Cries rang out in the early morning of April 15 as parents came upon the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School. The school’s building were burning and the girls were nowhere to be found.
The community already knew the horrible truth. Militants affiliated with Boko Haram were responsible for the attack on Chibok and the disappearance of the girls. Families begged the Nigerian military officials to accompany them into the bush to retrieve their girls. Their pleas went unanswered. As the story spread throughout the country, Nigerians in major cities felt the all-too-familiar feeling of insecurity. Bombings targeting them as they went about their daily lives and living with the constant uncertainty of whether or not they too would be targets of conflict. With no hope of assistance from the government and rumors surfacing of the girls being taken out of Nigeria and trafficked, a plea was sent out into the chaotic world of social media: #BringBackOurGirls.
The anguish of the mothers and fathers and the depths of hopelessness and despair: #BringBackOurGirls. For a country whose GDP grows while it is torn apart by conflict: #BringBackOurGirls. In a world where far too often our children are taken due to resource wars and fundamentalism: #BringBackOurGirls.
For all of the talk about slacktivism—the notion that activists today take the easy route by pushing a button on their smart phone or computer – this was a courageous act. Both disapproval from the Nigerian government and reprisals from Boko Haram were a risk, but families and communities were willing to take it.
While international experts debated and governments punted responsibility, the Nigerians persisted. For almost three weeks, despite intimidation and pronouncements from officials that talking about such matters in the international community was not good for their image, Nigerians rallied together and demanded attention. #BringBackOurGirls became a rallying cry for people across the globe. Facebook pages were created. Rallies were planned by a few but attended by many. In Washington, D.C., Nigerian officials tried to quell the crowds by telling them to go home and pray. The response: We will pray, but we will not go home until action is taken.
Now, the U.S. is sending immediate aid and experts in forensics and negotiation. President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria pledges to make the search for the girls and their welfare his highest priority. The question is: Will international support wane?International pressure was required to push world governments towards initial action, and it will be required to see the kidnapped girls brought safely home. International pressure is also necessary to deal with the underlying issues that have allowed human trafficking to become one of the most lucrative businesses on the planet. It will be international attention that will press governments to ensure that foreign aid is used for the benefit of victims and not lining the pockets of corrupt leaders.
It took the collective power of technology combined with the human heart for the world to truly understand the real problems facing the families of Nigeria. Quite possibly, this hashtag has brought more attention to the violence against females than many of the international mechanisms that were conceived to do so. Yet, instead of privileging social media’s strength over other tools, we must use every means at our disposal to raise awareness. Social media is one way to bring people together towards a common goal. Yet it is quality interaction that will fuel a continued international movement.
The situation facing these kidnapped girls is a microcosm of what so many women have endured across the globe. Their abduction and the outcry cannot be a one-off, but must be the spark that sets off a new conversation about the treatment of women both inside and outside conflict zones. The abduction of these 300 Nigerian girls is too easily viewed as a singular incident, as if this violence only occurs when it dances its way into the headlines. Some have said Nigeria is cursed with resources. While they are talking about oil and other minerals, the people of Nigeria are now blessed with human resources: people around the world who care about their girls and their future.
Nicole Lee is the outgoing president of TransAfrica Forum, the nation’s oldest African-American policy organization dedicated to advocacy for a just U.S. foreign policy for Africa and Africans.