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Educating girls is one of the least expensive and most effective ways to change a nation. The further girls go through school, the healthier they'll be, the more they'll earn, the fewer children they'll have and the more they'll invest in the children they do have. This, in turn, will make those children healthier and more productive. It's a virtuous cycle that can make a nation happier and richer.

Sadly, though, in parts of the world this is seen not as progress but as a problem. Educated girls become more independent and less subservient, less willing to abide by cultural norms that repress them and treat them as unequal to men. That's particularly threatening to violent, ultraconservative religious groups — most commonly Islamic fundamentalists — that regard women's second-class status as divinely decreed.

The horrific brutality those groups use to terrify girls and their families into submission has become all too familiar: In Afghanistan, Taliban militants have thrown acid on girls for daring to go to school. In Pakistan, they shot 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai in the head for advocating that girls be educated; she survived and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

And most recently in Nigeria, the Islamic militant group Boko Haram ("Western education is forbidden") kidnapped nearly 300 girls from a school in northern Nigeria and threatened to sell them into slavery. It's the latest atrocity committed by these murderous thugs in their attempt to force northeastern Nigeria into a medieval vision of sharia law and religious purity.

OTHER VIEWS: We'll get the girls out

Boko Haram's crime has been abetted by the pathetic ineptitude of the Nigerian government in failing to save these teenagers who were on track to become lawyers, teachers and doctors.

Nigerian authorities first ignored the incident, then claimed activists invented it and finally — under pressure from parents and a worldwide Internet campaign — accepted help from the United States and other nations to track the criminals they failed to stop and now cannot seem to find.

Whether those efforts will be successful is open to question, but the situation on the ground is changing dramatically. Thousands of Nigerian troops — previously unwilling to confront Boko Haram — have entered the province where the girls were kidnapped, backed by U.S. surveillance and teams of advisers from several countries. The world's outrage, it seems, has at least given the girls a chance — and, not insignificantly, opened an opportunity to strike Boko Haram, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group that has been killing and kidnapping in Nigeria since 2009.

For all the attention to drones and bombs, the war on terrorism will ultimately have to be won one schoolgirl's mind at a time. To that end, a viral Twitter campaign such as #BringBackOurGirls holds more power than a band of heavily armed religious fanatics. They might be able to terrorize a village, but only by alienating a world that holds no sympathy for cowards who victimize little girls.

USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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