A marcher holds a banner during a protest about the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria, near the Nigerian High Commission in London. File picture: Kirsty Wigglesworth

The social media campaign has touched the hearts of millions, says Thabo Makgoba.

Cape Town - The shocking news of the abduction of more than 300 girls from a school in Nigeria by the Islamist Boko Haram militants four weeks ago has been making headlines around the world. The action has provoked a sense of global outrage that innocent young lives are being ripped apart and damaged by political and religious forces.

As nations gather for the World Economic Forum in the Nigerian city of Abuja, universal condemnation needs also to be met by co-ordinated and urgent action to ensure these young girls are found and returned safely to their families as quickly and effectively as possible.

This truly heartbreaking event has served to highlight the critically important role of the global community, political and humanitarian, in helping to protect Africa’s girl children – after all, they are the continent’s future and deserve to live without fear, to be able to fulfil their potential, and make meaningful contributions to the growth and development of Africa.

Yet the continent and the world’s decision-makers, influencers and opinion-formers were initially slow to react to this unfolding tragedy, failing to respond with the necessary urgent measures to ensure these girls were found quickly and safely rescued from their captors.

This sentiment was echoed by former UN chief Kofi Annan, who has subsequently levelled criticism at Nigerian and other African nations for not reacting faster to this crisis.

At the heart of this appalling abduction of the schoolgirls, aged between 16 and 18, who were studying for their final-year exams, is a rejection of a girl’s right to an education. Boko Haram extremist leader Abubakar Shekau has made public threats to sell the girls following the abduction, justifying these threats by saying the girls should not have been in school at all and instead should be married.

The name Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”.

This radical attitude runs counter to global thought leadership and research evidence on the importance of education for girls in Africa and elsewhere in the world.

In an article published by Unicef in January, the organisation comments on the importance of girls’ education and gender equality, saying: “Girls’ education is both an intrinsic right and a critical lever to reaching other development objectives. Providing girls with an education helps break the cycle of poverty: educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will; less likely to die in childbirth; more likely to have healthy babies; and are more likely to send their children to school.

“When all children have access to a quality education rooted in human rights and gender equality, it creates a ripple effect of opportunity that influences generations to come.”

Increasingly, adolescent girls in Africa also face economic and social demands that further disrupt their education, spanning from household obligations and child labour to child marriage, gender-based violence and female genital cutting/mutilation.

Recent estimates show that one-third of girls in the developing world are married before the of age 18, and one-third of women in the developing world give birth before the age of 20.

Inadequate or discriminatory legislation and policies often inhibit girls’ equal access to quality education. In countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, formal or written threats to close girls’ schools or end classes for girls have fuelled gender-motivated attacks on schools, such as that being experienced now in Nigeria.

In the face of a tragically slow response on the part of African governments to this abduction, perhaps one of the most powerful reactions to this situation is the use of social media to stir public consciousness and greater awareness.

It has done more in recent days than most African governments have managed to do to publicly condemn and raise global awareness of the situation.

The viral #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign has reached the homes and touched the hearts and lives of millions around the globe and garnered the support of young and old, rich and poor, influential and ordinary citizens of the world, to raise consciousness of this barbaric act against Nigeria’s girl children.

This campaign – sparked by an April 23 speech given by Oby Ezekwesili, the vice-president of the World Bank for Africa, who first used the phrase “bring back our girls” to get the Nigerian government to intervene in the crisis – has turned into a powerful Twitter campaign.

It has galvanised world leaders to take action – US President Barack Obama and US First Lady Michelle Obama are proactively supporting the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and practical US government support is now being sent to the country to aid the rescue effort.

The campaign has stimulated the world’s education campaigners to also add their voices to the call for action – Pakistani schoolgirl and girl’s education campaigner Malala Yousafzai, who survived a shooting in 2012 by Taliban insurgents while campaigning for the right to an education for all girls in the country, said: “The world must not stay silent over the abduction of more than 300 girls in Nigeria. If we remain silent, then this will spread, this will happen more and more and more”.

Since its launch, #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted more than a million times, and retweeted many times more, by supporters around the world.

It is perhaps a sad reflection on the governments of the African continent that more was not done sooner to try to rescue these innocent young lives, and that priority was not given to safeguard the health and well-being of these vulnerable girl children.

We can only hope that the efforts of many will now have a positive impact on the outcome in this tragic situation and restore life and dignity to these young girls. Let us hope that sanity prevails and the world’s efforts to find the girls ends in a positive news headline in the coming days.

Let us also hope and pray that this situation serves to prick the consciousness permanently of all those leaders on the African continent and around the world that Africa’s girl children are important, and deserve to live their lives to the full, making choices that are right for them, and shaping their own futures, supported by the power of education – a force for good.

Africa has risen to the occasion before when humanitarian disaster galvanised action, such as when Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake, or when Mozambique experienced deadly floods.

For now we say: #BringBackourGirls.

* Thabo Makgoba is Anglican archbishop of Cape Town.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent