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Plight of kidnapped Nigerian girls sends Utah woman into action

Published: Thursday, May 8 2014 6:05 p.m. MDT

Erin Page and Brittany Plothow make rally signs in Pleasant Grove on Thursday, May 8, 2014, for their upcoming rally at the Utah State Capitol this Saturday. Nearly 300 Nigerian girls were recently kidnapped from their all-girls school by armed members of Boko Haram and the rally organizers want to create awareness.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A recent graduate of Utah Valley University, Brittany Plothow, was moved to action when she learned nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria had been kidnapped by armed extremists.

"We live in the same world that these girls do. It's not something I can hear about and then not do anything about it," she said.

So Plothow set about organizing a rally to raise awareness about the mass abduction of the girls from Chibok, Nigeria on April 14. The militant Islamist group Boko Haram later claimed responsibility for the kidnappings and, in a video message, threatened to sell the girls and force them to marry. Boko Haram means "Western Education is a Sin."

The Utah rally will be conducted at 5 p.m. Saturday at the state Capitol. The event is one of dozens worldwide intended to raise awareness about the girls and urge governments worldwide to intervene on their behalf.

"We're asking anyone and everyone to come, wear red and basically spread the word about what's going on and maybe we can spark something to happen," Plothow said.

The worldwide Bring Back Our Girls movement is a creation of social media, Plothow said. She learned about the kidnapping during a Google Hangout earlier this week hosted by actress Amy Poehler's Smart Girls at the Party nonprofit organization.

Plothow also read about the movement on actress/activist Sophia Bush's Instagram posts.

"Then we saw that the organization was asking for rallies, and we said, 'We need to do this. Utah needs to be involved in this. If someone's got to do this, we might as well do it.' So I contacted them by Facebook and said 'Hey, this is what we want to do' and they set up everything else."

Protecting children

Aden Batar, immigration and refugee director of Catholic Community Services Utah, said the "situation is sad," particularly because Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau first threatened more than a year ago to kidnap women and children in retaliation of arrests of his fighters.

"Nigeria is a big county, but I don't think the government is doing much to protect the children. That's what they need to do. It's a very simple thing, securing those schools, especially if the schools are vulnerable to attack," he said. "They know this issue has been going on a long time, and they didn't take the steps to protect the schools. I don't want to get into the politics, but I think that's neglect from their own government."

The girls were abducted from their dormitories, loaded into buses and trucks and transported into forested areas of northeastern Nigeria. Children kidnapped under these circumstances are "pretty much used as slaves, they (their captors) rape them repeatedly. They use them as a shield. They use them to cook for them. They end up missing their childhood life," Batar said.

As a refugee resettlement agency, Catholic Community Services assists refugees from all over the world. Some come from countries that value education for all children, and others come from cultures where girls are expected to stay home and do housework while boys go to school.

For children who are born and spend their childhoods in refugee camps, often times, education programs are either grossly inadequate or nonexistent, he said.

"If there are thousands of children in the refugee camp, then education is not a priority. Survival is the priority in the refugee camps, and people don't have enough to eat. People don't have the basics," he said.

Typically, all refugee children lag behind their peers in school when they arrive in the United States, "but we see the deficit in the girls."

Helping women

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