Teenage education activist Malala Yousafzai has made an impassioned plea for the world not to forget the fate of 276 school girls kidnapped by a terrorist group in northern Nigeria three weeks ago.
Yousafzai, 16, was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan last year after speaking out about the rights of girls to education in her country.
She is now living in the UK and appeared on Radio 4's Today programme last week to voice her horror over the abduction of the teenage girls at gunpoint from a school in Chibok in the north east Borno state of Nigeria last month.
"When I heard the news I was so sad, because it's totally violent, it's horrible," Yousafzai told the programme on 29 April. "I'm feeling very sad for those girls, I don't know what condition they will be in. The international community should think about these girls because this is a part of our community and if we forget these girls, it's like we are forgetting our own sisters, our own people."
"I want to make a request to the government of Nigeria that they should take it [the education of girls] seriously, that they should take action, because in the end we will lose a whole generation."
"It's every girl's right to go to school to get an education and it's the duty of the government to protect them, provide them full safety and to make sure that these girls are safe while they go to school."
Malala Yousafzai addressing an event at Wembley arena in March
The girls, aged 16 to 18 years old and from mostly Christian families, were seized as they prepared to sit their final exams on April 14. Insurgents belonging to the Islamist terror group Boko Haram abducted the girls from their dormitories in the middle of the night and loaded them onto the trucks, before setting light to the school building.
There are conflicting reports on how many girls exactly are missing, but Police Commissioner Tanko Lawan said last week that the number had risen to 276, up by more than 30 from a previous estimate, because some more girls were visiting the school for exams at the time of the incident. More than 300 girls were kidnapped to begin with, with 53 managing to escape.
This weekend, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau sent a video - obtained by the AFP news agency - in which he confirmed for the first time that his group had taken the girls.
In the video, Abubakar Shekau said the girls should not have been in school in the first place, but rather should get married.
"I will sell them in the market, by Allah. I will sell them off and marry them off. There is a market for selling humans," he said.
The school was the only one still open in the area in the wake of a wave of threats and attacks by Boko Haram, who are violently opposed to women's education.
"They drove us into the forest and each time we got to a village, they stopped and started shooting and killing people and burning their houses," Godiya Usman, an 18-year-old student who managed to escape from the group, told the Guardian. "I told the girls in my truck that when we got to another village and they were busy attacking, we should all jump down and run into the forest."
School girls walk home after school hours in Maiduguri, capital of Borno State, in July 2010
Around 50 girls in the group have since escaped and the rest are believed to be somewhere in the vast and lawless Sembisa Forest region of northeast Nigeria, where the terrorists are understood to be hiding out. Some are reported to have been taken across borders into Cameroon and Chad.
A military search and rescue operation to find the captive teenagers has yielded no result over the past 22 days, as the Nigerian government comes under increasing pressure for failing to act fast enough.
"They’d assured us they would rescue our children but today, it's 11 days since the abductions and we still haven't seen our daughters," one of the victim's mothers, Rahila Bitrus, told Channel 4. "We are going through the very worst moment of our lives."
A school girl paints a picture at a school in the Nigerian capital, Abuja
Yousafzai said the group were "using and abusing the name of Islam."
"In Islam, it is said by the Prophet that education is not only your right, it's your duty to go and get knowledge," she said this morning. "It's the right of every girl and every boy, so there is no discrimination in Islam."
As well as Yousafzai, Foreign Secretary William Hague and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown (now UN education envoy) have added their weight to a growing chorus of outrage over the incident. "The world must wake up to the escalating tragedy now engulfing Nigeria," Brown told Channel 4 News.
A campaign on Twitter has been launched under the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls, #BringBackOurDaughters and #WhereAreOurDaughters.
The US has now become involved in the incident as well, with White House spokesman Jay Carney telling a press conference that President Barack Obama was being briefed as his national security team was monitoring developments.
"We view what has happened there as an outrage and a terrible tragedy," Carney said in a White House briefing.
Boko Haram's terror campaign in Nigeria has resulted in the loss of over 4000 lives in the past four years. At least 75 people were killed in a car bombing in the capital, Abuja, last week, and a further 50 pupils were massacred at a school in Yobe state in February. The group claims to be fighting for an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, with strict adherence to Sharia law.
Yousafzai has become a global ambassador for girls' freedom and right to education, with people around the world moved by her courage not only in surviving her ordeal but stepping up her campaign for education rights everywhere.
The Malala Fund helps children and teenagers in a number of countries overcome social, economic, legal and political factors in gaining an education.
"Education shows if you are poor or rich, if you are black or white, it does not matter - you are all equal. It shows us respect, tolerance, peace and loving each other," Yousafzai said.
Words: Anna Brech, Photos: Rex Features