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Making women’s rights a global priority
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Making women’s rights a global priority

On April 15, 250 Nigerian girls were abducted from their boarding school and forced into slavery by a terrorist group whose very name — Boko Haram — means “Education is Forbidden.” Although initial reports of the kidnappings appeared in The New York Times and other outlets, it took several weeks for the heinous crime to receive international attention. In a May 3 column, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof lamented the lack of awareness of the tragedy, saying he was “offended by the contrast between the global media focus on the missing [Malaysian] flight and the uninterest in the even greater number of missing schoolgirls in Nigeria.” 

Thanks to Kristof and the power of social media, this is now an international concern. We know that right now the United States, Britain, Israel, and others are on the ground in Nigeria helping to find the girls. By now these girls must have experienced tremendous trauma.

On May 9, I had the honor of participating in a meeting held by Sen. Robert Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, regarding the missing girls. The participants, which included local leaders and international human rights and trafficking experts, commended the senator’s leadership on this issue and on international women’s rights.

“I had planned to come here today, on the eve of Mother’s Day, to talk about economic opportunities for women and investing in our future female leaders,” Menendez said in a press conference before our private roundtable discussion. “But rather than talking about what matters so much to every woman — a good education leading to a good job that will help them build a better life for themselves and their families — I feel compelled to turn attention to the mothers in Nigeria who sent their girls to school to learn and today are hoping for nothing more than to bring their daughters home.” 

Last week, the United States mobilized. Menendez shared that he wrote to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan “calling on him to demonstrate leadership and to work closely with the United States and partners in the international community to determine what assistance is needed right now.” Menendez also cosponsored a Senate resolution that condemns the atrocious attacks, asserts the right of girls everywhere to an education, and calls for timely international assistance to Nigeria to help with the rescue effort. He also was among those who introduced the International Violence Against Women Act, which would make combating violence against women and girls a top U.S. foreign policy priority. 

At the meeting, everyone agreed on one thing: that we are late. We are late to recognize that women’s empowerment and women’s human rights should be an international priority. We are late to acknowledge that the abduction of one woman or 250 women must be considered a serious foreign policy concern requiring immediate action — on the scale of stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program or confronting the evolving threat that we face from terrorism. It took Nicholas Kristof and a social media campaign to move the international community to action.

Within the Jewish community, during the same time period, Brandeis University chose not to award a previously announced honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Muslim international women’s rights activist who denounces those Muslim movements and governments that oppress women. University officials bowed to critics who said, as an essay jointly written by a Jewish writer and a Muslim chaplain put it, that Ali “crossed the line from critic of Islamist extremism to demonizer of Islam itself.” Those same authors called on Jews and Muslims “to conduct not only civil dialogue but profound discussion on the issues that most divide us.” The goal of dialogue and coexistence is a worthy one, but how does this help the women who are living in oppressive conditions and with the immediate threat of violence? Who will speak for them? 

As the world prepares for next year’s 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference on Women, I hope that the international community will recommit itself to making women’s advancement a priority in all spheres of life. I hope that women’s lives will be valued as a top priority for domestic and international action.

I agree with Sen. Menendez, when he said, “I believe in gender equality and investing in women and girls as part of our shared economic goals of prosperity, stability, and peace. And I believe that we must do everything in our power to end trafficking and bring traffickers, wherever they are, to justice.” 

Let us put our words into action and support the Violence Against Women Act and work to end human trafficking in New Jersey, the United States, and around the world.

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