Two years after the viral success of the Kony 2012 campaign, the hashtag "bringbackourgirls" has brought similar worldwide attention to the hundreds of girls abducted from their school in Nigeria. Like Kony 2012, once the topic was trending internationally we saw an inevitable backlash with questions raised about what the campaign could actually hope to achieve since there is no easy solution and no obvious next steps.
Comparison with Kony 2012 is illuminating. Criticism around the campaign centred on the simplification of the Ugandan situation and the practicalities of finding Kony, while questions were raised about the organization that created the video. The key difference with #bringbackourgirls is that it was not started by any one organization, but was a grassroots initiative for advocacy and awareness-raising started by Nigerian activists in Nigeria. So in some ways it can be seen as more legitimate. But it's more complex than that - the hashtag was then seized on by the Nigerian diaspora and caught on internationally with 22% of tweets using the hashtag originating from Nigeria, while 44% are from the US. Whatever the truth of the hashtag's origins, this use pattern has fed into a predictable debate about so-called slacktivism or hashtag activism pursuing a Western agenda. So take your pick - are you with Marissa Jackson, who claims that social media users "have implemented pan-African human rights activism at the grassroots by optimizing usage of our social media networks". Or Jumoke Balgun, who claims "the United States military loves your hashtags because it gives them legitimacy to encroach and grow their military presence in Africa".
Whichever side you agree with, it is clear that as with Kony 2012 this "hashtag diplomacy" obscures the complexities of the situation regarding Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria. With this in mind, is it possible for this rush of "global sentimentality" as Teju Cole calls it, to be harnessed to achieve long-lasting results?
Although #bringbackourgirls has raised awareness and put pressure on governments to act in this particular situation, the shock and outrage from the public demonstrates widespread ignorance of the centrality of violence against women during conflict. Let's be clear - the experience of the Nigerian schoolgirls and the tactics of Boko Haram are all too familiar. Women and girls are targeted every single day as part of war and conflict. Last month saw a number of commemorations marking 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, during which hundreds of thousands of women and girls were raped, and little has changed since then with these acts of violence against women and girls persisting in every conflict since. There has been widespread condemnation of the threat from Boko Haram to sell the girls off as wives. Nonetheless, this is very common in conflict situations where it is estimated that 40% of all child soldiers are girls, with many forced to act as "wives" to combatants, for example the thousands of "bush wives" during the conflict in Sierra Leone. The story doesn't end when wars do, either. Even after conflict, where the environment is still insecure, women and girls may still experience intimate violence from those around them.
The fact that the abduction was ignored for weeks by the Nigerian government, and the fact that Boko Haram chose to abduct schoolgirls, shows the entrenched difficulties women and girls face, in both being targeted on behalf on their gender and also ignored because of it. For a number of reasons, the abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria currently has the attention of the world. To empower all women and girls around the world facing the same fate, we need to use #bringbackourgirls as a platform to show that the situation in Nigeria is not a one-off but just a single example of what women and girls face in conflict every day.
Although #bringbackourgirls has raised awareness, it is silent on how to stop this systemic abuse of women and girls. The answer is of course much more complicated than a hashtag campaign can explain. It has taken decades of long-term advocacy to put gender issues and women's rights on the international community's agenda. This has resulted in important successes over the past two decades in recognizing the impact of sexual and gender-based violence and hopefully #bringbackourgirls can provide some momentum to build on this.
The first step is ensuring accountability for crimes of sexual and gender-based violence. Both the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda made critical advances in the prosecution of rape and gender based crimes as international crimes. The Rome Statute (which established the International Criminal Court) reflects these developments in protecting women's rights with a number of provisions, including a broader definition of rape and recognition of the severity of sexual and gender-based crimes as crimes of mass atrocity. This could have a direct impact on the situation in Nigeria, since last week the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, stated that the abduction of the schoolgirls could fall within the jurisdiction of the Court. #bringbackourgirls could therefore continue to be used to press for accountability, a long process during which media and public attention can wane.
The second step is the complicated approach towards prevention and protection. There is growing recognition that sexual and gender based violence not only affects women in terms of their physical and mental health, but has an impact on peace and security in general. This was confirmed in 2000 by Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which recognized the disproportionate impact of conflict on women, women's contribution to conflict prevention, peacekeeping, conflict resolution and peace-building and the importance of women's participation in effecting change. Despite 1325 positioning gender issues and women's rights as relevant to peace and security, there is still a great deal of work to be done regarding the rejection of sexual and gender-based violence as an acceptable part of conflict or as collateral damage. UN Security Council Resolution 1820 adopted unanimously in 2008 goes some way in doing this by demanding "immediate and complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians". These security council resolutions are not the solution in themselves, the implementation of both 1325 and 1820 depends not only on the structures and resources available to the United Nations, but crucially on the will and capacity of governments. With no obvious mechanism in place, #bringbackourgirls plays a crucial role in demonstrating public support on this issue, reminding and holding member states to their obligations.
Finally, if alliances could be formed by human rights organizations and actors at an international and national level to capitalize on the campaign but broadening the aim - #bringbackourgirls could have an impact beyond Nigeria. For example, in the future the hashtag could be used to highlight specific situations and events involving women and girls in conflict to bring attention to the world stage and continue pressurizing governments on this issue. However, to ensure progress and impact, this advocacy would then need to be embedded into a larger strategy, supporting national and local action where NGOs, civil society organizations and networks find practical ways to support local efforts on prevention, protection and accountability.
Despite the criticism of armchair activism, this could be a watershed moment if attention surrounding these events can transform into something altogether more sustained and ambitious. If we can seize the momentum of interest and look beyond the immediate ambition to #bringbackourgirls, it could be possible to shape a world where we #protectallgirls.