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April 14, 2016

Renewing the Call to #BringBackOurGirls


Members of the “Bring Back Our Girls” movement and mothers of the missing schoolgirls, hold a banner showing photographs of some of the missing girls when they marched to press for their release from Boko Haram captors on January 14, 2016 in Abuja, Nigeria. PHOTO | AFP

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmond Tutu

In April of 2014, I was working for His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the Deputy Director of his U.S. Foundation. We had programs for peace all over the world. One that held a special place in my heart was a school that we sponsored in Jos, Nigeria. This school’s focus was to incorporate secular ethics into the already rigid curriculum that was outlined by the Nigerian government.

Because of my connection with this school, the faculty, and the students, I was particularly shocked and saddened when, on April 14th of 2014, Boko Haram militants kidnapped 276 girls from the nearby town of Chibok. This sadness was compounded when a few weeks later, assailants from the same group set off a bomb in the market place in Jos, killing more than 30 including one of our students from the school.

Who of us doesn’t remember the outpouring of support that accompanied the hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls? The campaign was taken up from such a variety of luminaries – from Michelle Obama to Kim Kardashian – and it shone a global light on the brutal yet largely ignored conflict that has been raging in Nigeria for more than seven years. Archbishop Desmond Tutu stood with ONE leaders to call for an action to free these girls.

So what happened to the girls?


The mother of a girl abducted by Boko Haram takes part in a rally in Abuja, Nigeria, in January 2016. (L.A. Times)

According to Mr. Ufuoma Akpojivi, a media researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, 219 of those 276 girls are still missing. Most have not been seen since a video that Boko Haram released in May 2014. Then the Los Angeles Times reported today that the November following the kidnappings in Chibok and bombings in Jos, more than 400 people, mostly children, vanished after a Boko Haram invasion of Damasak. Despite the world’s attention on Nigeria, a Human Rights Watch report has concluded that the Nigerian security forces never really made an effort to locate the missing girls and boys from Damasak.

219 girls missing from Chibok, more than 400 people missing from Damasak – and this is just a small fraction of the thousands of women, girls and boys that have been abducted. Amnesty International reports that more than 2000 women were abducted just in 2015 and 2016. UNICEF reports that in 2015,In 2015, the estimated number of Boko Haram bomb attacks in North-East Nigeria and neighboring countries increased sharply, as did the proportion of attacks involving children. Three quarters of these so-called suicide-bombing attacks involve young girls. These children are victims, not perpetrators. Usually the bombs are strapped to their bodies and detonated remotely, without the children even knowing what they are.

In the two years since the Chibok girls were abducted, Nigeria held free elections as well as demonstrated an impressive vigilance in defending against the Ebola virus. Nigeria can handle this, but they need our help. We need to continue telling the story of these girls, but we cannot stop there. The international community needs to renew their full support to all local, regional and national governments to dedicate their resources and and expertise, to do whatever necessary, to #BringBackOurGirls.

– BR

June 16, 2013

The Tragedy of Child Brides

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that of a total 140 million child marriages expected to take place between 2011 and 2020, 50 million will involve girls under the age of 15.  The UN, and most organization which track child marriages, define a child bride as a girl younger than 18 years of age. Boys are included in the statistics for child marriage, but comprise a small minority of children entering into marriage before age 18.

child-bridesThere are many negative effects of this practice. The facts below, compiled by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), highlight the tragic consequences for girls in a child marriage.

  • Child brides often show signs symptomatic of sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress such as feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and severe depression.
  • Girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for women ages 15 to 19.
  • Child brides face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience. Girls ages 15 – 19 are 2 to 6 times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Girls with higher levels of schooling are less likely to marry as children.
  • Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to marry before 18 than girls in higher income households.

While the practice of child marriage has decreased worldwide over the last 30 years, it remains common in rural areas and among the poorest of the poor.  The regions where the practice is most prevalent include:

  • Southern Asia, 48%—nearly 10 million—of girls are married before the age of 18
  • Africa, 42% of girls are married before turning 18
  • Latin America and the Caribbean, 29% of girls are married by age 18

An end to child marriage won’t come quickly or easily in these regions.  It is tightly woven into the cultural and religious life of the communities there.  As Cynthia Gorney reported in her story on child brides  for National Geographic:

“The very idea that young women have a right to select their own partners—that choosing whom to marry and where to live ought to be personal decisions, based on love and individual will—is still regarded in some parts of the world as misguided foolishness. Throughout much of India, for example, a majority of marriages are still arranged by parents. Strong marriage is regarded as the union of two families, not two individuals. This calls for careful negotiation by multiple elders, it is believed, not by young people following transient impulses of the heart.

So in communities of pressing poverty, where nonvirgins are considered ruined for marriage and generations of ancestors have proceeded in exactly this fashion—where grandmothers and great-aunts are urging the marriages forward, in fact, insisting, I did it this way and so shall she—it’s possible to see how the most dedicated anti-child-marriage campaigner might hesitate, trying to fathom where to begin.”

Child marriage not only has adverse consequences for the girls affected, but also hurts the those societies in which it is common.  As Anju Malhotra, Vice President of Socioeconomic Development for the ICRW points out:

“Child marriage not only violates the human rights of girls, but its negative consequences ripple across entire societies. The practice contributes to extreme and persistent poverty; high illiteracy; high incidence of infectious diseases, including HIV; elevated child mortality rates; high birth rates; low life expectancy for women; and hunger and malnutrition. The consequences of child marriage undermine nearly all the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight targets that respond to the world’s main development challenges.”

The practice of child marriage represents a global problem, and it is only with a global effort that it will eventually be eliminated.  Until we ensure that every girl has the right to an education, to grow up in safety, and make her own choices about whether and whom she will marry, we will never be free of the scourges of poverty, ignorance and violence.

February 8, 2012

The Long Shadow of Childhood Trauma

We hear a lot about the healthcare crisis – generally framed in economic terms.  But often lost in the haggling over cost figures and acrimonious debate about whether healthcare is the province of the government or the free market is a much more important and frightening reality – the poor state of health among our nation’s children.

Scared-Sick book coverIn a recently published book Scared Sick, Robin Kaar-Morse and Meredith Wiley provide sobering statistics about the state of children’s health in the US.  Their research, compiled from government and private studies, paints a grim picture.  For example:

  • Among the seven largest industrialized nations in the world, the US ranks last on infant mortality rates and longevity.
  • The overall well-being of American children ranks twentieth among twenty-one wealth democracies, behind Hungary, Greece and Poland.
  • One in three children born five years ago will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
  • Child abuse death rates are far higher in the US than in all of the seven largest developed countries; three times higher than Canada and eleven times higher than Italy.
  • Five children die every day as the result of child abuse; three out of four of these are under the age of four.
  • 15.5 percent of all babies born in the US are low birth weight and / or preterm at delivery.
  • Just over 20 percent of children either currently or at some point have had a seriously debilitating mental disorder.
  • An estimated 26 percent of all children in the US will witness a violent or traumatic event prior to age four.
  • One in one hundred infants is born with fetal alcohol syndrome, the leading preventable cause of mental retardation, birth defects and learning disabilities in the Western world.
  • Of children ages three to seventeen, 4.7 million have a learning disability.

(Page xv, Scared Sick, 2011.)

The scientific evidence is mounting that conflict and trauma can take a toll on our organs and biological regulatory systems during development and lead to serious health issues as adults. This should be reason enough to re-examine our nation’s healthcare priorities.  But work in a relatively new field of biology should provide an even stronger incentive.

frightened childResearch in the rapidly evolving area of epigenetics is hinting at biological mechanisms that link trauma experienced by one generation with diseases that develop in subsequent generations.  Epigenetics focuses on the way that cells facilitate or inhibit the expression of our genes.  Epigenetic functioning,unlike our genes, is more directly affected by environmental influences.  In some cases, it appears that epigenetic mechanisms damaged by environmental factors in one generation may be passed on to future generations.  This means there could be a generational echo to diseases provoked by conflict or trauma during childhood.  This is in addition to the psychological damage that often results in abused children turning into abusive parents.

As the rhetoric over healthcare in America ratchets up in this election year, we should look at the very real and long-term consequences of neglecting our children’s health.  As Herbert Ward observed, “Childhood abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.”  And now, we suspect, that shadow may be much longer.


November 25, 2011

The Penn State Scandal – An Ethical Meltdown

There are many dimensions to leadership. One of those is an ethical dimension, which often remains unacknowledged until circumstances conspire to bring it into full public view. Consider the Penn State sex abuse scandal which exploded into our national consciousness on November 5, 2011.  It is instructive because it shows how, within an institutional setting, ethical lapses can cascade, wreaking destruction like the waves of a tsunami tearing through a coastal city.


Jerry Sandusky

Like so many stories of child abuse, the Penn State scandal has a long timeline.  The alleged abuse of young boys by former football Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky began in 1994 and continued at least until 2008.  After numerous complaints over a ten year period, investigations into Sandusky’s behavior began in November, 2008, and resulted in a Grand Jury report which led to his arrest on November 5, 2011.

Sandusky, 67, coached at Penn State for more than 30 years. From 1977 until his retirement last year, Sandusky had also run a foster home in State College, Pa., for troubled children called The Second Mile.  Sandusky founded the organization in 1977 as a group home for troubled boys, accepting children who would benefit from positive human interaction. The charity has expanded into a statewide charity with eight chapters across Pennsylvania.  Many of Sandusky’s alleged victims were boys from The Second Mile.

The buildup to Sandusky’s ultimate arrest may have been slow, but the consequences following the release of the Grand Jury report have been swift and stunning to those who were unaware of what had been taking place over the years.


Joe Paterno

In the space of a few weeks, Joe Paterno, a college football legend with more wins than any other coach in history, was fired.  Tim Curley, the university’s Athletic Director resigned and was charged with perjury and failing to report suspected abuse.  Gary Schultz, VP for Business and Finance resigned and was indicted for perjury and failure to report suspected abuse.  Graham Spanier, President of the university was fired along with Paterno by the university’s Board of Trustees. And Jack Raykovitz, CEO of The Second Mile, was forced to resign leaving the future of the charity in doubt.

As in many such cases, there were opportunities to stop the abuse early on, but in each instance, allegations were not referred to the police.  Instead, those responsible for handling the matter chose to conduct internal inquiries.  This leaves a strong impression that the need to protect the victims was a lower priority than the desire to protect the institutions where the abuse took place.  In the fallout that has already occurred and will continue for years to come, the institutions have been irreparably damaged.

All the individuals involved in the scandal claimed they were doing the appropriate thing,  but in each case there was an ethical lapse.  Joe Paterno’s case is instructive.  He is easily the highest profile figure in the scandal, and came under intense pressure for his alleged primary role in the abuse scandal. He was reportedly the first to know about the alleged abuse.  As Time correspondent Nick Carbone noted in a recent article:

Paterno hasn’t been charged, and the Grand Jury investigation notes that Paterno appropriately reported the abuse to a higher level, alerting Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley about the incident. “Joe Paterno was a witness who cooperated and testified before the Grand Jury,” said Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office. “He’s not a suspect.” Pennsylvania state Police Commissioner Frank Noonan also said that Paterno fulfilled his legal requirement to report the matter upon referring it to Curley.

But meeting the legal requirement is not enough in such situations; there is a more demanding moral and ethical requirement to which we are held in such cases.  Meeting the legal requirement is insufficient.  It is equivalent to standing by while the wrongdoing continues.

There is a lesson from the Penn State scandal for administrators, executives, and others in positions of responsibility who face similar situations.  Looking the other way or passing the buck are not acceptable options.  The human drive for justice and the righting of wrongs is ultimately more powerful than the money, prestige or influence of any institution or the bonds of longtime personal allegiances.