When Boko Haram fanatics attacked a girls’ boarding school in northeastern Nigeria, kidnapping several hundred girls whose only offense was to dream of becoming doctors, teachers or lawyers, the Nigerian authorities’ initial response was to lie.
The military promptly claimed that it had freed 107 of the girls. In fact, it had done nothing, and, the girls’ parents say, it has continued to do little for the three weeks since.
Meanwhile, we in the news media world were also largely indifferent, too busy reporting non-news like the latest on the missing MH370 airliner. The American government, the United Nations and other players didn’t seem interested either.
Yet if world leaders and the news media dropped the ball, leadership came elsewhere. More than 50 of the kidnapped girls managed to escape the gunmen. Dads armed with nothing more than bows and arrows pursued the kidnappers into the terrifying Sambisa forest, where militants have hide-outs. Women’s rights advocates in Nigeria noisily demanded action, and social media mavens around the world spread word on Twitter, Facebook and online petitions — and a movement grew.
The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, started on Twitter by a Nigerian lawyer, has now been shared more than 1 million times. A Nigerian started a petition on Change.org, calling for more efforts to find the girls, and more than 450,000 people around the world have signed it.
Nigerian women embarrassed the government by announcing that they would strip off their clothes and march naked into the Sambisa forest to confront the militants and recover the girls.
All this grass-roots activism finally catapulted this news — three weeks later — onto the global agenda. President Barack Obama weighed in this week and sent a team of security experts to help. Nigeria has offered a $300,000 reward for information about the girls, and the government finally seems to have been embarrassed into making them a priority.
It’s reasonable to be skeptical, for Nigerian officials have been as feckless as Nigerian activists have been brave. According to The Associated Press, a military barracks an hour from the school was alerted to the attack, but troops never showed up.
Then Nigeria’s first lady, Patience Jonathan, accused activists of fabricating the kidnappings. She reportedly had a female protest leader detained.
It’s not clear if this global clamor will succeed, and two girls already have reportedly died of snakebites. But the United States might be of help locating the girls. For example, some reportedly have been taken to an island in Lake Chad. There are few people on the islands (the area all used to be under water) and limited vegetation, so satellite imagery or reconnaissance aircraft might be able to locate any girls there.
In the past, Nigeria’s army, while reluctant to fight Boko Haram militants directly, has gone after young men it thinks might sympathize with the group — rounding up and sometimes killing them, thus driving more villagers toward Boko Haram. It’s entirely possible that some families that lost a daughter to Boko Haram will now lose a son to the army, but outspoken U.S. monitoring can help limit atrocities.
All of us can respond more directly. Boko Haram, whose name means roughly “Western education is a sin,” is keeping women and girls marginalized; conversely, we can help educate and empower women. Ultimately, the greatest threat to extremism isn’t a drone overhead but a girl with a book.
So here’s a challenge.
Mother’s Day is Sunday, and, by all means, let’s use it to celebrate the moms in our lives with flowers and brunches. But let’s also use the occasion to honor the girls still missing in Nigeria.
One way is a donation to support girls going to school around Africa through the Campaign for Female Education, Camfed.org; a $40 gift pays for a girl’s school uniform.
Another way to empower women is to support Edna Adan, an extraordinary Somali woman who has started her own maternity hospital, midwife training program and private university, saving lives, providing family planning and fighting female genital mutilation. At EdnaHospital.org, a $50 donation pays for a safe hospital delivery.
Or there’s the Mothers’ Day Movement, mothersdaymovement.org, which is supporting a clean water initiative in Uganda. With access to water, some girls will no longer have to drop out of school to haul water.
We inevitably feel helpless when terrible things happen, but these are practical steps to fight a blow against extremism while honoring some of those brave Nigerian girls who are missing — like Deborah, Naomi, Hauwa, Pindar, Mary, Monica, Grace, Esther, Aisha, Ruth, Saraya, Blessing, Gloria, Christy and Hasana. We may not be able to rescue them, but we can back them up.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.