked the fourth anniversary of the abduction of 276 female students from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State by Boko Haram. 176 of these girls are from families belonging to the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria. Many reading this will remember the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, which led to politicians, celebrities and members of the public making emotional appeals for their safe return.
A handful of these girls escaped. Others were released following a series of negotiations, and allegedly in exchange for imprisoned key Boko Haram members and significant sums of money. But what many reading this will not be aware of is that 112 remain unaccounted for – all of them Christians – amidst disturbing reports that 82 of them may have died in crossfire or aerial bombardment.
The tragic cases of Leah and the remaining Chibok girls merit far greater attention than they currently receive. However, abductions by terrorist factions obscure a wider pattern of abductions and forced conversions that are taking place in northern Nigeria. Indeed, in most of Nigeria’s shari’a states, and particularly although not exclusively in rural areas, Christian schoolgirls are frequently abducted by locals, often in collusion with traditional rulers, Shari’a commissions or other religious establishments. Once captured these girls are obliged to convert, and are subsequently married without parental consent. Local police are reluctant to intervene in such cases as they fear igniting civil unrest, and parents are often told to go home and forget about their daughters.
When the Chibok girls were taken and #BringBackOurGirls went viral, the world rightly sat up and took notice. Four years later, it remains more vital than ever that the international community continues to advocate for the ongoing plight of abducted Christian schoolgirls in northern Nigeria.
“There must be no let-up in pressure being brought to bear on groups and individuals holding these girls to release them.”
There must be no let-up in pressure being brought to bear on groups and individuals holding these girls to release them. It is imperative that perpetrators are brought to justice, and we must continue to call on the Nigerian government to do its utmost to ensure the release of every girl held in captivity, that a child’s right to freedom of religion or belief is respected, and that every child is free to pursue an education – and a life – without fear.
But today in particular, on her 15th birthday, we must stand in solidarity with Leah Sharibu, the courageous young girl who is surrounded by terrorists renowned for their extreme brutality, yet refuses even to pretend to convert in order to regain her freedom. We must call ever more strongly for her release and safe return. And we must not stop until she is home.