May 7, 2014: It took Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan 18 days to set up a rescue committee to find more than 270 girls who were kidnapped from their school. Let’s say that one more time, it took the Nigerian government the better part of a month to respond to the violent kidnapping of girls who were just trying to get an education. Girls who, despite incredible poverty and a widespread cultural belief that girls should not go to school, get up every morning and go to where they hope will be a safe space to learn.
"I am frustrated," said one Nigerian activist and Global Fund for Women ally who requested anonymity, as many of her fellow activists are being detained and questioned by police for speaking out about the horrific crime. "Response has been slow, too little, too late, or none at all. Citizens are demanding information – basic, accurate information that will reassure the public that something tangible is being done about the attacks."
As Nigeria hosts the World Economic Forum this week, 70 percent of the country’s predominantly Muslim population in the northeast lives on less than a dollar a day. To incentivize families to send their girls to school and keep them enrolled, women’s organizations and other NGOs pay families via conditional cash transfers that are used to pay school fees, according to our anonymous source. Women work hard to match girls with female role models who encourage them to continue their studies.
"This attack has come at a very fragile time when trust for the school as a safe space for girls was just being built," said the Nigerian activist. "Families who traditionally do not believe in girls going to school will be less likely to see any benefits in sending their girls to school because of the stigma attached to rape and sexual violence."
Reports of the kidnapped girls being forced to marry Boko Haram members are nothing new. Our source says Boko Haram, the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping earlier this week, uses forced marriage, sexual violence and trafficking as a weapon of intimidation. In a recent threat, a man claiming to be the group’s leader Abubakar Shekau said they were going to "sell them in the marketplace."
"Terrorists have adopted a technique of dropping small sums of money on the floor and forcefully abducting young women from their homes," said the Nigerian activist. "The practice, which is interpreted by Boko Haram as a form of marriage in an attempt to legitimize their crimes, has been condemned by many Muslims."
Boko Haram has been fighting an insurgency in northern Nigeria for the past five years. Its agenda is political and has complex layers. Education is just one element of its aggression. Recently, the violence has escalated. Just a few months ago, the group killed 59 students at a boarding school, many of whom were burned to death. On the same day that the schoolgirls were kidnapped in Chibok, a bomb blast also claimed by Boko Haram killed 75 people in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Earlier this week, at least eight girls between the ages of 12-15 were also kidnapped, and details are still emerging around a deadly attack on Tuesday that left at least 200 people dead in another Nigerian village.
"Pure Islam is mostly protective of women and demands respect for women," said the Nigerian activist. "Boko Haram and other religious fundamentalists with violent ideologies bring in their own doctrine which is seen as an adulterated version of Islam by genuine adherents."
Nigeria has a rich herstory of women standing up against great odds for their rights, including the Aba Women’s Protest, when women peacefully organized only to be violently restrained by colonial leaders, and more recently in Plateau State where women marched topless to get the world’s attention and end violence. And now, the world is watching as women use their collective voice to demand their rights and a safe return of their girls. To support collective action, Global Fund for Women, in partnership with African Women’s Development Fund, is awarding an emergency grant to women’s groups in northern Nigeria and sending a letter advocating for government action to select Nigerian ambassadors in the United States and West Africa.
Social media has become a powerful force in this crisis. Women-led protests are being amplified worldwide via #bringbackourgirls. Our source sees social media as a tool to pressure corrupt governments and hopes that the pressure will shame the Nigerian government into being accountable to their citizens.
"It is crucial for the international community to keep up their support through demonstrations, sanctions and diplomatic pressure as a clear sign of condemnation of the inadequate government response to violence against women," said the Nigerian activist.