Weeks after a militant group abducted more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria, the Obama administration has announced it will send officials to assist in search efforts. The team will consist of hostage negotiators, law enforcement, and military members, but as of now, the administration is sending only personnel and not military resources. All 20 female U.S. senators signed a letter to President Obama urging him to condemn the kidnappings in stronger terms and level further sanctions, including adding Boko Haram to the United Nation's Al Qaida Sanctions List, which would attempt to freeze Boko Haram's assets and block their access to weapons and other resources.
It's laudable that the U.S. is stepping up and offering support to the Nigerian government. The international outcry on social media, at rallies, and in the press surely pushed our government to act and keeps the heat on Nigerian leadership. Hopefully #BringBackOurGirls will succeed in pushing Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, his administration, and the Nigerian military to real, organized action, and the hashtag will achieve its aim of getting the girls home. But there's a danger in this kind of hashtag activism, too: It obscures context, large and local.
"That's always the risk when you have a story like this: People gorge on the horror of it without appreciating the context," Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, senior fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Cosmopolitan.com.
Boko Haram is not a new force in Nigeria. The terrorist group, which opposes many aspects of Westernization, has killed thousands of people in just a few years, including dozens of schoolchildren. They want to institute a particularly strict form of Islamic law, and they murder Nigerians of various religions, including Muslims they deem insufficiently pious. But the group remains fractured, and their demands shift — it seems they want power and control, and the bloodshed it takes to secure it, more than religious purity.
Nigerians have been sounding the alarm about the group and its violent tactics for years — tweets about the kidnappings started in Nigeria weeks ago and spread from there — but Americans and Europeans have caught on en masse only recently. While the attention is overdue, its volume in response to these kidnappings may lead to some initial bad results: Boko Haram, which thrives on notoriety, reportedly kidnapped more girls this week. The group also released a video deeming the 200-plus schoolgirls "slaves" who will be sold into marriage.
"I abducted your girls," a man claiming to be the group's leader, Abubakar Shekau, said in a video. "I will sell them in the market, by Allah. I will sell them off and marry them off. There is a market for selling humans."
Women, he said, "are slaves."
Later, he said, "I will marry off a woman at the age of 12. I will marry off a girl at the age of 9."
Those threats are horrific, since "marriage" in this case, of course, means the ongoing rape and enslavement of a child.
The perceived vulnerability of schoolgirls and the sheer number of girls who seem to have disappeared into thin air may be why this case garnered so much attention — who is more innocent than a schoolgirl? How in an age of satellite technology can we not track these girls down? — but the story also casts light on the much larger global problem of gender-based violence. Reliable statistics on sex trafficking are difficult to find, but one common estimate puts the number of children exploited in the commercial sex trade at 2 million. More than 64 million girls around the world are child brides. Most of those girls are not kidnapped and sold, making their circumstances different from the Nigerian schoolgirls. But nonetheless, there exists a global narrative about women and girls that encompasses both groups: Our bodies are things to be bought, traded, threatened.
Across continents, soldiers use rape as a tool of war to devastate local populations: Loot a village, burn a house, rape a woman. Women's bodies — women's sexual organs in particular — are objects to destroy, or to use in psychologically harming men (women are often raped in front of their husbands), or to use as bartering chips (here, Boko Haram is selling the girls to build up their financial reserves). Women aren't really people; they're things, conduits for someone else's interests.
If we want to #BringBackOurGirls, we need both pieces of context: How Boko Haram operates in Nigeria specifically, and how gender-based violence operates globally. Otherwise, #BringBackOurGirls runs the risk of being another #Kony2012: A social media spectacle, devoid of nuance and actual information.
"There are so many horrors in the world right now competing for our limited bandwidth that people just can't take it anymore," Tzemach Lemmon said. "Which is a very human and understandable response. But even if you can't help these particular girls, you can still do something: You can help organizations that support women leaders in Nigeria, or organizations that are working on trafficking issues. You can call your member of Congress and say, 'I care, and I do want the U.S. government to offer whatever resources we can deploy to go.'"
That view that women and girls are unworthy of a full range of rights and liberties lives in every nation on earth. The Nigerian schoolgirls are living through one of the most extreme manifestations of it, but that view lives in the U.S., too, in the many women and girls victimized by violence, in restrictions on women's rights, and in political debates over what women do with their bodies. That thread — the one that says women are not autonomous individuals worthy of full human rights — is the one we need to sever if we want to #BringBackOurGirls and never see them taken again.
Photo credit: Getty Images; Article Via Cosmopolitan.com