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Alone, on her knees, Saratu gave birth on the earth floor of her room. She smiled with pride, having endured childbirth stoically, rather than crying out in pain as she did during the birth of her first child, when she was a teenager.

In Saratu's community, girls and women who make noise during labour or need the help of a birth attendant are considered weak. Hospital deliveries are for wasteful women. With 630 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, most of them in the north, Nigeria has one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates.

The plight of girls in northern Nigeria is receiving unprecedented attention now, after the abduction of some 300 girls by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Its abuses, and those committed by Nigeria's security forces, are horrific and should be exposed. But they should not mask the more routine violations of the dignity of women and girls in Nigeria's north.

There remain large pockets in Nigeria almost untouched by "modern" ideas, such as the right of girls to get a basic education rather than become wives and mothers as young teens. Saratu's experience is very similar to that of other girls I have spoken to across northern Nigeria. They are born into deeply patriarchal societies in villages that are miles away from paved roads, electricity and running water. More than half of Nigerian children do not go to school.

Many northern Nigerian girls are married off at puberty, sometimes as early as 12 or 13. The child bride is expected to get pregnant within the first year of marriage and to prove her womanhood by going through childbirth alone. Many girls, with little education and few sources of information, have no idea of what is happening to them during these tumultuous events.

The Chibok abduction is noteworthy not simply because of the horror of the crime, but because these girls were rare in having made it to the final year of secondary school. Their parents broke from tradition and took risks – extreme ones, as it turns out. All that could change now. The education of girls, already a challenge, is likely to become even more improbable in the north-east. The message from Boko Haram to parents is: keep children out of school or the boys will be killed and the girls will be stolen to become "brides" or sex slaves.

The possibility of the girls' return appears higher now. For that we can thank tech-savvy Nigerians on Twitter who channelled popular frustration with the government's slow response and generated a movement that finally forced people around the world to wake up, and fully realise the scourge of Boko Haram and Nigeria's failure to contain it.

If the girls are fortunate enough to be returned to their families, we will celebrate, but their struggle will not be over. Some may return pregnant, violated by forced and fake marriages. What will happen when the supportive media and attention have faded?


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