Over three weeks ago, Boko Haram terrorists raided a girls’ boarding school in Nigeria, kidnapping over 300 girls in an attempt to destroy their dream of finishing school and becoming doctors, teachers, lawyers, and when they were ready, mothers. Boko Haram means, “Western education is a sin”, and their actions are reprehensible, but the Nigerian government initially failed to act, apparently ignoring a warning that came to a nearby military base before the attack occurred. In fact, the rest of the world did much the same, with the media more focused on other issues. Even those of us in the human rights world were caught unawares.
Meanwhile, some girls managed to escape on their own and fathers carrying only bows and arrows chased the attackers into the forest, hoping to bring their daughters home. Mothers cried out, and women’s’ rights advocates in Nigeria hear them and demanded help. The media and Western and African government leaders remained quiet, but a Nigerian lawyer put out one of the first calls for support on Twitter at #BringBackOurGirls,. Over a million others did the same. A petition started by a Nigerian on Change.org, urging help to find the girls, has over 450,000 signatures.
The girls in Manenberg who are part of Rock Girl (www.rockgirlsa.org), and who have friends who have been kidnapped and raped by gang members, picked up on these initiatives and joined in the demand for help. Even though thousands of miles away, with no resources, and sometimes dodging bullets on their own walk to school, these South African girls wanted to do something.
Women and girls are leading this call for help, with Nigerian women even announcing they would strip naked and walk into the forest to find the girls themselves. All agreed that if those in power, men and women around the globe, failed to act that they would step in.
The voices of girls and women are finally being heard. Michelle Obama posted a photo of herself on the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter hashtag, and President Obama offered the help of United States security experts. Nigeria has offered a R3,000,000 reward for information about the girls. Other countries and the United Nations are offering their support. Sadly, African leaders, including newly elected President Jacob Zuma, remained ominously silent for many days, sending the message to our women and girls that like those girls in Nigeria, they don’t matter. While African and world leaders look the other way, women and girls across Africa are rising up and condemning these actions. Most of these women are mothers themselves, and as Phumzile Ngcuka-Mlambo, head of UN Women, has said, they cannot imagine the pain that the Nigerian mothers are going through, but they will not ignore it.
This month, as we celebrate Mother’s Day, we can all heed the cries of these mothers. Boko Haram is directly opposed to the education of girls, which is critical to the success of any country, including South Africa. We can help the doors of learning for girls remain open, as a girl with an education can do more than any one soldier. This attack is not just against the Nigerian girls; it is against all women and girls, all mothers.
Rock Girl invites you to help us create a Safe Spaces bench to honour all mothers, including the mothers of the missing girls and your own moms. You can go to www.rockgirlsa.org and make a donation of any amount by EFT, indicating it is for the Mothers Bench, and include the name of any mother you would like to be mentioned on the plaque that will go next to the bench. A portion of funds donated will also go towards the Rock Girl Resilient Girls programme for teenage girls, supporting their efforts to remain in school despite the very real threats of gangsterism and sexual violence. Or you can make a donation to many other incredible organisations who support girls’ education and ensure better lives for women and girls - I know you do so much already to support this cause. The Rock Girl Safe Spaces benches are symbolic, but the message is clear: creating safe spaces for girls and women, and everyone, ensures a better country for all.
We can all ensure that the voices of these girls and their families are amplified, becoming so loud that they reach deep into the forest as well as up to our Presidents’ offices, demanding that girls and women, mothers now or mothers to be, are given the respect they deserve.
As Virginia Woolf once wrote, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
Human rights lawyer and founder of Rock Girl, a grassroots campaign that provides safe spaces for girls and women, and everyone, in South Africa
Rock Girl and Football for GirlsSA are 2014 beneficiaries of the 5 for Change Charity Ball taking place on 31 May 2014, where you can support other women-led initiatives. Go to www.quicket.co.za/events/1773-5-for-change/.