I wrote this for The Guardian on the one year anniversary of the abductions from Chibok that sparked global consciousness (at least for a while). As of today, it’s been 412 days.
The story that emerged from Nigeria this time last year should have read something like this. “Last night, armed men attempted to kidnap more than 200 girls from Chibok government secondary school in Nigeria’s north-east Borno state. Security forces, stationed at the school to protect the girls, foiled their plan. The president, who flew to Chibok this morning to meet the girls and their families, apologised, admitting more precautions should have been taken. In the wake of several such attempts to kidnap women and girls over the past two years by Jama’at Ahlus-Sunnah Lida’awati wal-Jihad , commonly known as Boko Haram, he announced his government would undertake a comprehensive review to make sure this never happened again. The girls and their families will now benefit from comprehensive medical care and counselling offered by the government.”
If the story had played out like that, it would never have caught the attention of global politicians, celebrities and the Twitterati. But, of course, the girls were in fact abducted by Boko Haram, and one year later, the majority are still missing.
In all the discussions and news coverage that followed the abductions, the voices of women in the region were rarely heard. But they were the first to speak out, continuing the protests and activism in which they have been engaged since the start of the insurgency. A week after the abductions, Borno women, coordinated by Baobab for Human Rights, called on the government and their president to take action. They warned that the government would be seen as accomplices in the abduction if they failed to rescue the girls. They went to Chibok, lobbied the state government and made links with women and men all over the country and around the world.
Chibok was the not the first abduction, and it hasn’t been the last. It is estimated that at least 2,000 women and girls have been kidnapped since the start of 2014. Boys and young men have also been taken. It was not that this was not known before; a typical sentence in a Nigerian newspaper reporting on an attack would be “56 people were killed, 29 women and girls taken and property burned and destroyed.” Even before the abductions from Chibok, women activists in north-east Nigeria had been trying to raise awareness of what was happening, urge political action and provide services and assistance to those who escaped or were rescued.
This time, the world paid attention. In cities across Nigeria, including Abuja, Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt and Jos, people went out on the streets, demanding that the government “Bring Back Our Girls”. There were marches and protests across the world. Syrian women in a refugee camp spoke out in solidarity. This increased attention led the government to develop guidelines on gender-based violence, including provision for counselling, mental health services and continued education for girls. Women’s rights activists also drew attention to the fact that Nigeria has no national laws against violence against women and girls, despite numerous attempts and civil society pressure to pass legislation since 2003.
Women’s activism and participation in public life in what is now north-east Nigeria stretches back to the time of the historical Kanem-Bornu empire. In the modern day, women have played a direct role in hostilities – as security officials, Boko Haram fighters and members of community security groups. They walk the line between different sides of the conflict, negotiating for the return of women and girls, for access for humanitarian workers to give medical care, and for the end of the fighting itself. Acting as mediators, they try to negotiate peace between Boko Haram and the government.
Women also support those who have experienced the brunt of the violence. They provide services to survivors of rape and sexual violence and speak out against the stigma and shame they experience. The University of Maiduguri Muslim women’s association is one of many women-led organisations which have provided food and shelter to those who have fled rural areas for the state capital. The Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment, and Tapestry, have set up a support network to address trauma in girls and women, training lay counsellors in communities across the north-eastern states affected by the insurgency. Working together across ethnic and religious lines, women have repeatedly marched and protested in the streets of Maiduguri, against the continued detention of their family members, for human rights, and for peace and justice.
Tomorrow marks one year since the girls were taken from Chibok government secondary school. Although not at the same fever pitch as in May and June last year, and perhaps all but forgotten outside the country, the abductions are still present in people’s minds in Nigeria. Newspapers still carry boxes declaring the number of days it has been since the abductions. Women in Borno carry on supporting women and girls who have managed to escape – and push for human rights, justice and an end to the conflict. Women from the state capital Maiduguri will be in Chibok tomorrow to commemorate, support and comfort families through the anniversary.
The indefatigable Bring Back Our Girls movement continues to hold protests. Rallying people all around the world, they have called for a week of action in solidarity. A man is cycling across west Africa, from Abidjan to Lagos, to raise awareness. The anniversary will see the Empire State building lit up in purple and red. There will be a Global School Girl March, taking place from Tasmania in Australia to Stavanger in Norway, from Santiago in Chile to London in the UK – and, of course, in cities across Nigeria.
This campaigning has been successful in highlighting the plight of the abducted girls, and although it hasn’t led to their safe return yet, it has had an important effect on Nigerian politics. Perceived government inaction in the wake of Chibok abductions was not the only reason Nigerians voted Goodluck Jonathan out of office last month, but insecurity and violence in the north-east was one of the main factors in prompting many to vote for change. In the run up to the presidential elections, people still asked: what has he done to bring back our girls? The Bring Back Our Girls movement was instrumental in mobilising the country in protests and conversations about the abductions, and in doing so, helped remove a Nigerian president from power in what will be the first democratic transition in the country’s history.
The president of Nigeria is set to change on 29 May, but women in the north-east will continue to push for justice, peace, human rights – and the return of women and girls who have been abducted in the past two years. Once in office, the president-elect, Muhammadu Buhari, has to deliver.