Boko Haram and #BringBackOurGirls

As the world watches the chilling video recently released by Boko Haram’s leader and the reported further abductions of girls from a village in northeast Nigeria, people are in the streets in major cities in Nigeria to protest the slow and disappointing reaction of the Nigerian government. Despite more money being put into security than education, the Nigerian government failed to protect schoolgirls from abduction and then failed to track their whereabouts. But slow security response to the threat of abduction of children writing exams in Chibok is not the only issue we should be concerned with. The Nigerian government has shut schools and compromised the quality of education over the past five years. Human rights abuses are reported in the government’s response to protests and criticism (HRW May 5). And crushing poverty affects thousands of families in northern Nigeria.

Access to education for girls in northern Nigeria is shockingly low and ActionAid reports that more than 10 million children in Nigeria are out of school (4.7 children not in primary school UNICEF reports). Parents worry that when their children do attend state school, the quality of education and supplies are poor. Further, girls are at risk of violence both in their travels to school and at school. Low levels of socio-economic development and a lack of investment in education put girls at risk of early marriage in the region. Boko Haram is exacerbating an already dire situation for girls’ education in northern Nigeria. Paradoxically, these brazen attacks on schools and the protests by mothers (#BringBackOurGirls) in the streets of Abuja and Lagos may force the government of President Goodluck Jonathan to invest in both education and security.

It has been three weeks since the girls were taken from the school in Chibok, in a manner very reminiscent of the abduction of 139 ‘Aboke girls’ by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda in 1996. That incident also garnered wide international attention as the girls were moved through the dense forest and across borders. In hot pursuit, however, was an Italian nun who negotiated the release of over 100 of the girls, though not all of those abducted. She continued to campaign for the negotiated release of the remaining Aboke girls. While there was no social media campaign in 1996, the international media attention kept pressure on Ugandan President Museveni.

What can Canada and the ‘international community’ do? Unfortunately, international leaders, including leaders in West Africa, are in a difficult situation where Boko Haram has succeeded in drawing a lot of attention to itself and its anti-Western Islamist rhetoric. Canada and other governments should tread cautiously in supporting more militarization of the region and Nigeria’s response. Some responses may provoke worse treatment of the abducted girls. The Canadian government should support and indeed insist on a negotiated settlement, enlisting the help of regional and Muslim leaders. Sadly, this is not the first conflict where girls and young women are abducted by militia and purportedly used for sexual and other labour. These are tactics of war that terrorize communities, taunt governments, and provide forced labour to the organization.

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Posted in From the Desk of the Director.