Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (centre, blue shirt) and Nigerian Senate President David Mark (centre, red hat) inspect the Abuja bus depot that was blown up by the Boko Haram on Monday. Photo: AFP
Today marks three weeks since more than 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped from their school by gunmen, thought to belong to the anti-Western group Boko Haram.
After more than two weeks of inaction from the Nigerian government, and lack of interest from the outside media, the world finally spurred into action late last week.
A bystander reacts as victims of a bomb blast arrive at the Asokoro General Hospital in Abuja on Monday. Photo: Reuters
Renewed interest in the girls’ fate followed reports that they may have been sold in sexual slavery for as little as $US12. As columnists began questioning why the media was ignoring the story and the media attention gained momentum, the Nigerian government finally announced last Friday that it had set up a rescue committee–more than two weeks after their abduction.
That same day, the US government confirmed it would aid Nigeria in the search, though it did not specify what form that aid would take. Secretary of State did, however, say that getting the girls back was imperative because this, “is not just an act of terrorism. It’s a massive human trafficking moment and grotesque.”
Kerry’s words are telling. Was the US government uninterested in the case until it appeared to be a case of sex trafficking? Is it merely the salaciousness of sexual slavery we are now reacting to, rather than the inherent tragedy of some 274 missing girls?
Moreover, is it already too late?
If the girls have been sold off then they have likely been separated and much harder to locate than if the government had organised a rescue operation immediately. Keep in mind that about 50 of these girls escaped on their own, jumping from the slow-moving convoy to safety. Had the authorities acted sooner, it’s likely many of them would be safe as we speak.
But as far as we know, the Nigerian government initially did nothing to locate the girls, apart from lie to the media that the girls had been found and returned. Let me repeat, the girls that escaped did so entirely on their own; the authorities have not, as yet, rescued a single victim.
But if the Nigerian government was hoping the devastated parents would simply give up and disappear much like their daughters, they were sorely mistaken. As frustrated families called on the government to intervene, some fathers and brothers of the girls undertook their own searches, to no avail.
One thing is clear: this story is finally grabbing worldwide headlines thanks, not to the international media itself nor efforts of the Nigerian authorities, but to the families themselves who refused to give up on their daughters.
The wider Nigerian community took up their plight. Protests gathered momentum with hundreds marching in the streets of the Nigerian capital last week, pressuring the government to act. Protest organizer Hadiza Bala Usman told the BBC, “It is not clear why the rescue operation is not making headwayconsidering the fact that there’s a clear idea of the perimeter area where these kids were taken in the first week: to the Sambisa forest.”
It was this grassroots determination to find the girls that finally spawned both the media and the Nigerian and other governments into action. And while prospects grow increasingly dim, the stakes remain high. As Hazida Bala Usman warned The New York Times, unless the girls are rescued “no parent will allow their female child to go to school.”
So why was government and media so slow off the mark?
It is rather ironic, given the western world’s love for Malala Yousefzai, the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban for attending school. These girls are 274 more Malalas, risking their lives just by turning up to school. And that’s not mentioning the many more girls (and boys ) already killed in previous attacks.
Did the Nigerian government simply not expect anyone to kick up a fuss over a few hundred missing schoolgirls? Sadly, it is difficult not to see the initial lack of interest in the fate of these girls as a case of sexism on the part of the Nigerian government, and, as this Time article indicates, implicit racism on the part of the rest of us:
“When a pretty blonde girl like Hannah Anderson or Elizabeth Smart goes missing, news outlets send helicopters and reporters to the scene, but when hundreds of black girls are kidnapped in a faraway country, it barely makes the news.”
Perhaps this is simply indicative of the western world’s preference for symbolism over action. As long as we profess our love for Malala, we don’t actually have to do anything to help girls like her. Or perhaps we, without even realising it, paid so little attention because we have become desensitised to such trauma in the developing world. I am reminded of the words of blogger Lia Incognito, “White people experience trauma, sins and tragedies, while everyone else’s suffering is (considered to be) part of their natural condition.”
When this story first broke, it appeared for all the world that we were willing to simply accept it as another chapter in what we see as the ongoing trauma of Africa. For a brief moment in time, we would be shocked and saddened by the loss of innocent children even as no one -not even their own government- thought to make any real attempt to retrieve them. And then we would all simply move on until the next tragedy briefly captured our attention.
But the families of the girls disrupted the narrative. They refused to accept this trauma as part of their “natural” condition. It is their determination not to give up on their daughters that has finally made the rest of the world stand up and take notice.
We can only hope now that it isn’t too late.