THE BLOG
12/05/2014 06:12 BST | Updated 11/07/2014 06:59 BST

How Do We #BringBackOurGirls?

What started as a local campaign for the return of more than 250 schoolgirls abducted by Islamist extremists Boko Haram, has become a worldwide phenomenon, attracting the attention of celebrities and world leaders alike.

 

As the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag goes global, it is, inevitably, being compared to #Kony2012, a video highlighting the crimes of Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony that went viral and received over 100 million hits.

 

While both campaigns share a key objective against which their success can be judged - in the Nigerian case it will be the return of the girls who were taken from their school in Chibok in the Borno State - there are important differences between the campaigns that criticisms of "hashtag activism" or "slacktivism" ignore.

 

A key distinction is that while the Kony video was an NGO-masterminded awareness campaign, #BringBackOurGirls is rooted in Nigerian activism, including digital feminism, and is linked to marches, vigils and demonstrations in the face of government inaction.

 

Remarkably, a story that went unnoticed for a number of weeks after the girls were taken on 14 May, and received scant media attention is now dominating the news agenda. As bel hooks has written, the impact of the campaign has been "so stunning" because it's "taken a class of people that are normally invisible and brought them into a certain kind of visibility."

 

Alike Ukoko, founder and CEO of Women of Africa, argues that such attention has been vital because previous instances of attacks and abductions by Boko Haram and other extremist groups have been ignored, allowing President Goodluck Jonathan's strategy of hoping that the problem will go away, to succeed.

 

"Fortunately, this time the government has not been able to lie or hush it up as they have in the past, because the international community has come so heavily on it," she says. "This is why it's so important that the momentum is sustained, because if we don't sustain it, it's only a matter of time before they come again."

 

The abduction of the girls is one aspect of an increasingly dangerous situation for women and girls in the country, says Ukoko: "It's not only these girls who are being held as sex slaves; armed gangs have kidnapped and gang raped women with impunity. There is sexual abuse going on across the country, but Boko Haram has become the centrepiece because of their ability to throw bombs."

International attention - generated also as a result of the World Economic Forum on Africa summit - has enabled Nigerian people to continue to hold their leader to account but the risk, as the campaign grows, is that global expressions of concern and demands that "something should be done" become another Western project.

 

The Nigerian American writer Teju Cole made the point succinctly in one of a series of Tweets highlighting the limitations of an international campaign:

 

In response to Kony2012 Cole made some criticisms of what he termed the "white-saviour industrial complex" namely that the desire to "make a difference" was often combined with a failure to understand complex issues to do with governance, infrastructure, democracy and law and order.

 

Journalist Rosebell Kagumire, in a video response, reiterates Cole's concern that #Kony2012 failed to respect the "agency of Ugandan people in their own lives: "It makes out a narrative that is often heard about Africa, about how hopeless people are, about the need for help. But it's not true, there have been local initiatives to end this war," she says. "This is another video where we see an outsider trying to be a hero rescuing African children. We have seen these stories a lot in Ethiopia, celebrities coming to Somalia. It does not end the problem."

The writer and activist, Spectra Speaks believes that the strength of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign so far is that it has "connected thousands of people all across Nigeria and the world to issues facing Northern Nigerian girls, including safety and security, access to education, and their rights to be recognised as citizens who deserve to be more than just protected, but enabled to thrive."

 

She is clear that the responsibility of "activists, media producers, concerned citizens" to "tap into the current moment" and "ensure - as much as is possible - that we educate people, recruit more long-term girl advocates, and make the most of where the energy is."

 

But how does that translate for those of us outside Nigeria who concerned about the abduction of the girls? It's a question that will have ongoing significance as digital media is utilised by people around the world to tell their stories - and one that feminists should try and answer if they want to avoid playing into the hands of western leaders, who are not averse to using feminist language or exploiting concern for the wellbeing of girls and women to justify war or policies that will make the situation worse.

 

In a later Tweet, Cole suggests a potential role for the international community in relation to the situation in Nigeria:

This seems especially relevant in relation to the struggles of women around the world, whose agenda can so easily be drowned out. It's vital that western, white feminists find ways to exercise our own agency without falling into the "rescuer" trap".

 

As Spectra says: "We need people to recognise that there isn't some 'other' that will fix the problems girls - or other members of marginalised groups - are facing.

"I'm a writer, and so, as my own way of contributing to change, I share my story and amplify the stories of others who do not have the same privileges or access as I do. You can always make a difference with what you have from where you are. The sooner we recognise that, the more powerful we'll be."