Kidnapping of 234 girls in Nigeria gets scant attention

Opinion: Human life is more newsworthy in one country than it is in the next

Protesters last week took part in a “million-woman march” in the Nigerian capital Abuja over the government’s failure to rescue scores of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram Islamists, in Abuja, Nigeria. Photograph: Deji Yake/EPA

Protesters last week took part in a “million-woman march” in the Nigerian capital Abuja over the government’s failure to rescue scores of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram Islamists, in Abuja, Nigeria. Photograph: Deji Yake/EPA


It’s a tale of multiple conversations. On one side of the world, “everyday sexism” has become the topic du jour, on the other a terrorist act against girls is unfolding.

Over a fortnight ago, 234 girls were abducted from their school in Chibok in Nigeria. Some 187 are still missing. The kidnappers are allegedly members of Boko Haram, Nigerian jihadists. Parents have been marching with signs reading “Find Our Daughters”. The latest rumour is that the girls have been sold as brides for about €10 each. Protests have spread to the capital. It’s an incredible occurrence, but one that has received relatively minor coverage. There is a clear cynical equation at play here: human life is more newsworthy in one country than it is in the next. Obviously, if 234 girls were abducted from a high school in Texas the “story” would have more “traction”. But perhaps the lack of attention is also about the invisibility of girls’ personal plights not only in the media, but in society. It can feel a bit “check your privilege” and “keep an eye on the bigger picture” when western feminists are confronted with such a horrific story.

However, the multi-tiered discrimination against women around the world means one should comfortably be able to condemn street harassment in flashy cities without losing perspective of more severe plights.

The fact is, there is such a diverse range of discrimination against girls globally, that one needs to be all-encompassing in acknowledging it.

Adolescent girls face a double discrimination of both age and gender. In our own media, the coverage of girls can be widely generalised as handwringing over sexualisation, shrieking in horror at their antics on Mediterranean holidays, and increasingly serious conversations about online bullying.

If there was a Reeling in the Years flip-book of how we illustrate girls in the media, it would be a jerking animation of teenagers jumping off their school steps while holding exam results, and blurred faces in a nightclub line of impossibly short skirts while clutching an orange Bacardi Breezer mid-snog.

The media rarely gravitates outside this “nerd-versus-slut” Venn diagram to expand on what girls actually do or genuinely achieve, what their concerns are, how diverse their voices are. We just wait until they leave school and then bombard them with pressure about being beautiful, beach-ready, marriageable, and fertile, while holding down a job as chief executive.

Internationally in times of crisis, young women become poster girls for disaster or war. Visually, the media wants poor, pretty girls to illustrate disaster, but depths beyond that are rarely plumbed. In fact, you can kidnap 234 of them in Nigeria and it takes a fortnight for the international media to really move it up the news list.

There’s a great report by Plan International called In Double Jeopardy: Adolescent Girls and Disasters, which examines the consequences of disasters for the lives and safety of girls. And there are some frightening statistics on the impact of precarious socio-political situations and disasters on girls’ lives, an impact that is markedly more extreme and complex than other demographics.

Nine out of 10 women affected by the 2004 tsunami experienced gender-based violence within two years of the disaster in India, six out of 10 in Sri Lanka. A post-war survey conducted in Liberia in 2008 founded that the greatest number of rape victims were between the ages of 10 and 19. In Tanzania, at the Kanembwa camp, 26 per cent of Burundian women who had already been raped as part of a campaign of ethnic violence against them were raped again as refugees.

Forced prostitution and trafficking increases in the vacuum that can occur after disasters, from Typhoon Ondoy in the Philippines in 2009 to the ongoing food crisis in Zimbabwe. During the Asian tsunami of 2004, 45,000 more women died than men. A study by the World Bank across 59 countries showed that when the GDP falls by 1 per cent, the average infant mortality for boys increases by 1.5 deaths; for girls it is a massive 7.4.

Child marriage
Every year, 10 million girls under the age of 18 marry, with child marriage having a direct impact on girls being able to access education. This limits their opportunities, health and economic independence. 150 million girls under 18 have experienced rape or sexual violence.

In countries where we don’t have to worry about Islamic militants kidnapping us en masse, or the introduction of Sharia law – as happened in Brunei last week – the concept of checking one’s privilege has become a fashionable put down online.

But the ability to tell someone to check their privilege online is already a privilege most people on this planet don’t have. While progression of equality is, of course, relative, the real privilege checking should spur us all into action to address the outrageous crimes against, and hazards faced, by girls everywhere.

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