Why aren't we more outraged by the missing Nigerian schoolgirls?

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.

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.

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.

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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.”

The protests were picked up by social media with petitions circulating urging the US to intervene, as Twitter lit up with the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls and #BringBackOurDaughters.

 

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.

 

12 comments

  • There's also thousands of people getting killed in fighting in South Sudan and CAR that don't get much coverage in Australian news. But not many Australians go out of their way to read the websites of BBC World or Al Jazeera

    Commenter
    MW
    Date and time
    May 05, 2014, 8:33AM
    • Just for once Ruby, can you stop making it a white vs black and call it out for what it is? Regardless of skin colour - it's the denigration of women and girls. And it's appalling and needs to be addressed. ANY girl or woman never deserves this kind of treatment, be they black, white, purple with pink polkadots. NO girl or woman deserves it whether they are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Atheist or Kalathumpian. It's a GLOBAL ISSUE. Treat it as such!

      Commenter
      Alizah
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      May 05, 2014, 8:38AM
      • And were you as outraged at the massacre of 59 schoolboys by the same group earlier this year? Or the 40 boys murdered in July 2013? That's DEAD not kidnapped. Boko Haram is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, most of whom were men or boys, over the last few years. This is an issue of extreme religious fundamentalism, not gender. By framing it as an issue of the "denigration of women and girls" you make it sound as though you'd tolerate their terrorism as long as they stuck to murdering boys and left the girls alone.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boko_Haram

        Commenter
        Samo
        Date and time
        May 05, 2014, 1:28PM
    • A quick search of the SMH archives reveals a full dozen articles about the missing schoolgirls since mid-April. Of course we are outraged, this is terrible. But what can we do about the pathetic response by the Nigerian government other than sign even more dubiously-useful petitions calling for action?

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      May 05, 2014, 8:57AM
      • Exactly. There has been plenty of articles about it on a variety of websites, but at the end of the day it is down to the Nigerian government to actually take action.

        I'd also like to know exactly what the US is supposed to have done about a mass kidnapping inside a foreign country of non US citizens? And if the US is supposed to be doing something, why aren't other countries being called out for not doing whatever actions they are supposed to be taking as well?

        Commenter
        Hurrow
        Date and time
        May 05, 2014, 11:45AM
      • But none of those articles have appeared in prominent positions in online editions of the SMH, nor have they been accompanied by photos or stories about the lives of any of the missing girls. Prime position (which is where stories will receive the most attention) is reserved for Miranda Kerr and other Pretty White Girls to whom some good, bad or scintillating luck befalls (think of the American college girl who decided to become a porn star to pay for her college fees, and whose photo and story were placed in prime position). We are living in very shallow times, and anyone who denies that race, age and religion don't play a role in how their stories are told is in denial. Just recently I had to sit through excruciating Royal coverage on SBS news (of all channels!) before they got to the other news of the day, namely the sinking of a ferry with hundreds of school kids on it. Kate's choice of dress was far more important and relevant than some tragedy in Korea. It's scary, because the media shapes society. Thank-you Ruby for pointing this out.

        Commenter
        Cam
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        May 05, 2014, 12:39PM
    • I wonder if this is less about race and more about religion. It would be interesting to address that topic.

      Commenter
      Ruth
      Date and time
      May 05, 2014, 11:08AM
      • Ruby, we were and still are outraged, but I feel now with your article, as I did when I first heard of this happening, that I have virtually no power or influence to change it. While I felt almost compelled to join the search for them, the best i feel i can actually do is to send money to support causes that fight against this. Even then I feel it has little effect. Short of becoming a vigilante in the Nigerian forests, what else can I do?

        Commenter
        Sad reality.
        Date and time
        May 05, 2014, 11:11AM
        • I agree, it’s very strange that Australian media can fixate on the kidnapping of a single British child, however when hundreds of women are abducted to be used as tools for cultural genocide it barely gets a mention.

          I’m extremely sympathetic to the peoples but I don’t think it’s as simple as blaming the West’s apathy. I think Nigeria has to take a large portion of the blame as Ruby points out. Global media is run on shoe string budgets so they can’t afford to travel to investigate issues. Instead, the media relies on regurgitating local media reports. This works well in places like the UK or USA where the local media churns out endless reports, enabling other media to spread the word and occasionally visit. It’s very hard (and dangerous considering the treatment of Aljazeera journalists in Egypt) to publicise an issue that a country is refusing to publicise. This unfortunately exacerbates the in-group favouritism of the West as Western stories are more accessible so they are more readily spread.

          Commenter
          Tom Calthorpe
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          May 05, 2014, 11:35AM
          • It has nothing to do with racism, and everything to do with ability to identify. Take all reference to race or colour out of that quote from Time and it is still completely accurate:

            "When a pretty girl like Hannah Anderson or Elizabeth Smart goes missing, news outlets send helicopters and reporters to the scene, but when hundreds of girls are kidnapped in a faraway country, it barely makes the news".
            People can identify with a child being abducted from a suburban neighbourhood. It could have just as easily been their child, or that of their friends. People cannot identify as strongly with hundreds of children being abducted by a militant group, because such a concept is just so far from the life they live in more ways than just physical distance.

            The next comes down to helplessness. Yes it is an outrage that this happened, but what exactly is getting outraged going to accomplish? Short of invading Nigeria, ousting their government and hunting down the militant groups in the country, what proposed solution does anyone have to go along with the outrage?

            Finally, you get to the depressing truth. As horrible as this situation is, it is still not the worst thing to have ever occurred in Nigeria. With a round the clock news cycle that can reach every country in the world within hours, it is difficult to constantly be shocked by gross violations of human rights when the bar has already been set so high.

            Commenter
            Markus
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            May 05, 2014, 12:09PM

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