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How Boko Haram imperils Nigeria's future

By Melinda Gates
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
Weeks after the April 14 kidnapping of 276 Nigerian girls, worried families and supporters blamed the government for not doing enough to find them. Their cries spread worldwide on social media under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement. Weeks after the April 14 kidnapping of 276 Nigerian girls, worried families and supporters blamed the government for not doing enough to find them. Their cries spread worldwide on social media under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. From regular people to celebrities, here are some of the people participating in the movement.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Melinda Gates: Kidnapped girls in Nigeria reflect long use of women misused in conflicts
  • She says Boko Haram justifies actions as Islamic; this insult denounced by Muslim leaders
  • She says group thinks women are merely property; these ideas affect Nigeria's prosperity
  • Gates: Outcry over girls shows many know empowered women are key to a nation's fortunes

Editor's note: Melinda Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

(CNN) -- I think of myself as an "impatient optimist." There are times, however, when it's harder to muster the optimism, and the impatience takes over. That's how I felt when I read about the hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram to be married off or sold into slavery.

It's difficult to pinpoint the worst aspect of this atrocity. And it's pitiful that this is nothing new. Treating women as spoils or weapons of war has been a common practice for thousands of years.

Boko Haram has sought to justify its actions as consistent with Islamic teachings, and this is an insult. Many influential voices in the Muslim world have rebuked the group's actions. (To cite just one example, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb of the Cairo-based Al-Azhar, one of Sunni Islam's most prestigious theological institutions, said the kidnappings "completely contradict Islam and its principles of tolerance.")

Melinda Gates
Melinda Gates

It's frustrating that the Nigerian government, despite an intensifying effort to find the girls, has been unable to locate them. And it's horrifying that hundreds of girls, their parents and thousands of their relatives are living each passing moment in escalating fear -- with no idea whether they'll ever see each other again. My heart breaks for these mothers and fathers.

But perhaps the most awful part of the story is that Boko Haram stands against a better future for ordinary Nigerians.

Boko Haram is committed to the idea that women are the property of husbands and mere instruments of reproduction. They are particularly opposed to the idea that girls ought to be educated, which is why they target schools.

Village slaughter blamed on Boko Haram
Clinton: Nigeria must find missing girls
Village slaughter blamed on Boko Haram

In fact, when girls are educated and free to pursue their passions, they contribute more to a thriving society. When women have a voice, they raise it to demand a life that is greater than what they've been told they have a right to expect. And these demands change the future for everyone.

Nigeria has a population of 170 million. Its economy is the largest on the African continent. The future holds nearly boundless promise, as represented, in part, by the fact that the World Economic Forum is meeting in Abuja right now. But if the country's 85 million women and girls don't have the opportunity to seize their potential, then neither will Nigeria.

There are countless examples of places around the world where women and girls are gaining power and autonomy, where the future looks brighter because women and girls are slowly wiping away the old gender norms.

The impressive outpouring of support for the girls -- both within Nigerian communities and around the world -- is an encouraging sign that most people want the version of the future that empowered women and girls will create, not the version that Boko Haram is trying to impose.

It doesn't help the Nigerian schoolgirls now, but thinking about the women and girls everywhere who are strong and getting stronger is one way to maintain some of the optimism that must go along with our collective impatience.

Let's #BringBackOurGirls

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