One year ago today, 276 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Fifty-seven of the girls managed to escape, and 219 remain missing.
The story of stolen schoolgirls made international headlines last year, thanks in part to the proliferation of an online campaign, Bring Back Our Girls. The movement, carried by a #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, went viral, drawing in support from U.S. leaders and celebrities:
Back in October, there was a glimmer of hope for those fighting for the girls' release. Boko Haram reportedly agreed to a ceasefire with the Nigerian military, and said it would finally free the girls. That never happened.
Since then, Boko Haram has continued to wreak havoc in the country. UNICEF reported this week that 800,000 Nigerian children have been forced out of their homes to escape Boko Haram’s violence. The dismal stats put the schoolgirls' story into somber context: not only have they remained in the hands of the terrorist organization, but their experiences are common. Said UNICEF’s Manuel Fointaine in a statement: “The abduction of more than 200 girls in Chibok is only one of endless tragedies being replicated on an epic scale across Nigeria and the region."
It’s hard not to see the girls' continued disappearance, plus UNICEF’s report, as a sign that the #BringBackOurGirls campaign has failed. Indeed, Ramaa Mosley, a filmmaker, activist, and one of the organizers of Bring Back Our Girls USA, told Fusion in a phone interview that she’s disappointed. “When I first started, I thought that the girls would be rescued within days… I was very hopeful.” But, she added, she’s satisfied with the online effort. “The campaign has been robust, there isn’t a day that’s gone by that we haven’t all been working together to bring this to the media’s attention. My disappointment is with the Nigerian government, but also with world leaders.”
Though it might seem that international attention for #BringBackOurGirls ebbed months ago, BBOG organizers across the globe have continued to advocate for the girls’ release. “I have worked every day to help people take action toward the girls being rescued. I now work on a daily basis with all of the Nigerian leaders of the movement.”
In some ways, the campaign achieved what it set out to do. “I think that the online effort has been a tool to bring a large group of people into this story. And to telegraph the message as far and as wide as possible. That’s the purpose of social media," said Mosley.
And the group’s effort continues. “Our focus right now is really raising the awareness, once again, about the girls and the kidnapping. We have been organizing marches and rallies globally,” Mosely said. They’re also preparing papers for Nigeria’s new incoming government. “Right now the BBOG group has been working on a document which will be given to the new government and world leaders, with demands and solutions regarding the girls who were kidnapped and the IDPs [Internally Displaced Persons] across northern Nigeria.”
The online campaign succeeded in shedding light on an incident that otherwise may have gone unnoticed. Consider the lack of a hashtag over the deaths of 142 students Kenyan students, or 132 schoolchildren in Pakistan. The incidents have been reported upon, but haven’t tugged on international heartstrings in the way the missing girls have.
The movement, rather than a failure, is a demonstration that awareness only goes so far. To expect international outrage alone to yield results shifts the mantle of responsibility from the government to the people. “It’s heartbreaking that it’s been a year now, and the girls are not home. It’s very upsetting to myself and to all of the leaders that the government of Nigeria has been so lackadaisical about the response,” said Mosley.
Still, she is hopeful that one day the girls will come home. “I do believe it’s possible because we have recent accounts from people who have seen a very large number of the girls together, and know for sure they are the Chibok girls. We want them brought home and rescued.” And until then, the movement continues.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.