From Michelle Obama to Malala Yousafzai, from Angelina Jolie to British Prime Minister David Cameron, from Amy Poehler, Alicia Keys and Leona Lewis to Steven Tyler—all of them, along with thousands of other people, mostly anonymous but concerned, incensed and angry, are demanding that a group of kidnappers “Bring Back our Girls.”
The girls referred to are the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls taken at gunpoint from their boarding school in a remote province last April 15.
The group claiming responsibility for the abduction is known as “Boko Haram,” which translates to “Western education is sinful.” The group’s leaders said the girls were breaking Islamic dictates by getting an education.
Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram, said the girls were “slaves” and threatened to sell them in the marketplace. There have been reports that some girls have already been transported to neighboring countries while others have been married off to Boko Haram members who paid the traditional bride price of $12.
In a video sent to news organizations, the girls are shown squatting on the ground while surrounded by men toting powerful firearms. “They are slaves and I will sell them because I have the market to sell them,” Shekau said. (A news agency reviewed the video and authenticated the face and voice of the Boko Haram leader.)
When confronted by questions that he and his group committed an international crime, Shekau replied in English: “What do you know about human rights? You’re just claiming human rights (abuses), but you don’t know what it is.”
An intermediary was quoted as saying that Boko Haram is ready to negotiate ransom for the girls, adding that two of the girls have died of snakebite and about 20 are ill. Christians among the girls have also been forced to convert to Islam, he added.
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The taking of the girls has triggered an international campaign on their behalf, triggering 159,000 “likes” on Facebook alone, while spurring a photo campaign with thousands—from government leaders to celebrities, to ordinary concerned folk—holding up posters on which are written “#bringbackour girls.”
Much of the ire has also been triggered by the seeming inaction of the Nigerian government, with President Goodluck Jonathan initially denying the kidnapping, then downplaying its gravity or importance.
Michelle Obama, who posted her photo on Mother’s Day, said in a radio address that she sees “in these girls… our own daughters. We see their hopes, their dreams—and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”
Michelle’s husband, US President Barack Obama, has also gotten involved, saying he had ordered a team of military intelligence specialists and hostage negotiators to Nigeria to help in the search.
But complicating matters is the attitude that has been displayed by Jonathan and his wife Patience in the wake of the girls’ kidnapping and the outrage this has sparked.
After one demonstration in behalf of the girls in the Nigerian capital, an organizer said Ms Jonathan had ordered the arrest of two protest leaders, “accused them of belonging to Boko Haram and expressed doubts there was any kidnapping.”
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One of the arrested leaders said Ms Jonathan accused them of “fabricating” the abductions. “She told so many lies—that we just wanted the government of Nigeria to have a bad name, that we did not want to support her husband’s rule.” A Nigerian newspaper also reported that Ms Jonathan ordered all Nigerian women to stop protesting, warning that “should anything happen to them during protests, they should blame themselves.”
The latest news is that President Jonathan has created a committee to go to Borno, the state where the girls were taken, to “work with the community on a strategy to free the girls.”
What many forget or ignore, says blogger Margaret Kimberley (in her “Freedom Rider” column), is that the taking of the girls is merely in retaliation for the killings and harassment of relatives of suspected Boko Haram members in 2011 and 2012. Indeed, little did the world know about the group before the girls were taken. “There was not a single television news story about Boko Haram in 2013,” notes Kimberley. This, despite the fact that “the group claimed responsibility for the deaths of more than 1,500 people in the past year.”
Neither is this the first time that schoolboys and girls have been taken en masse, with boys faring even worse, with 29 male students in a boarding school killed by Boko Haram last February. “The anger and sadness exist in a vacuum and are therefore useless in bringing about a resolution,” commented Kimberley.
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Forgotten in the lead-up to the kidnapping of the girls, adds Kimberley, is that in 2011 and 2012, relatives of suspected Boko Haram members were detained by police. The group swore revenge, with Shekau threatening retaliation against other women and girls.
For sure, all the indignation and concern in behalf of the girls of Nigeria are justified. Kidnapping hundreds of helpless girls and treating them as little more than chattels to be traded for sexual favors and political accommodation is a crime and a serious violation of human rights.
The insurgency that Boko Haram is waging is ugly and inhuman. (In fact, Islamic religious leaders have condemned their actions.) But we need to go beyond posting photos and hashtags and tweeting. We need to understand the depths and range of inhumanity and violations of the rights of girls and women everywhere, in all contexts and forms, and continue speaking out in their behalf, anywhere, anytime.
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