The abduction last month of more than 200 girls from a school in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno by the Islamist rebel group Boko Haram has caused, if belatedly, global outrage and prompted a worldwide social media campaign calling on governments to do more to rescue the teenage girls.
The Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, which originated in Nigeria on April 23, has been used over 3 million times, mostly in Nigeria, the United Stated and the UK, according to data analysis by the BBC.
Everyone, from heads of state (and their wives) to activists and celebrities, has had their say on the tragic matter. Criticism has poured in over the slow response by Nigerian authorities, but also for the rest of the world which took some two weeks to awaken to what had happened in this remote, dangerous and violent part of Africa.
Hope is waning that the girls, whom the leader of Boko Haram threatened to sell as brides and slaves, soon will be rescued and returned to their families who are living through a terrible ordeal.
Even if they are rescued, difficult questions remain: What’s next for these girls? How will they be able to cope with their trauma and will they ever go back to school?
“Even (think about) the parents, how much are they willing to expose their girls again to another ordeal,” Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Both the girls and their parents shouldn’t have to choose between getting education and being safe.”
“Part of what we are trying to do…is to think of a comprehensive, forward-looking strategy,” she said. “We have put in place a process which we’ve started now with the parent, of counseling, of support, so that we can be with them for the long haul.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka said Nigerian authorities need, with help from the international community, to crush Boko Haram, not only to keep girls and boys in school and protect the population, but also to avoid this type of action becoming a sort of “copycat issue”, for example, as rape became in areas of conflict.
“This is gender-based terrorism, it’s an attack on the security of women and a form of violence against women,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.
Education is considered one of the key factors in girls’ ability to succeed and thrive in life and one of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) is to achieve universal primary education for boys and girls by 2015. One question is whether incidents like the abductions in Nigeria will discourage fearful parents from sending their girls to school.
“Without a doubt education will take a hit,” Shelby Quast, senior policy adviser at Equality Now, a global organization protecting the rights of women and girls, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The answer is obviously not to not educate girls but how do we stop people from abducting girls?”
“Recovery is going to be a long process,” Stella Mukasa, director of gender violence and rights at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “(The girls) will need proper assistance, physical and health assistance as well as psychological.”
Support for the girls’ families and their entire community is paramount as stigma is going to pose a big challenge, she said.
In certain parts of the world, it is not uncommon for girls who may have been subject to sexual abuse to be stigmatized by their own community as they are no longer seen as ‘pure’ and have tainted the honour and good reputation of their families.
Mukasa said the tragic occurrence should serve as a wake-up call for the Nigerian government and as an incentive to take urgent action to grant equal access to education across the country, as well as improving security around schools.