Raising My Voice To #BringBackOurGirls

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My son in a local march to Bring Back Our Girls

On Mother’s Day, I spoke at a local march and rally to show support for the nearly 300 school girls abducted a month ago in Nigeria.

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Here’s what I said:

Bring Back Our Girls Twin Cities March

May 11, 2014

Thanks to organizers and to all of you for being here.

I’m here as a lawyer and Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit based in Minneapolis that works on human rights issues around the world.

But I’m also here as a mother.  My kids Simon and Eliza are here today as well to stand in honor of the nearly 300 girls abducted simply because they were pursuing their human right to education.  I think that’s pretty much the best Mother’s Day gift they could give me.

There are a lot of things that we don’t know about the situation in Nigeria.  We don’t know where the girls are or what is happening to them.  We don’t even know the exact number abducted and we only know a few of their names.  We can only imagine the agony their families are going through.

But the tragedy of the nearly 300 girls in Chibok shines a spotlight on the systemic human rights abuses against faced by women and girls worldwide.

And there are many things we do know about violations of the rights of girls and women:

  • We know that girls around the world lack equal access to basic education  (in the NE region of Nigeria where these girls lived, girl enrollment is the lowest in the country –  only 22%.  In part, they were targeted because they were seeking an education that would change their lives.
  • Educating girls, we know, is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development
  • We know that girls and women are not valued equally as boys and men in many parts of the world.  The Nigerian government’s lack of action both before and after certainly makes it seem that these girls were not deemed worthy of protection.
  • We know that when these girls are found and hopefully rescued, they will need support in the form of psychosocial and health care.  Women’s access to health care is woefully limited.
  • We know that 1 in 3 girls under age 18 are still being forced into marriage too early.  By some estimates, that’s about 14 million girls a year. Too many girls still endure harmful traditional cultural practices such as FGM.
  • We know that girls and women suffer the most in times of conflict.  What these girls have experienced is likely a war crime.  Trafficking remains a huge problem around the world and in our own community.
  • We know that 1 in 3 of the world’s women experience violence, including domestic violence (The Advocates for Human Rights works on domestic violence legal reform around the world);

And we know that these are all things that have to change.

We need to do more to push our governments to make this change a priority.  We can’t stop with just these 276 girls.

Now these are human rights abuses that may seem intractable.  It may seem like you are powerless to make a difference.  But you can:

  • Continue to educate yourself about girls and women’s rights.  Here in the Twin Cities, there are many opportunities.   Through The Advocates for Human Rights alone, you can attend the free St. Paul Public Library Women’s Rights Film series, learn more about the issues on www.StopVAW.org, or participate in our Human Rights Book Club.
  • Support the NGOs that work on issues you care about. No amount is too small – a little money really does go a long way in this area.
  • Write to our members of Congress and the President to encourage support for women’s rights as a critical part of our US foreign policy.
  • For those of you with young people in your lives, teach them about the world around them so that they will grow up to continue the fight to ensure that every child, wherever he or she lives in the world, has the chance to live in safety and dignity and to achieve their greatest human potential.

For those of you doubting whether sharing this story on social media really makes a difference, I’d like to share a message I got on my blog from a woman named Winnie in Nigeria:

we here in nigeria are so angry and feel very helpless, the government and opposition leaders have politicized this, while our daughters are still in captivity. the government officials do not want to listen to ‘ordinary’ people. and word  has it that the Nigerian press have been ordered to kill the story (as the have killed other stories in the past).  pls this is a passionate plea to the international community to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

Here in the Twin Cities and all around the world, we are working to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

And after our girls come home, I hope we can keep working together for a future where all girls around the world can go to school in safety and grow up to reach their full human potential.

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Image used with permission of RaSam Photography. Thank you!

 

See also:  Nightmare For Nigeria’s School Girls   originally published on The Advocates Post.

Nightmare for Nigeria’s School Girls

Girls in school in Nigeria Image: Naija247News
Girls in school in Nigeria
Image: Naija247News

 

On the night of April 14, dozens of armed men showed up at the dormitory of the Government Girls Secondary school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria.  Dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, they told the girls that they were there to take them to safety and herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles.  At first, the girls believed them. But when the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,”  they realized that the men were militants from Boko Haram and that they were in serious danger.

Forty-three girls managed to escape by running away or jumping out of the trucks. But as many as 234 school girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were kidnapped, disappearing into the night without a trace. (Update 5/4/14: it is now believed that as many at 276 girls were abducted.) Two weeks later, their parents still have no idea where they are. And yesterday, village elders from Chibok told reporters that they had received information that the abducted girls were taken across the borders to Chad and Cameroon and sold as brides to Islamist militants for 2,000 naira (about $12).

While unconfirmed, these reports are a chilling reminder of the threat of sexual violence faced by women and girls in conflict zones. 

The girls who were abducted were targeted simply because they were exercising their right to go to school, out of the ordinary for a girl in Nigeria. Access to basic education for girls has remained low, particularly in the northern region which has the  lowest girl child enrollment in Nigeria —in 2008 the net enrollment rate for girls into secondary school was only 22 percent.  The girls (who were both Christian and Muslim) at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok must each have been determined to get an education in spite of tremendous odds.  The fact that these girls were also risking violence to be in school illustrates how important the right to education was to each of them.

How could this happen? And why?
Boko Haram is a violent insurgent group that has killed thousands of people since 2009, purportedly in an attempt to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. Although the Nigerian government has issued a state of emergency in three northern states, attacks on villages in northern Nigeria have displaced more than 470,000 people—mostly women and children, according to the UN High Commissioner for RefugeesSince early 2014, Boko Haram’s attacks have been increasingly violent, targeting remote villages, markets, hospitals, and schools.  Boko Haramis responsible for at least 1500 deaths so far in 2014.

Boko Haram also has a history of taking hostages as “slaves.” In May 2013, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Sheku released a video saying that Boko Haram had taken women and children, including teenage girls, as hostages as part of its latest campaign. These hostages would be treated as “slaves,” he said.  This has raised concern among the family members of those abducted that “Boko Haram is adhering to the ancient Islamic belief that women captured during war are slaves with whom their ‘masters’ can have sex.  Regardless of alleged rationale, enslavement, imprisonment, forced labor, rape and sexual slavery are all serious violations of international law.  They are defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity.

The group has repeatedly attacked schools in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”  in the Hausa language. Boko Haram has set schools on fire and detonated bombs at university campus churches. In early February, armed gunmen abducted 20 female students at Goverment Girls Science College in the village of Konduga. On February 24, 2014, members of Boko Haram attacked and killed more than 40 male students at Federal Government College in Buni Yadi village and abducted an unknown number of female students. After these attacks, many schools in northeastern Nigeria were closed. The school where the abductions took place was closed as well, but local education officials decided to briefly reopen the Chibok school to allow the girls to take their exams.  

The mass kidnapping  in April was unprecedented and shocking. Even more shocking – after more than two weeks, the Nigerian government has done very little to find and rescue the girls.

The lack of government response has provoked outrage in Nigeria. On Wednesday, several hundred participated in a “million-woman protest march” in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital to demand that more resources be put toward finding and securing the kidnapped girls. The protesters in Nigeria are joined on Twitter with a growing movement under the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls, #BringBackOurDaughters and #234Girls. There is also a Change.org petition to Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan asking him to do more to save the abducted girls and ensure that schools in Nigeria are safe.

One man, whose daughter was abducted along with his two nieces, said his wife has hardly slept since the attack. She lies awake at night “thinking about our daughter”.  As the mother of a young school girl myself, I feel deeply for her. The continuing tragedy of these young Nigerian school girls is every parent’s worst nightmare.

It’s time for world to wake up to the escalating violence in Nigeria, as well as the Nigerian government’s lack of response.

Originally published on The Advocates Post.