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Mainstream, VOL LII No 26, June 21, 2014

Nigeria’s Missing Daughters

Saturday 21 June 2014, by Sunita Vakil

When nearly 300 girls were abducted from a government senior secondary school in the north-eastern district town of Chibok a month ago, the mass kidnapping failed to make headlines. This is a stunning example of the use of women as the “spoils of war” around the world and nobody cares. The incident is also a reminder that women are always a soft target, bearing a disprop-ortionate burden of any conflict regardless of its nature. It took nearly a fortnight and severe international outrage for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathen even to acknow-ledge the abductions. The Nigerian Government has been forced to defend its response to the crisis with the President roundly criticised for waiting three weeks to speak to the nation about efforts to find and free the girls, even as the victim’s fate remains uncertain.

The intial reports were starkly chilling. Armed men raided a northern Nigerian boarding school at the dead of night, piling more than 300 girls aged 15 to 18 years into pick-up trucks and taking them to a secret location. Since then some of the girls escaped and the tales they tell are every family’s worst nightmare. Indeed, the very fact that these girls were studying was an anathema to their captors, the Boko Haram, whose name is translated as “Western education is a sin”. It is barbaric and unthinkable that these girls were simply trying to get basic education and they were violently denied that by the militant group. In fact, the Boko Haram made it known after the kidnappings that the girls should not have been in the school, but should have been married. Their leader, Abu Bakar Sheikau, intially said in a video that he will sell the kidnapped girls but later demanded to trade them for prisoners held by the Nigerian Government. How can the world allow such horific rights abuses?

The fanatical Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram, in fact wants to impose its strict interpretation of Sharia—the Islamic law. It operates mostly in the northern part of Nigeria, a country divided between a Muslim majority north and a Christian majority south. Islamic rule is its larger objective. Thousands of Nigerians—both Christians and Muslims—have been killed over the years by the Islamic terrorists. More than 1500 civillians have died this year alone.

Tragically, what has happened to these girls is not new. Instances of the trafficking of children in places of conflict are myraid and worldwide. In reality, Boko Haram has deliberately weaponised that sect of our society which is marginalised, exploited and ignored globally. Millions of women world-wide have no control over their destiny, remain sunk in ignorance and suffer not only the denial of opportunity to develop their potential but the worst kind of violence and oppression. Crimes against women are not only common place, they also go ignored, unprosecuted and unreported by the international media every single day. By targeting the society’s most defenceless, the Boko Haram has shown that these girls are easily expendable and liable to be used as tools of terror.

Over the last few weeks or so, many are wondering about the media’s apathy towards the gruesome incident. Where is the hue and cry for more than 300 kidnapped girls? However, the story was taken up on the social media, with prominent personalities joining in the campaign. While the world paid so much attention to the Malaysian Airlines disappea-rance and South Korean ferry disaster, these lost girls have not received the same media coverage or international response. So far the Nigerian Government is slow to do anything. The relatives of the kidnapped girls in the small town of Chibok have struggled for weeks with no resources to help them. Any efforts that are being made now to save the girls are too little too late. There is a lot of lip-service. One needs to ask: who is looking for these lost girls of Nigeria? Who is demonstrating for their release and recovery? Who is hunting the abductors to find the girls and restore them to their families?

The Nigerian President has exhibited a tardy response to the kidnappings and failed to mount an effective campaign against the Boko Haram. He had even cancelled a planned visit to the schoolgirls’ town citing safety concerns. But the international condemnation of the incident and offers of help from the United States of America, Britian and Israel have galvanised the Nigerian Government into action. The President has vowed that the abducted girls will be found and warned the Boko Haram’s action will lead to the “end of terrorism” in the country.

Right now the world is scrambling to help the Nigerian girls. US Secretary of State John Kerry said some days back that the US will do everything to support the Nigerian Government to return these women to their homes and hold the perpetrators to justice. Moreover, Nigeria and four neighbouring countries will share intelligence and border surveillance in the hunt for the abducted girls and the Western nations will provide technical expertise and training to the new regional African efforts against the extremist Islamisists. The plan was announced recently at the conclusion of Security Sumit in Paris hosted by French President Francois Hollande.

Meanwhile, anger grows over the lack of progress in recovering the abducted girls. The families are fast losing hope of seing their daughters again despite government assura-nces that they will be found. Britian has sent a military plane to help the international efforts to search for the girls which will add to the sharing of intelligence agreed at the Paris Sumit on Boko Haram.

But we cannot afford to sit and shake our heads about what is going on in Nigeria. While the first priority of the government should be to bring back the lost girls, it also needs to rescue the country from the Boko Haram which has been active since 2009. A good starting-point would be to ensure safe education, jobs, proper status in society and legal rights to girls that will go a long way in aiding their cause.

The author is a Delhi based journalist and can be reached at: sunitavakil@yahoo.co.in