Nigeria’s radical Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram can be looked at through many lenses. They are active in the most populous country in Africa. They are waging terrorist war on Africa’s newly minted largest economy, blowing up bus terminals and killing innocents. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is sitting on the largest oil patch in Africa; Boko Haram knows it. Rumored to be training in Somalia under the tutelege of Al Qaeda or, according to some reports, Al-Shabab, Boko Haram travels over land to perfect terrorist tactics and benefits from the deep pockets of the more arguably more established organizations.
Those lenses, for the moment, don’t interest me. Here’s what does: the abduction and selling into sex slavery over 200 girls in northern Nigeria and the appalling lack of US media coverage (in a meaningful, real way). What lens are we to look at that through?
How about this: the worldwide devaluation of women and girls. The refusal of the media to declare there is a full-scale international war on women. Headlines in the media exclaim: Schoolgirls forced into so-called marriages to militants by their captors. Outrageous isn’t it?
But forced into marriage is a sanitized way of avoiding the truth. The girls were reportedly sold (some reports say for $12) into a life of non-stop rape. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau first threatened to treat captured women and girls as slaves in a video released in May 2013. Are we surprised?
And where is the U.S. in all of this? Where can we be? We have ceded the moral high ground in almost all of our dealings with the international community. Whether as Sarah Palin so foot-in-mouthedly said water boarding is our way of baptizin’ terrorists or that grumpy old white men in statehouses and the U.S. Capitol control our uteruses and our reproductive lives. Maybe it is because we don’t recognize women’s suffering in poverty—we can’t even push through minimum wage bills let alone pay women equally. Maybe it is because as a nation we haven’t solidified against the crisis of rape and domestic violence in our own country. Maybe because we live in a country where a man can get a one-month jail sentence for raping a girl.
The U.S. taxpayer continues to fund de facto dictators like Yoweri Museveni in Uganda as the aging politician racks up human rights violations against the LGBT community. Imagine the difficulty our government has dealing with Nigeria with all its oil glory? And how about Goodluck Jonathan’s brutal criminalization of LGBT persons? That’s a whole other ball of wax.
The U.S. media’s penchant to mostly ignore all things woman became crystal clear to me during a trip to India earlier this year. India is (and has been) languishing under an ongoing rape crisis, predating the brutal rape and murder of the young woman in Delhi. I was in Bombay for 10 days. Every day I opened the paper, any paper—The Hindu, The Times of India—and there were multiple stories of new rapes. Every day. Not just one story, multiple ones. What have we heard about this in the U.S.? Virtually nothing. Did you know there is a so-called “pro-rapist lobby” in Indian politics at the moment? Seems like the U.S. media would be all over that especially since the worlds largest democracy is voting right now. I guess not. John Oliver came close, dedicating about 10 minutes to the multi-phase Indian election on his new HBO show Last Week Tonight, but failed to mention that whole rape lobby.
I spoke to a colleague in Cameroon last night via IM about the situation in Nigeria. Cameroon shares a dangerous border with Nigeria. My colleague runs a fledgling group educating women in northwest Cameroon. She suffered domestic violence and realized that education is the key to women’s empowerment.
She is worried. Boko Haram has been infiltrating northeastern Cameroon for some time now—a new travel warning was just issued last week. She told me to “pray for” the girls, and pray that Boko Haram will not come any further into Cameroonian territory. I worry for her.
When I was in Cameroon earlier this year there were posters out to be aware of Boko Haram—keep our eyes peeled for backpacks or sketchy characters lollygagging, I saw the same kinds of signs in Uganda a couple of years ago. We are familiar with the tactics of the Lord’s Resistance Army and kidnapping kid soldiers (or go back to Pol Pot and others if you like). But this mass kidnapping in Nigeria seems to have no strategic meaning; if reports are correct, it was some kind of deal to sell of girls into sex slavery. Maybe as simple (and horrifying) as that. And we all know women are things to be owned and can therefore be sold.
As a journalist, I have to report the truth. Reporting words like “marriage” and “husband” in regard to the 234 girls may be technically correct, but it isn’t the truth. These girls aren’t isolated in their suffering. Their suffering is unique and horrific—but we are connected. As women, we are going to have to be the ones to do something about this. As women in the media, it is our job to keep making connections around the globe.
Photo of Nigerian girls by Flickr user Joachim Huber under license from Creative Commons 2.0
Andy Kopsa is a freelance investigative reporter based in New York City. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, Talking Points Memo, Ms. magazine and many other publications. She was awarded a 2012 Society of Professional Journalists Award for investigative reporting and was a 2013 recipient of a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion in American Public Life from USC Annenberg.