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The abhorrent abduction and abuse of Nigerian girls by the Boko Haram terrorist group highlights the violence and other horrendous violations that girls face in Africa and around the world. As we mark the Day of the African Child on 16 June, Equality Now says that no efforts should be spared to ensure girls live secure and happy lives

On 14 April 2014, the terrorist group, Boko Haram, attacked a Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Nigeria, abducting about 300 schoolgirls in the middle of the night from their sleeping quarters. As news of the kidnappings spread across regional and international borders, the world watched, listened, and read of the horrific conditions of slavery, forced marriage, sexual exploitation, and torture that Boko Haram was subjecting the girls to. As account after account of these atrocities was made widely available, the world responded. In the weeks that followed, the international community formed a collective voice, using mass and social media to draw attention to the attack, lack of governmental response, and the horrific conditions that the girls were suffering in. Using the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, celebrities, politicians, world leaders, and 3.3 million others have momentously increased global awareness and understanding of the horrendous violations that the hundreds of girls and their families are enduring. In addition to spotlighting the appalling attack, this movement has placed remarkable pressure on the Nigerian Government to assume all obligations under domestic, regional, and international law.

However, this momentum must not stop or be limited to the 300 girls. We must work to #BringBackAllofOurGirls.

You see, the horrific kidnapping on 14 April is not a unique event. Nor are the abusive and unimaginable conditions that the captive schoolgirls continue to suffer in. Gender-based violence is global pandemic, calculated to oppress girls and maintain misogynist cultures and traditions. In every community of the world, girls remain vulnerable to acts of gender-based violence, including physical and emotional violence, trafficking, sexual exploitation, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sexual assault, rape, and child marriage. By allowing room for such atrocities, while simultaneously preventing the girl child from achieving equality, she is denied the opportunity to advocate for her rights, change gender relations, and shift a universal culture that accepts and perpetuates sexual and gender-based violence. The Boko Haram kidnapping and subsequent complicity of the Nigerian government is an unfortunate representation of a larger picture: a world that allows millions of girls to endure injustices and violations of their human rights every day. In fact, UNICEF estimates that nearly 1.2 million children are trafficked each year. Regionally, hundreds of girls in Uganda were trafficked for sexual and labor purposes in 2013 alone. And those are just the cases that are reported. However, while the conditions and grave abuses are similar to those suffered by the Nigerian girls, there are no campaigns calling for their return. Governments are failing to prioritize the return of these children. Often, the media remains silent. The world moves on.

Even when cases catch the world’s attention, there remains a predictable struggle in maintaining global concern, concerted efforts, and assistance in demanding justice for our children. As the Nigerian Government, with assistance from other governments, began taking measures to ensure the safe return of the remaining kidnapped schoolgirls, #BringBackOurGirls began seeing a rapid deterioration in momentum and international attention. While it is with great hope that the collective efforts of millions across the world ensures the safe return of the 300 girls, we must ponder over the plight of all girls – particularly within African countries- that are facing terrorism, civil unrest and war situations that exposes them to systematic violations. How do we create an on-going dialogue and active community that demands equality, security, and rights for all girls, in every country and region of the world? How do we unify and place continued pressure and insistence on every nation to guarantee that the girl child is protected, empowered, and valued? How do we ensure that these 300 girls are the last one to suffer at the hands of injustice, inequality, and discrimination?

The underlying causes and factors that led to the 14 April kidnapping—terrorism, religious fundamentalism, gender-based violence, sexual slavery, trafficking, and child marriage— continue to affect millions of missing, abused, and trafficked girls universally. In the same manner that the global community and media has called for governmental action for the 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, we must demand the same for all girls living under the same umbrella of violence, exploitation, and oppression. Although treaties, agreements, laws, and protocols have been created to ensure comprehensive rights and protections against the systematic oppression of the girl child, there is universal epidemic of ineffective implementation of such protective measures. We must demand that governments fully comply with these measures, as it is ultimately the responsibility of Nation States to implement these obligations to the fullest extent and act in a concerted effort to prioritize the rights of every girl.

Ensuring these protections and measures in this specific instance sets an invaluable and vital precedent of refusing to allow States and individuals to treat girls as second-class citizens. By placing pressure on the Nigerian government, we are placing pressure on all governments to act in accordance with their national, regional, and international laws and obligations. Faiza Mohamed, Nairobi Office Director of Equality Now, spoke of the governments aforementioned obligations: “When governments do not fulfill their obligations by failing to prosecute clear violations against women and girls, not only women, but all of society loses out.” Whether individuals utilize the #BringBackOurGirls campaign or participate in the several initiatives, campaigns, and solidarity marches, it is imperative that we, as a society, maintain the momentum in demanding the utmost protections and governmental actions for the girl child.

To ensure that this crucial precedent of prioritizing the rights and protections of the girl child is set, we must place continued pressure on the Nigerian government and President Goodluck Jonathan to abide by all obligations under national, regional, and domestic laws that provide protections and rights to the kidnapped girls and their families. The Nigerian government’s response in the days prior to and following the attack are especially concerning and should not be tolerated. Rather than rising to and abiding by their national, regional, and international obligations, the actions and inactions of the Nigerian government reflected their disregard for the lives of the schoolgirls. In fact, it was reported that the military was made aware of the impending attack hours before Boko Haram kidnapped the girls, yet refused to take any preventative actions. Raising further concern is the continued and deliberate actions of the government to impede the national and international community’s actions to assist in locating and rescuing the girls. In the days following the kidnapping, Nigeria’s First Lady, Patience Jonathan, was accused of calling for the arrest of civil society leaders who had organized and led rallies in the nation’s capital, calling on the Nigerian government to take immediate action in rescuing the girls. The military is actively attacking the print media, impounding vans with newspaper copies, arresting vendors, and destroying daily copies of major newspapers. Most recently, on 3 June, the government called for a complete ban of all protesters and supporters of #BringBackOurGirls in the Capital.

In addition to the concerning action in preventing societal movements in calling for the return of the kidnapped girls, Nigeria has failed to abide by their legal domestic, regional, and international obligations. In addition to failing to secure a safe return of the abducted schoolgirls, the Government has neglected to create a data center to report and track the victims who have been abducted, thus creating loopholes in determining how many girls remain missing. Furthermore, despite the Government reporting on their efforts to compensate the known victims and affected families, no psychological counseling or means of compensating the girls have been established. This continuous and systematic lack of preventative and subsequent remedial measures reflects the State’s failure to implement and comply with their legal obligations. As a State signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (“Banjul Charter”), the subsequent Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (“Maputo Protocol”, the Nigerian Government is obligated to protect the girl’s right to:

• An education, especially taking special measures in respect of female children to ensure equal access to education. [ACRWC, Art. 11(3)(e); CRC, Art. 28; CEDAW, Art. 10; Banjul Charter, Art. 17(1)]
• Protection against sexual exploitation, human trafficking, abduction, and sexual abuse. (CRC, Art. 34; ACERW Art. 27 & 29, Maputo Protocol, Art. 3 & 4; CEDAW Art. 6)
• All feasible measures taken by the government to ensure the protection and care during armed conflict. (ACRWC Art. 22; CRC Art. 38; Maputo Protocol Art. 11)

In addition to demanding the safe return and protection of the Nigerian schoolgirls, we must continue using #BringBackOurGirls as a vehicle for raising international awareness of the widespread epidemic of the violence, inequalities, and injustices that plague girls in every region and country of our world. On behalf of the millions of nameless and faceless girls who endure unrelenting atrocities and violations of their dignity and rights every day, we must campaign to #BringBackAllofOurGirls.

* Kavinya Makau is Program Officer, Equality Now Africa Office