Boko Haram should not be allowed to succeed in preventing Nigerian girls from going to school.

The terrorists understand that literacy and education for girls is a way of fast-tracking development. In the north-east of the country where, according to a 2012 British Council study, 66% of girls age 15-19 are unable to read a sentence and only 4% attend high school, attacks on school children by Boko Haram militants are a threat to the future of the nation.

Given the sheer number of schools spread across cities, towns and villages, ensuring their safety is a formidable task.

July 23 will mark 100 days since the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Chibok. Here are three key steps towards making Nigeria safe for school children.

Compensate short-term losers

The unit of society responsible for sending children to school is the family. In northern Nigeria, families are often unwilling to send their daughters to school because they are too far away, or because the family harbours fears that the girls will become alienated from their culture, or because they rely on them to carry out household chores.

However, uneducated girls are more likely to die in childbirth. According to a recent study, the maternal mortality rate (MMR) is estimated at up to 10 times higher in the north-east (1,549 deaths per 100,000 live births) than in the south-west, which has an MMR of 165 deaths per 100,000 . The difference is connected to the age of marriage of the mothers and also to their level of education. The British Council study found that 90% of women who had received higher education delivered their babies at modern health facilities, compared with only 10% of those without. Of the latter, 30% received no support at all when delivering their babies, not even from traditional birth attendants.

As bad as the situation is, the national maternal mortality rate is much improved. In 1990 (the British Council study’s base year) the challenge was even more daunting, with the national average at 1,100 deaths per 100,000 births. Maternal mortality in 2012 stood at 545 women per 100,000 (less than half the 1990 figure). Progress, however, came as a result of the drop in maternal mortality in the south, where girls have equal access to education, and subsequently more awareness of how to access health services. These services are available to them courtesy of the drive to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals. Yet, though similar services are available in the north-east, the MMR is hardly changed. Education is the key.

As part of Nigeria’s efforts to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals, the state allocated funds for “conditional cash transfers”, payments to families on the condition that their daughters be allowed to go to school. The logic was simple: since society benefits when girls receive a basic education (primary school plus three years of high school), it makes sense for the state to compensate families for the short-term cost of not having their daughters at home. Since 2007, 150,000 families have benefited from such monetary transfers. To make a real impact, however, the scheme would have to be expanded to at least 5 million households in the north-east.

Connect the educated to decent jobs

According to the World Bank, an expanding middle class and high economic growth in many African countries (a feat achieved during a global economic downturn) indicate that the continent is on the rise.

Yet, while Africa’s economies are growing, much of this growth has been jobless. Families send their children to school because they believe they will have a better life as a result. Yet, with only 10% of the 6 million young people who enter Nigeria’s labour market each year finding work in the formal economy, even the educated ones find there are no jobs to be had. Too educated to return to their parents’ life of subsistence farming, but not skilled enough to get a worthwhile job, for most educated northern Nigerian youths, the path to the good life is blocked.

While most of Boko Haram’s recruits are illiterate young men, the group also attracts many from universities and high schools, who are disillusioned by a system that churns out graduates but cannot employ them. What are people to make of a system that is supposed to herald progress but lays waste to millions of young people who desire to work but cannot find jobs, leaving them feeling alienated from society?

Achieve economic growth

Back in 2000, absolute poverty in the north-east was already a high 71%, but by 2012 it had increased to 76%. The general failure to lower poverty and ensure inclusive growth hangs heavy over the nation.

Mahatma Gandhi once said there was no use for anger unless it could be properly channelled. Boko Haram illustrates the wisdom of his words, as it draws from a mass of disaffected, unemployed youths and gives them the job of terrorizing northern Nigeria, scaring children away from schools and reversing recent successes in promoting education in the region.

The tragedy of Boko Haram is that while they can mobilize the disgruntled, they do not offer a viable solution. If part of the problem has been the disconnection between education and jobs, the attacks in northern Nigeria have driven out the industries already there, exacerbating unemployment.

However, our outrage at the abduction of girls in a Chibok school on 15 April must be directed appropriately. Currently, our attention is focused on demanding the return of the abducted girls. Considering that abductions have been continuing since the Chibok incident, this doesn’t make sense.

What is required is an environment in which all abductions stop, along with all attacks on schools. However, where the majority of Boko Haram’s potential recruits are not only unemployed but dirt poor, the battle to ensure safe children and schools must begin with the creation of broad economic opportunities for the destitute.

The World Economic Forum on Africa 2014, held in Nigeria for the first time this May under the theme Inclusive Growth: Creating Jobs, presented an invaluable opportunity to discuss how to transform the situation of jobless growth with the continent’s political, business and societal leaders. The conversations started there must be developed and monitored to ensure they lead to inclusive growth.

In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan has initiated the President’s Initiative for the North East (PINE) to develop strategies for tackling unemployment in the region. All efforts must be made to ensure that the initiative has the resources it requires to do what is needed.

Securing the release of all those taken by Boko Haram cannot be separated from the effort to address livelihood gaps in the region. Success, defined as the end of attacks on children, schools and communities, will result when we connect the educated to decent jobs.

If these strategies are combined with varied attempts to compensate families struggling on the margins for the immediate cost of educating their daughters, northern Nigeria will witness massive gains in school enrolment and retention, and the benefits that go with it. Only a holistic approach can ensure the safety of girls, boys and their schools in the region. Nigeria’s future depends on it.

Read Hafsat Abiola-Costello’s blog, Five things I learned from a trip into Boko Haram territory

Author: Hafsat Abiola-Costello is special adviser and member of the State Cabinet Government of the State of Ogun, Nigeria, and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader; Bjarte Reve is chief communications cfficer, Akershus University Hospital, Norway, and a Young Global Leader.

Image: A schoolgirl in Maiduguri, Nigeria. REUTERS/Joe Penney