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#BringBackOurGirls and digital activism

#BringBackOurGirls and digital activism May 15, 20141 Comment

The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag has been tweeted over a million times since the vice-president of the World Bank for Africa Dr Oby Ezekwesili, responding to the abduction of more than 250 girls from a boarding school by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in Nigeria, demanded: “Bring Back the Girls!”

A lawyer in Abuja, Ibrahim M. Abdullahi, who saw the TV coverage of Ezekwesili speaking at a UNESCO event, is credited with turning her words into a hashtag that Ezekwesili then retweeted, urging her 120k followers to use it. The hashtag began trending a week after the disappearance of the girls from their dormitory in Chibok in the north-eastern state of Borno on 14 April.

Article image - Dr Oby Ezekwesili
Dr Oby Ezekwesili. Picture credit: adediana.blogspot.com

It has since been used by celebrities and world leaders, prompting Nigerian author Chibundu Onuzo to write: “We have discovered the power of the hashtag over the last week. The simple, emphatic demand #BringBackOurGirls has moved across the Twitter timelines of the famous and the unknown, uniting Nigerian housewives and the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.”

But even as the hashtag continues to trend across the globe, and as the the families of the girls mark a month since their disappearance, eight more girls have been abducted amid continued violence, including a bomb blast that is reported to have killed 300 people.

In the face of such a complex situation on the ground, debates have already begun about the effectiveness of online campaigns.  Comparisons have been made with the Kony 2012 viral video, which succeeded in gaining 100 million views and raised awareness of the atrocities carried out by Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lords Resistance Army – but achieved little else.

When it comes to assessing its effectiveness, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, like #StopKony, has a clear objective against which it can be judged – the safe return of over 200 girls aged 12 to 17 to their families. But as commentators like right-wing American radio host Rush Limbaugh weigh into the debate about whether a Twitter hashtag can achieve this, it’s important to bear in mind an important distinction between the two online campaigns; while #Kony2012 was a public awareness campaign created by a US-based NGO, #BringBackOurGirls has its beginnings among Nigerians.

It is a campaign sparked by frustration at government inaction which has also articulated wider concerns, not only about domestic security, but about the violence and lack of opportunity facing women and girls in Nigeria.

As Minna Salami, founder of the MsAfropolitan blog has shown, Nigerian women are among a growing movement of African digital feminists who have “used new technologies to tackle sexism and repressive traditions; they have used blogs and forums to document their stories and to connect with each other; and they have used the tools of the internet and technology to campaign, raise petitions, create apps and e-zines and to empower one another to demand change”.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign is “yet another example – if not “THE” capo di tutti capi of examples, of African feminist digital activism that also changes lives offline,” claims Salami.

As such, the campaign’s greatest achievement so far has been to attract national and international attention to the plight of the girls and, therefore, preventing President Goodluck Jonathan from ignoring the situation as he has in the past. The abduction in Chibok is not the first carried out by Boko Haram. In those previous cases the girls have not been heard of again. In June 2013, Boko Harm also attacked a school in Mamudo, killing 22 students while 59 boys were killed in Buni Yadi in February.

Dupe Killa, whose #ChildNotBride hashtag awareness campaign in response to a law that permitted a senator to marry a  13-year-old girl, and which Salami cites has an example of Nigerian online feminism, is among the many digital activists who has criticised the government for failing to act.

As Salami says: “Women-led activism seems sadly the best hope the girls have at this point as the Nigerian government has proven indefensibly negligent.”

Now that the campaign has become an international phenomenon, with Michelle Obama expressing “outrage and heartbreak” over the abductions during the White House’s weekly radio address, there’s a danger that it will become detached from its grassroots beginnings.

Writer and activist Spectra Speaks acknowledges that a worldwide, decentralised campaign like this can’t be dictated by a single person or entity: “And it shouldn’t be,” she adds. “For some, #BringBackOurGirls is a chance to raise awareness. For others, it’s just the beginning, and not enough by itself. For people like me, there’s a balance – I see the campaign as a powerful convening moment – a chance to spark dialogue, educate people on the facts, and discuss what actions we all can take to secure better futures for all girls, not just the ones abducted.”

As the focus becomes one of fighting terrorism with both British and American governments squaring up to the threat of Boko Haram, it becomes all the more vital that the voices of those on the ground are heard and amplified if such an agenda is to be realised.

On Twitter, Ezekwesili, has highlighted the fact that a 10-day sit-in she was part of in Abuja was prevented by the government, this following the arrest of one of the campaigners, Naomi Mutah.

More recently, however, she has criticised the charity Girl Rising for using the plight of the 250 girls to raise funds for its work.

As the campaign grows, and the likelihood that #BringBackOurGirls might be co-opted or procured to serve other interests, it becomes even more vital that we support – and listen to – those spearheading the campaign, both for the safe return of the girls and to support an agenda geared towards tackling the issues that make their lives difficult and unsafe.

“To honour the girls, and their families, we must think broader, and more long term,” says Spectra.  “After we bring back our girls, what is our promise? It should be that other girls needn’t fear seeking an education. It should be that we focus on creating an environment for the 14 million girls living in poverty – those who don’t even have the privilege of attending school, less so taking exams at secondary level – to not just survive, but fulfil their potential, and thrive. If we bring back our girls to the state Nigeria is currently in, we aren’t offering them – or any other girls – a future that is any better.”

Julie Tomlin is co-founder of Digital Women UK.

Picture credit: Michelle Obama/@FLOTUS/Twitter

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