July is usually a rather reflective month for me as I embrace yet another year of progression in age with a deep sense of gratitude for the gift of life. The past two weeks have particularly been reflective and thought-provoking for me as I seek to gain deeper insights on a variety of things. These include the direction I am taking with my doctoral work here at Saybrook as well as my effort to ‘take in’ the reality of various areas of interest with the goal of partnering with others, to enable transformative change and leadership for the realization of girls’ and women’s human rights, among other things.
As my reflection process continues to unfold, I am constantly reminded that out of about 300 girls from Chibok, Borno State Nigeria who were abducted from their school in April of this year by the fundamentalist group Boko Haram, over 200 of them are still missing. Earlier this month CNN reported that 63 girls and women abducted by the same group from Kummabza village in northern Borno state on June 18 have escaped. Media and other sources indicate that in the Hausa language, ‘Boko Haram’ means “Western education is sin.”
When the news of the abduction of the school girls in Chibok broke out on the international scene, according to media reports, they had been in captivity for about 3 weeks. Women’s and children’s rights groups and other people in Nigeria called out the Nigerian government for what they referred to as a slow and unacceptable response to the abduction of these school girls and other incidents of violence in the region in the recent past.
This story outraged many people in Nigeria and around the world. As each day of no concrete report on the whereabouts and safety of these girls passed, frustration mounted – especially for the affected families. Media reports indicate that Boko Haram has abducted and/or killed perhaps thousands of people in various villages and cities in Nigeria that include girls, boys, men and women over the past 5 years or so.
Media reports indicated that on May 12th Boko Haram released a video of some of the abducted girls indicating that they are holding them hostage and will only set them free in exchange of their members that have been imprisoned by the Nigerian government. The media reported that Boko Haram threatened to sell these girls in “a market for humans” as sexual slaves. They threatened to sell them as child brides and indicated that they have forced the non-Muslim girls to convert to Islam. It is believed that the girls are being held in the Sambisa forest and media reports in May indicated that 2 of the abducted girls had died from snake bites.
One of the fathers in Chibok told CNN in mid-May that “We don’t have security at home….” Another, “We feel abandoned….” Another, “Fear is everywhere….” And yet another, “We sleep in the bush with our little ones….” One of the mothers of the abducted girls told CNN, “They say they are helping but we do not see their help…”. Another said, “Our hearts hurt…”. There were numerous images and voices of understandably distraught parents in the media crying out for justice for their abducted daughters.
The anguish of the affected families and the very nature of this atrocity committed unto school girls at such a daring and grand scale inspired some of us to do something as a show of our solidarity. We are moved to act on the urgent cause of appealing to the Nigerian government to find these girls and bring them back home to the safety of their parents. I helped organize a ‘solidarity and protest march’ in May with members of women’s rights organizations in different parts of Africa under the umbrella of the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET).
As noted on their website, FEMNET is “a membership-based pan-African Network set up in 1988 to advance African women’s development, equality and other human rights.” I am an individual member of FEMNET. Several FEMNET partner organizations, individual members and friends made various contributions that made this solidarity march possible. They included but are not limited to Akili Dada, Equality Now, Africa UNITE – Kenya Chapter, UN Women, #BringBackOurGirls – Kenya Chapter and the Nigerian Students Association in Kenya.
We chose May 15th as the day for the solidarity marches across different countries in Africa because it was also International Day of the Family. The solidarity marches culminated with “stand-ins” at the various Nigerian embassies of the participating countries where a statement was read out aloud to consulate officials condemning Boko Haram’s abduction of the school girls and the slow response of the Nigerian government. We also expressed our solidarity with the affected families and the people of Nigeria.
In countries were it was too risky for the women to conduct public mass action – they sat in silence and prayer at a place of their choice in solidarity of the same cause. Thousands of people around the world including some of my classmates from a course, “Leadership, Organizing & Action: Leading Change” I was taking at the time at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University signed online petitions in support of this cause. We were visibly and invisibly connected (physically or virtually); inspired and bound by values embedded in our quest for social justice and freedom for ALL.
It was indeed inspiring to meet the chairperson for the Nigerian Students Association in Kenya at a police station in Nairobi who was there also seeking a permit to hold a protest march in support of the same cause – the day before we held ours. He thanked us for organizing the march and mobilized his fellow Nigerian students who joined us at the solidarity march on May 15th. He also agreed to speak at the Nigerian High Commission – the final destination of our march.
After a well-attended and very peaceful solidarity march we were well-received by officials at the Nigerian High Commission that included the Minister for Immigration and Consular, Mr. Ogochukwu Dan Obelle, who addressed us after we read out a statement “Voices on Day of Action to #BringBackOurGirls” we had prepared. Mr. Obelle welcomed our concerns and messages noting that the Nigerian government was doing everything it could to find the abducted girls. He indicated that the Nigerian government had changed its strategy on handling this matter benefiting from the support of countries like the United States of America that had more experience in dealing with acts of terrorism. He also emphasized that this was an extremely sensitive matter and the use of force was not an option because the girls’ lives were at stake. He thanked us for our show of solidarity and indicated that he would convey our concerns and messages to the Nigerian president Jonathan Goodluck.
The leader of the Nigerian Student Association in Kenya shared with me that, even though he feared the Nigerian government did not have the capacity to face Boko Haram single handedly, he was hopeful that with the involvement of countries like the US, United Kingdom and others in helping address this issue, things would change for the better. We left the Nigerian High Commission feeling hopeful that our voices were heard and in great anticipation that the girls would be found, rescued and returned safely to their parents. Here is a link to images from the solidarity march.
It has been approximately 95 days today July 17th since the school girls in Chibok were abducted and the world is still waiting for news of their safe return. According to Boko Harm these girls’ “offense” was that they are girls and were in school; put another way, these girls are being punished for being in school yet Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
- Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
- Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
- Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.
While I won’t be examining the right of education in this article, this story demonstrates the injustices girls and women continue to face from individuals and groups in the private and public sphere that uphold and implement ideologies that seek to marginalize them and therefore prevent them from realizing their fundamental human rights. There have been arguments that there are deeper issues behind these abductions that may not necessary be about girls attaining education. Whatever the reasons for the abductions are, these girls’ human rights have been deeply violated and this is something we must all speak up against. We must also vehemently condemn the abuse of girls and women as body shields and negotiation pawns for resolving political, economic, cultural, ethnic, religious and other forms of conflict.
In a May 07, 2014 joint op-ed by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, and Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund, they asserted that “We must send the message loud and clear that no girl can be abducted. Human rights are indivisible and universal. Yet, women and girls continue to be systematically targeted, assaulted, trafficked and enslaved on a massive scale. Globally, one in three women will experience violence in her lifetime.”
We ALL have a ‘responsibility to protect’ ALL children – boys and girls no matter where they are. The girls of Chibok like all children have a right to education, a right to freedom, a right to life, a right to be with their families, and to protection from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.