Like so many others I am glad to see more people around the world take up the issue of the school girls who were kidnapped more than two weeks ago from Chibok in the north east region of Nigeria. I am relieved to see people of different backgrounds, in my social media feeds join the #WhereAreOurGirls and #BringBackOurDaughters conversations in solidarity with the grieving families of those missing girls. Celebrities including Chris Brown, Keri Hilson and Mary J. Bilge have contributed their support to the #bringbackourgirls campaigns.
But even as the rest of the world finally gets around to paying attention to this story, we should consider this an apt moment to pause and reflect on how we write about conflict in Africa, young girls and how the western media tends to render female children invisible not just by a lack of coverage, but in the language we use to talk about them.
For two weeks, the plight more than 200 girls was barely covered in the western media, which led me to wonder if there are gendered notions of African children that deserve protection from African conflict. African boys seem to have received the lion’s share of western preoccupation when it comes to conflicts on the continent. A google image search for the words “child”, “conflict” and “Africa” are mostly images of male child soldiers holding semi-automatic weapons. Many people familiar with conflict know of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, or the boy soldiers of “Invisible Children” of Uganda. Perhaps boy child soldiers invoke a western fascination with the myth of African males, who naturally brutish and violent and are easily coerced into killing one another because, “primordial hatred”. But do many people know that in 1996 in Aboke, Uganda, more than 100 school girls between the ages of 13 and 16 were kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army? That many of them were rescued by their school mistress? That it took almost ten years to get most of them back? I have not heard much mention of the Aboke girls at all in coverage of the missing Chibok girls.
Beyond lack of coverage, I questioned on Twitter the language we use to talk about girls who are abducted in conflict situations. News media reports said that a number of the girls have been “sold as brides to Islamic militants for $12” Is it appropriate to call these girls “brides” or “wives” in our reporting just because the militants may refer to them as such? In scanning the Nigerian media, I did not see the words “brides” or “wives” feature as heavily as I did in Western reporting.
There is nothing remotely resembling marriage in what has happened to these girls. In my view, these girls are not brides, but rather they have been trafficked and sold into nothing short of slavery. Imagine if the world headlines read, “235 Children in Nigeria Kidnapped and Sold Into Slavery”, I would bet reactions would be swifter and stronger. If the reports are true, it is very likely that the girls will be forcibly used for sex, perhaps in addition to cooking, cleaning and other types of labor for the militants. Is this not slavery? When do we use the term “child slave” versus “child bride” for African girls?
I reiterate, I am glad that the world is finally taking notice of the Chibok girls. On the other hand, I do grow nervous when overly sensationalized coverage of children in African conflicts in the West go the way of #kony2012. While the language we use to talk about these girls must do the utmost the horror of their plight, but that in our eagerness to “say something” we do not marginalize them further.
Images by Zachary Rosen, taken at yesterday’s #BringBackOurGirls protest, Washington DC.