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Bring back our girls' rights in Nigeria

It is 2 years since the Boko Haram terror group kidnapped over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. The struggle to find them and to protect the education and rights of all girls in Nigeria is more urgent than ever, writes Bukky Shonibare of #BringBackOurGirls. This is an extract from The Unfinished Business of Girls' Rights.

Bring back our girls
The #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign engaged supporters all over the world

Upon the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls, the #BringBackOurGirls movement erupted as an outraged response of citizens who have had enough of the killings of innocent and defenceless children.

The world saw the convergence of online rage and the offline rallies in Nigeria. People realised the girls could be their own daughters, nieces, sisters, or even neighbours. The world connected and responded.

Responders believed their faces and the #BringBackOurGirls placard would do something; so much so that solidarity and support came from all cadres of people and countries. Abubakar Shekau, leader of Boko Haram, also released a video during the height of the campaign, disparaging the hashtag, showing that even he was listening.

Celebrities took turns to be counted. The US President, Barack Obama, also heard and acted by sending a specialist team to Nigeria to assess the situation and advise on the help the American government could provide.

Social media played a pivotal role in ensuring that the Federal Government of Nigeria, which had hitherto denied the abduction, paid attention to the rescue of the girls and the general security of its citizens. The Paris Summit for security in Nigeria was held as a result, and actions for multilateral collaboration were agreed upon.

Bukky Shonibare of #BringBackOurGirls
Bukky Shonibare: the campaign still makes a difference

So what was the real impact of #BringBackOurGirls? Once the frenzy started dying down, people began to ask: how far can a simple hashtag go in actually bringing back the girls? What do we mean by success? After all, the girls were still missing. However, the campaigners on the ground in Nigeria who have been the main activists believed, and still do, that because the campaign attracted such attention, the conversation will keep going. The spotlight in itself will have made a difference. Over time, the campaign, while continuing to put pressure to bring back our girls, has evolved into the convergence point of our shared humanity and empathy for the voiceless victims of violence and bigotry.

Education for all?

The importance of girl-child education cannot be overemphasised, and yet 6 million of children not in school in Nigeria are girls (57%).

School drop-out by girls is worst in the areas of northern Nigeria where Boko Haram is most prevalent. To prevent the incessant killings of innocent children through attacks on schools in a region that has the worst literacy rate worldwide, lawmakers, alongside school leaders and community chiefs, had to make the difficult decision to close at-risk schools. Even in localities where schools are open, parents were reported to have stopped their children from going to school.

No girl, or boy, should have to choose between going to school and staying alive

International responses have been geared towards tackling the apparent widening gaps in education as a result of the insurgency. The Gordon Brown-led Safe Schools Initiative* has gained some ground in ensuring schools are safe for children to attend. However, there is still the big question of how safe a school can be if the community is not safe.

The girl child in northern Nigeria needs more than psychological security; there must be actual and visible safety that would both motivate girls to return to school and encourage their parents to support that decision.

Girls at risk

Nigeria, as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Union Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, has pledged to treat all children, girls and boys, as human beings with rights that must be respected, protected and upheld. The national government also passed its own Child Rights Act. But to be enforceable, national legislation has to be adopted state by state and 26 out of 36 states have not done this. Even where they have, the provisions of the law are not always adhered to – children’s rights are still abused and violated, with little or no judicial enforcement.

For this we are all responsible. Discrimination only hits the headlines when the actions of extremists are being reported, but for too many girls and young women, it is part of their everyday lives.

Today’s girls can become powerful, responsible contributors to the nation’s economy if all of Nigeria pulls its weight and puts resources together to achieve this. Social media has been shown to be a force that can unite people across continents. The Federal Government needs to take heed and take action. No girl, or boy, should have to choose between going to school and staying alive. Girls everywhere have the right to an education, to be free from violence and to enjoy equality of opportunity – the right to a fulfilling life.

This is an edited extract from The Unfinished Business of Girls’ Rights, Plan International’s State of the World’s Girls Report 2015.

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