By: Maryna Tkachenko
On the night of April 14, 2014, Boko Haram—a jihadist terrorist group that aims to purify Islam in Nigeria—kidnapped 276 girls from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria. Not long after, Boko Haram broadcasted images of the captives, wearing dark gowns. Although Boko Haram had previously engaged in armed attacks on the local people, this event captured the attention of the international community and sparked the global media campaign #BringBackOurGirls (BBOG).
Consequently, New York City’s Nigerian community responded: #BringBackOurGirlsNYC. Responding to the widespread outrage, the UN Security Council added Boko Haram to its sanctions list, and the United States sent troops to search for the girls. Public figures and celebrities also used their voices to condemn the abductions. While Pope Francis encouraged all to “join in prayer,” Malala Yousafzai and Angelina Jolie rallied on the behalf of the girls, and Michelle Obama posted an image of herself holding a white sheet of paper with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Initially, it seemed like the combined actions of international actors and individual advocates had resulted in some progress. After a series of negotiations, the Nigerian government was able to bring some girls back. Worryingly, the campaign has been losing its spotlight since some of the girls were released in 2016 and 2017, despite recent reports, that 112 Chibok girls are still at the hands of Boko Haram. The majority of the victims, however, are unaccounted for—their fate unknown. Since most of the gender-based violence is committed in remote areas, the world’s attention rarely gets focused on Boko Haram’s crimes.
This past February, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari won his reelection bid—amidst Boko Haram’s threats to sabotage the elections. Calling for legitimate action to stop Boko Haram’s terror, BBOG advocacy groups demand that President Buhari—who has largely neglected the girls that are still being held captive—should demonstrate a strong political will and prioritize girls’ release.
On the fifth anniversary of the Chibok kidnapping, more needs to be done to not only free the rest of the girls but to also provide returned abductees with holistic, survivor-centered care. Boko Haram’s actions were driven partly by pre-existing gender norms that define women as child bearers and call for a complete control of women’s reproduction and labor. As a result, the majority of the abducted girls were forced into sexual slavery, which led to long-lasting trauma and pregnancies.
Due to the stigma associated with rape, the girls’ communities and families have sometimes ostracized those who have returned, labeling them as radicalized or sexually “tainted.” Their children, born of rape, are also rejected by the community—as they are seen as living Boko Haram members. The Chibok girls face social death and symptoms of shock, grief, panic, and fear of being kidnapped again. Because of security restrictions, they are supervised most of the time (which ensures their safety but also exacerbates their inability to lead normal lives) and are not permitted to stay with their children.
The Chibok girls cannot be denied agency and a voice. Media outlets and investigative bodies should do more to bring to light the reality of sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria, while taking measures to avoid jeopardizing the girls’ health and safety. (Read Ms. Magazine blog post by GJC Communications Manager Liz Olson on documenting sexual violence.)
The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development puts women’s empowerment at the core of achieving international peace and security. This means that Boko Haram is not only a Nigerian problem. President Buhari’s administration and the international community are not doing enough to bring back the girls who remain at the hands of Boko Haram. Highlighting its awareness of the graveness of sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria, the world must address the root causes of the Boko Haram insurgency, investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual violence in accordance with international law, and—equally importantly—address survivors’ needs.
Photo courtesty of Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome