Four years ago this month, 276 school girls were abducted from the village of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria by a group of militants known as Boko Haram. Why? Because they dared to go to school, something Boko Haram – which loosely translates to “western education is forbidden” – felt entitled to prevent.
Boko Haram began as a small band of Islamic radicals, and has since emerged as an internationally recognized terrorist group. In total, over the past fifteen years Boko Haram has kidnapped some 5,000 children from at least four countries in addition to Nigeria. Some have been used as suicide bombers. The New York Times reported that one died with a baby strapped to her back.
To Boko Haram, these children are their property; their conquest. They are enslaved, assaulted and abused, and allowed to go on existing only at the pleasure of their captors. And Boko Haram are not an isolated case. This same tactic was deployed ISIS in Iraq and Syria. They kidnapped over 6,000 young Yazidi girls and held them as sex slaves, trafficked them to wealthy men and even roped them together to be sold in markets to the highest bidder. We met a young Yazidi girl called Miriam in a displaced people’s camp in Dohuk, Iraq last year who had been held for two years, raped repeatedly, and escaped only to be snatched up by human smugglers who demanded payment before releasing her. Despite everything, this remarkable young woman is looking to a better future. She dreams of one day becoming a human rights lawyer to stand up for the rights of the next generation of girls.
The kidnapping of the Chibok girls fueled an international campaign: #BringBackOurGirls. Celebrities and world leaders took part, vowing that no girl should be denied her basic right to education. This demonstration of unity was important. There is power in knowing that we are not alone and that our stories matter. But it isn’t enough. Today over 100 of the girls are still slaves and those that are free either escaped or ransoms were paid.
If we really want girls to know a better world, we need to actively and financially support the brave people on the front lines: the local activists, lawyers and organizations that are standing up for the rights of women and children. The kind of heroes War Child works with year in, year out. We need to move beyond the hashtag to taking practical steps towards change.
We know that the biggest threats to women and girls – to their safety and very survival – are in the world’s war zones and refugee camps. And yet, despite the scale of the problem, in every war zone you will find extraordinary individuals and groups who will not accept that all is hopeless. These are the teachers who continue to work in defiance of Boko Haram’s warped ideology. The lawyers who will stand up to the patriarchy in Afghanistan. And girls like Miriam who will become the next leaders in Iraq and Syria.
Movements rarely maintain their momentum and hashtags never do. But if we are prepared to take the next step – if we are willing to commit to supporting the change makers on the ground, to move from Bring Back Our Girls to Build Up Our Girls, then dreams like those of Miriam can come true.
*This article was based on a Now This video by Dr. Samantha Nutt.