This month, Inc. named Bridge International Academies to our list of Most Audacious Companies in the World. Founded by U.S. entrepreneurs Shannon May and Jay Kimmelman, the for-profit company aims to end world poverty by building and operating schools that will ultimately serve 10 million students across the developing world. Shortly after our article went to press, the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 300 girls from a state school in Nigeria--a country where Bridge International had announced plans to begin operations next year. We asked May whether the event had affected the company's plans. May, who responded by email, says she is more determined than ever to bring education to the African nation:
Boko Haram. Since April, almost everyone knows the name, and many people have stood up to ask the Nigerian government what they have done to "bring back our girls." I am in Nigeria as I write this, with my two girls. Chloe is 3 years old. Julia is 2 months. I am here to enable more girls and boys living in poor villages, towns, and cities across Nigeria to go to great, safe schools, democratizing the right to succeed. Is this a bad time for Bridge International Academies to start operations in Nigeria? No. It is with even greater urgency that we are starting our operations here.
We are all threatened with a dark future when girls--and boys--anywhere are prevented from going to school or killed at school. It is not only for the more than 200 girls taken by terrorists that we need to mourn the loss of innocence and pray for their return to their families. We should also mourn the children and youth who have been killed in their sleep and while studying at school by Boko Haram since 2012. This past February, 59 boys were shot at and cut with machetes, then the survivors burned alive in their beds at a secondary school in Yobe State. In September 2013, at least 40 students were killed in Gujba. That July, 41 students were killed in Mamudo. In June, seven students and two teachers were killed in Damatura. In the past year, 173 teachers are reported killed in Borno and Yobi States.
Then there is the future of an entire generation to be mourned, a generation who may live but who will likely never learn to read, do basic algebra, or come to understand the world beyond the one Boko Haram is creating for them. More than 10,000 children's schools were doused with gasoline and burned to the ground in Maiduguri, capital of Borno State, in the past two years. There are thousands more children whose parents no longer allow them to attend school. As places where children learn to read--and therefore have a window into a world beyond the earth that Boko Haram controls--these are Boko Haram's new favorite targets in its attempt to create an Islamic state based on sharia law in Nigeria's Northeast.
By attacking schools, Boko Haram is foreclosing the future of an entire generation of tens of thousands of children, ensuring that they will have little opportunity to work--let alone succeed--in anything but subsistence agriculture and petty labor. In short, by denying education to children, Boko Haram is creating its own future army. A generation of disgruntled and angry young men and women who will feel the pain of economic deprivation and see the "West" as a corrupt civilization that has betrayed them, leaving them with no future but the future as created by Boko Haram.
While Boko Haram is currently attacking the future of the three million children who live in Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe State, the future of the 34 million children across Nigeria living in poverty is also at risk. Even without terrorists burning down schools in the central and southern parts of Nigeria, millions of children are not being educated. Nigeria has the most out-of-school children of any single country--10.5 million. And 20 percent of children are not even expected to enroll in primary school. Tragically, even those who sit in a classroom are not learning. The literacy gap between rich and poor Nigerians is more than 50 percentage points. UNESCO has given a dire prognosis for poor girls in Nigeria: unless something drastic is done to change the current education situation, it will take 70 years for all poor girls in Nigeria to become literate. That is another three generations lost. Another three generations that will live in abject poverty, disgruntled and angry.
We must work together to "bring back our girls" from Chibok. But we must also work together to change the future of the millions of girls in Nigeria who--if we don't act drastically--we will have lost to the world Boko Haram wants to create, not through their kidnapping by terrorists, but through our neglect of their lives in need.
These girls from Chibok all the way to Lagos deserve what my Chloe and Julia deserve: a future that is limited only by their own willingness to learn, to work, to dream, and to create. So Chloe, Julia, and I are here, to bring back a future of hope for all our girls.
Bridge is currently hiring in Nigeria and will be enrolling girls and boys in Lagos state by September 2015.