In the middle of a northern Nigerian night, on April 14, an Islamic terror group called Boko Haram kidnapped 300 schoolgirls, ages 15-18. Taken from their dormitory, they were loaded onto vans and buses and driven away from their high school (which was burned and trashed) and vanished into the bush with their abductors.
Several days later, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, dressed in battle fatigues, an AK47 over one shoulder, appeared in a grainy video taking credit for the kidnapping and threatening to sell the girls into slavery for $12 each. While his words were fanatical, rambling, they were also chilling. Implicit in his comments was the cold fact that there is a worldwide market for young women. He also knew that once they disappeared into that network they would likely be lost forever.
As we soon learned, these girls were the best and brightest of Northeastern Nigeria, certainly of their village of Chibok, and much cherished by their now frantic families. There is also a grim caveat: if the international community can find them, which remains to be seen, and they are freed, they will face, in this very conservative region, the suspicion that they have been in some way violated and may be judged accordingly.
The context for Abubakar Shekau's threat is that global scourge known as human trafficking — the trade in humans (mostly young women and children) for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labor, marriage, and even the extraction of organs, tissue or surrogacy.
If there is an evil in the world that is beyond redemption, it is trafficking. Its cruelty knows no bounds and represents an estimated $31 billion per annum. It is considered to be one of the fastest-growing endeavors of transnational criminal organizations.
The numbers are staggering. It is estimated that 27 million people, from at least 160 countries, are trapped in what is referred to as modern-day slavery and some 1 million people are trafficked each year.
The majority are women, and 30 percent of all those trafficked in 2011 were children, and globally it is estimated that more than 1 million today are exploited, many in the sex trade, private or commercial.
Though it has not been given much attention, the futures of these Nigerian girls will turn quickly dark if trafficked and so there is a profound urgency regarding finding and rescuing them. The international investigators understand this implicitly.
But there is also another context that has been little discussed during the concentrated effort to find these girls: It's attitudinal. It involves the global community's view of women and there is a demonstrative thread that connects these fanatics to us all, worldwide. And it raises a number of questions.
Women represent some 50 percent of the world's population. They are our mothers and sisters and daughters. Mankind has been and continues to be nurtured and cared for, because of women. Yet, many of these same women are forced to flee their homes where they have been battered and abused, often desperate to find refuge for themselves and for their children. Others are helpless, emotionally and economically trapped, considered to be mere property.
It is tempting to assume that what is described above occurs in that world that sent a gunman to shoot 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai for the offense of attending school, the retro-world of burkas and covered heads, where women are not permitted to drive or venture out without a male relative or husband. But that assumption would be only partly correct.
In America, for all of our sophistication and freedom, there are still embedded attitudes that are as equally abhorrent as those of Abubakar Shekau.
Consider the fact that sexual assault in all its permutations is present not only in our military but on college campuses nationwide. As well, the data regarding violence against women in the U.S. are astonishing — almost 500 women are raped or sexually assaulted daily.
In the military, by some estimates, one woman in three has been sexually assaulted. By some estimates, 86 percent of assaults go unreported, which means that those that are reported involve great personal courage on the part of the victim and represent the tip of a very grim iceberg.
On college campuses, studies have revealed that at least one woman in four will be the victim of sexual assault during her academic career. And if that singular woman steps forward, it is possible that she will be victimized all over again.
Perhaps it's a bit hyperbolic to insist that there is a connection between the attitudes of Abubakar Shekau and trafficking and our own view of women. But how to understand not just what occurs to women globally, but what is taking place in our own nation? It continues to puzzle.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.