This week in Abuja, Nigeria, corporations from the U.S. and around the globe will attend the World Economic Forum on Africa.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan recently blamed the girls’ parents for his government’s failure to quickly find them—saying parents weren’t cooperating fully with investigations—and his wife reportedly called for the arrests of protesters who were marching and demanding action.
President Jonathan has no idea where these girls are (or if he does, he’s keeping that information to himself). News just broke Friday morning that his government was made aware of the attack before it happened. He can scoff at international pressures because Nigeria—the government, anyway—is growing wealthier and could soon become less reliant on foreign aid than other countries in the region.
So what to do?
Why not take advantage of the World Economic Forum coming to Nigeria to reach out to the corporate co-chairs of the event? The billions of dollars represented by the co-chair companies alone is staggering; count General Electric and Heineken among them. It would be a shame for these companies, while in Nigeria, not to put a stake in the ground for the kidnapped schoolgirls. Corporate responsibility should include responsibility around human rights, the rights of those most vulnerable and most at risk. In this case—and in cases the world over—that means the rights of women and girls.
Bharti Enterprises, for example, a huge conglomerate of telecoms, financial institutions and retail holdings in New Delhi, and a co-chair of the World Economic Forum, already has a wonderful social responsibility statement:
We need to ensure that our children and young people have access to quality education.
So what could Bharti do beyond joining in on social media campaigns and making statements of outrage (and ensuring they are practicing what they preach in their home country of India)? Expand their social responsibility statement on education to specifically call for the education and protection of the girl child. Perhaps they could set up grant programs for girls’ schools, schools in general, small grassroots activist organizations already working in Nigeria for women and children. Grants could be used for anything from hiring security to guard a school, to buying computers, to giving scholarships to young women to attend international conferences to build networks and alliances with other women’s rights organizations.
Then, Bharti (choose your corporation) could make clear to the government of Nigeria that the mistreatment of women and girls will not be tolerated. But they would have to be willing to back it up with action. Are they willing to pull out of a country to stand by their social pledge? Are they willing to stop trading with the offending nation?
Multi-billion dollar companies could do a lot if they really, really wanted to. They could form a coalition to put pressure on the Nigerian government to condemn terrorists and urge the safe return of the kidnapped girls. Former British prime minister Gordon Brown has given them an excellent start: During his opening remarks at the World Economic Forum this week, Brown spoke passionately and directly about the kidnapped girls. He announced the formation of the Safe Schools Initiative, funded by $10 million from Nigerian business leaders, to ensure girl children are safe going to school. Ten million dollars is great, but if it is dumped into an arguably corrupt government, is there really $10 million?
Here’s an idea: How about the co-chairs band together to form an accountability panel? They could, for instance, appoint women from each of the companies who donated to the Safe Schools Initiative to keep tabs on how the money is being spent. Once they get the process down and ensure President Jonathan is doing what he is supposed to with the funds, the accountability group could set up similar models in countries around the world. Implement, practice, perfect, repeat.
The brutalization and marginalization of women and girls isn’t unique to Nigeria. Hopefully soon the kidnapped schoolgirls will be rescued, escape—in some way be brought back to their families. But what to do then about the daily violence faced by women globally? As individuals we can raise our voices, we can call representatives, we can reach out on social media, we can foster awareness. Imagine, just imagine, if our clear and enduring demands for women’s and girls’ rights were amplified through the megaphone of the almighty corporation. How powerful that would be.
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.