As I write this, the blast generated by the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign is slowly dispersing. After three weeks of intense global media uproar, a glut of celebrities posting their support (and faces) on social networks, online petitions, hundreds of marches staged across the world and over 3 million tweets and retweets, have the ‘hashtag activists’ achieved their goal? Not quite.
Close to 300 schoolgirls are still missing. Meanwhile Boko Haram – the extremist Islamist group which snatched the girls from their dormitories in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria on April 14 2014 – is continuing hisviolent attacks across the country.
As the social media storm quiets down, the real core of this campaign is coming into the spotlight: African women and their battle for education.
Amid the ongoing conversation around the efficacy and risks of ‘slacktivism’ and whether the international rescue mission will legitimise Western powers’ desire to expand their military agenda on the African continent, activists seem to have no intention to let the world forget about the Chibok girls.
The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag is now assimilating into #EducateOurGirls, #EducationForAll campaign, a movement that stands for education of oppressed girls worldwide.
Nigeria has the largest number of out of school children in the world – the majority of them girls. Kidnappings of girls who are forced into marriages or sold as sex slaves, are unfortunately not isolated incidences in the country.
The fight against Boko Haram – which literally means ‘Western education is forbidden’ – has to primarily be a battle for women’s education, or as journalist Nicholas Kristof put it: “The greatest threat to extremism isn’t drones firing missiles, but girls reading books.”
The question that is persistently circulating on social media right now is can the #ChibokGirls become for Nigeria what Malala Yousafzai has been for Pakistan?
Any wonder that behind this advocacy battle to spread awareness of the revolutionary power of education is the vibrant movement of women in Africa which has been alive and kicking for many years, though largely ignored by the Western media and overlooked by Western feminism.
“African women tend to be portrayed as victims, the raped, the suffering, the poor mothers of the poor girls. But across Africa, women are ending conflicts, reshaping governments and bringing attention to crucial issues. In this story, as in many others, they are the heroes,” said Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee.
Women in Africa countries advocating vigorously for their rights isn’t new. Digital platforms have provided them with the tools to visibly challenging patriarchal societies and oppressive traditions by raising awareness of sexual abuses and daily violence.
#BringBackOurGirls is not an isolated case, but is the one to break through and attract global attention. Its merit has been to make women in Africa realise the international impact of their vision. It has served to coordinate their actions, create a common space for debate, link their common battles and open a communication channel with women from other countries. Significantly, it has served to elevate education to the heart of their feminist battle.
The impressive mobilisation we have witnessed in the past few days, not only has turned the spotlight on the horrendous abuses women in Nigeria are subjected to daily, it has also sowed the seeds of a movement that has to scope to become a powerful entity with a much broader agenda for political and social change.
As drones fly over the Sambisa Forest, the international rescue operation intensifies in the wake of African leaders meeting in Paris where they agreed to wage war on Boko Haram.
It will take more than a trending hashtag to defeat Boko Haram in the short term or put an end to the violence against women in Nigeria. What it has done is draw attention on the situation facing Nigerian women and possibly compel an inept government to finally take action.
Main picture credit: @coommark/Twitter
About the author
Maria Teresa Sette
Maria Teresa Sette is an Italian journalist based in London. Her main interests focus on the intersection of human rights and digital culture, with a particular focus on migration, gender and minority issues. After completing an MA in Journalism at the University of Rome, Maria moved to London in 2007. She was on the launch editorial team of Wired UK and Italy, assuming the role of news editor of the Italian digital edition until 2010. Working as a freelance ever since, Maria has reported from London, India, Turkey, Southern Italy and the US investigating technology’s impact on society, culture and politics for a range of international outlets. She has also managed the digital publication produced by the Migrants Resource Centre in London.