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We stand with the kidnapped girls of Nigeria

As president and founder of the South Florida Girl Up, a club of teenage activists in Florida for the Girl Up Campaign of the United Nations Foundation, I want to add my voice to that of other activists with whom I’ve collaborated to create and support the first clubs in Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia.

We have come together in solidarity with our Nigerian sisters in Chibok, who were abducted from their school on April 15 by a terrorist group determined to rob them of their right to an education.

I am joined by:

• Maria Luisa Mendez, a prolific Guatemalan activist whom I met in my role as national teen adviser for Girl Up. We are focusing on the transformative power of education for girls in our region and the world, while highlighting that the situation in Nigeria is a global emergency and must be resolved.

• Fernanda Gomez, the president of Girl Up Mexico. She is studying psychology at the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Mexico City. She works with the dean’s office to promote the education of girls throughout her community. Her scholarship initiative will help the 28 percent of Mexican youth, 20-29 who don’t have access to higher education.

Currently, Mexico is fourth in global youth unemployment, making education not only a moral issue, but an economic one, as well. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), of the total births in Mexico, 17 percent are from adolescents age 10-19.

• Maria Dolores Banda, who is currently completing a degree in international relations and diplomacy at the International University of Ecuador. She is the president of Ecuador Girl Up and her goal is to work on humanitarian principles, with an emphasis on girls and adolescents. In 2013, she organized a breakfast and educational activities for children in low-income schools, in partnership with the National Police.

In Ecuador, one in 10 girls of 5 or 6 years of age has suffered some form of sexual violence, and more than 17 percent of adolescents are mothers. In domestic work, 80 percent of girls performed tasks at home compared with 41 percent of children.

• Nicole Fernandez, a graduate of Florida International University with a degree in journalism and mass communications. As a sports journalist, she recognized that sports are essential tool in empowering children — especially girls — achieve both academic and professional success. She was inspired to create Game Time, a foundation for Colombian children, beginning in Barranquilla and Campeche. These children love to play sports but lack the necessary equipment.

In 2013, the Justice and Peace Unit conducted a survey of illegal recruitment, kidnapping, and sexual violence in Colombia by guerrilla groups. It concluded that a large percentage of victims are women, highlighting the fact that, when it comes to civil wars, young women and girls are the most vulnerable and most often victimized. As a result, Colombia has one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in South America. UNICEF Colombia is helping the 19.5 percent of pregnant teens through programs for the prevention of teenage pregnancy and motherhood.

• Maria Luisa Mendez, who has eight years of experience with activism. She is the president of Paz Joven Guatemala, a youth organization with more than 350 volunteers dedicated to promoting the participation of youth through projects in the social and political arena.

Paz Joven Guatemala and UNICEF partnered to create a study outlining the importance of caring for adolescents and to demand better living conditions, reintegration and security for their education, strengthening their leadership skills to improve the lives of Guatemalan youth.

Guatemala is still feeling the effects of 36 years of civil war, which led to discrimination against indigenous groups. According to a UNICEF Guatemala report in 2013, one in 10 teens between 11 and 19 years has no formal education, and only 5 percent of indigenous girls have completed primary school.

Girl Up works in Guatemala helping indigenous girls in the regions of Huehuetenango and Totonicapán, via programs like Abriendo Oportunidades. Our newest Global Advocate is Angelica Fuentes, CEO of Omnilife-Angelíssima and a pioneer in the development of Latin

American women for more than 25 years.

Through the Angelica Fuentes Foundation, launched in March, she donated $1 million to Girl Up for educational programs in Guatemala. Her groundbreaking initiative Foco is empowering women through collaboration and raising awareness about the role of women and girls in society.

Although Latin America has reduced educational gender gaps in recent years, the differences in indigenous populations, especially among school-aged children, still remain. And young women

suffer even more: 7.1 percent of indigenous girls face severe deprivations in education, compared with 5.6 percent of boys. Being a girl, indigenous and poor means suffering triple discrimination, a product of a long history of exclusion.

The high rate of teenage pregnancies in Latin America is second only to Africa — which has the highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in the world — a reality that affects the health, education and economic potential of millions of African girls. In Nigeria, 51 percent of women between 20 and 24 years of age became mothers before their 18th birthday. Also, Nigeria has 10.5 million children not attending school, the highest percentage worldwide. In some areas, 34 percent of girls are out of school. And worse, in Nigeria, child marriage and female genital mutilation are the most egregious violations of the human rights of girls and women.

According to UNHCR, about 650,000 Nigerians have been displaced in northern Nigeria as a result of Boko Haram attacks.

We support the Safe Schools Initiative, introduced by the Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown, the Global Business Coalition for Education and the “A World at School” organization, which has been active in advocating for the rescue of the Nigerian students. This initiative will provide protection to schools and prevent future attacks, as well as take special measures for high-risk populations. It emphasizes that safe schools are needed for education and has raised and delivered $23 million to Nigeria for the protections of schools.

We unite and take action urging Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to be on the right side of history and to make use of the international assistance offered to his country. It is up to him to choose whether he wants to be remembered as the leader who freed the kidnapped girls or as the one who failed to rescue them, and an entire generation of young people that are unable to access basic human rights such as education and peace. Nigeria could set a global precedent that ends this injustice .

As youth activists, working tirelessly to provide access to education for all girls worldwide, we amplify our voices and remind the world that just one extra year of education boosts a girl’s earning power by 10 percent-12 percent. In an age of unprecedented connectivity, we organize, educate and take action on gender inequalities. We stand with our 276 Nigerian sisters who have been in captivity for more than 100 days and demand their immediate release using all existing international humanitarian principles, and the implementation of new ones if necessary, for their full reintegration to their schools and communities.

Valeria Hansen is the president and founder of the South Florida Girl Up.