#BringBackOurGirls is more than just a hashtag

In the last two days, I’ve seen several posts on Facebook and Twitter that opine whether using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is meaningful. Their feet planted firmly in the first world, the writers have called the hashtag trite, pointless, superficial, and without a plan. They question its ability to make a difference, bring the kidnapped Nigerian girls back home to their families or effect real change.

Change never comes wrapped in a neat package tied with a bow, ready to be opened and embraced by the world with a welcoming heart. It starts with someone, somewhere saying, “Enough.” They raise their voice and others join them. They’re called rabblerousers, radicals and anti-establishment. They’re subjected to hate, slurs, and aspersions, aggression, violence and even death.  Still, their voices get louder, more people join them, and they become organized. Consistent in their message, vocal in their demand for change, they are battled socially, legislated against, threatened and attacked. A comfortable society likes the status quo. Change unsettles the control they have on the world around them. Change means members of that society must take responsibility for and reevaluate their actions, behaviours, beliefs and attitudes; their way of life and privilege is threatened. There are few things that people fear more than change.

Suffrage, civil rights, the women’s movement, and LGBT/marriage equality were grassroots movements that struggled long and fought hard until they gained enough momentum, broad support and traction in the greater society that change finally happened. Had Twitter been around, I have no doubt that hashtags would have been well used by Nellie McClung, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem and Harvey Milk.

I first heard about the Nigerian girls being kidnapped from their school shortly after it happened. It was not the lead story nor even a top story, buried 4th or 5th and given only a few lines. My heart dropped. I began searching, reading, and found Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, one of the first sites to vigilantly post about the girls in an effort to make them a headline. It took far, far too long for this story to get traction in mainstream news; Western media should be ashamed of that.

The West is apathetic to the plight of girls and women in general, poor girls in conflict-ridden nations even more so. Three hundred girls were kidnapped to be sold into sex slavery because they were seeking an education. Western governments ignored it. Western news outlets barely mentioned it (and only then with euphemisms like “abducted” or “being held” or “child marriage.”) More girls have been kidnapped since, and thousands more before them. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls around the world are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery every year, yet the West pays little attention; it does not affect them personally.

While the West sat in silence ignoring the fate of these kidnapped girls, the Nigerian government, afraid of the terrorists, took no action. The government would do nothing, the media would say nothing, so the mothers and families mobilized. They raised their voices and others joined them. They organized #BringBackOurGirls as their grassroots, desperate call to action, demanding the return of their daughters. The hashtag going viral finally, after far too long, focused the West on Nigeria.

Is a hashtag meaningful? Will it change anything? Will it bring the girls back? I know only that it was #BringBackOurGirls that made most people in the West aware of these kidnapped girls, pushed the story onto headlines, and mobilized governments.

If #BringBackOurGirls is starting a conversation, then use it to keep people talking. If #BringBackOurGirls is putting the West’s first world problems into harsh perspective, then use it to keep shaking people from their comfortable, compartmentalized lives. If #BringBackOurGirls is opening the West’s eyes to places in the world where being a girl means that every day her life is at risk just for having been born female – then hashtag today, tomorrow, and for as long as is necessary.  Girls everywhere must be valued as persons worthy of equal rights and freedoms and not regarded as objects to be taken, owned, used and discarded.  Change may start with someone else, but it’s made by all of us.

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