About a month ago I had the honor of attending a panel discussion about women’s rights with Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Saudatu Mahdi. I also had the privilege of meeting Steinem, a longtime hero of mine. (Side note: I once drove two hours after work to see her speak, and the auditorium was so full I ended up having to watch her projected onto a screen in an entirely different room. Shaking her hand and talking about her love for BUST felt like serious progress.)
It was just a few weeks after the election, and hearing three inspiring female leaders speak was exactly what I needed. They did take time to address the future and how vigilant we’ll need to be, but the discussion mainly centered on an incredibly devastating issue occurring in Nigeria: The 197 schoolgirls who are still missing after their kidnapping by terrorist group Boko Haram. Saudatu Mahdi, a cofounder of the Bring Back Our Girls organization, emphasized how important it is that other countries help get these girls home. Funds are needed, but media attention is also fundamental. (Note: I was happy to see this exposure from the NYTimes on January 27th, not just about the Chibok girls, but about Boko Haram’s repeated use of child marriage as a weapon of war.)
Here’s my piece for BUST:
In December, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Saudatu Mahdi met in New York City to discuss the rights of women and girls around the world. Hosted by Donor Direct Action, the panel’s main goal was to bring attention to the nearly two-hundred Nigerian schoolgirls who are still missing since their kidnapping over two years ago.
When 276 girls were captured by Boko Haram terrorists in April of 2014, Mahdi said the silence that followed was just “too loud.” She and three other Nigerian women refused to watch the tragedy go ignored and founded Bring Back Our Girls in an effort to spread the word worldwide. Mahdi also acts as Secretary General of Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), another women’s group working assiduously to rescue the girls.
In total, 79 girls have escaped and been released. 197 girls have not returned. In Mahdi’s words, “if this were arithmetic, we’d be failing.” Envisioning the thoughts of just one daughter’s parents proves that the fight will not end until every single girl comes home. “I once was privileged to see a lamb looking for a lost ewe,” said Mahdi. “And whenever I remember that image, I shudder at what is going on in the minds of the mothers and fathers of these girls.”
Even upon the remaining girls’ rescue, there will still be much to do: Mahdi explained that not only is there immense work to be done to rebuild the girls’ psyches, there are also Nigerian communities that need complete reconstruction. Women’s voices must be prominently involved in this reconstruction in order to drastically transform the violent treatment of women and girls, which is now at epidemic levels.
To put these plans into action, Mahdi explained that pressure must be put on the Nigerian government to act on its rescue operation. Additionally, the government must take responsibility for the reintegration and rehabilitation of all girls. Steinem stated, “There is a dramatic urgency to increase funding to local women’s rights organizations. We need to help them punish the government that fails.”
The unfortunate theme of the night was that the kidnapping is not an isolated issue — it is simply a horrific illustration of the violence women face all around the world. There is a direct link between the treatment of women in a society and the level of conflict in that society. Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, stated in 2006, “The world is… starting to grasp that there is no policy more effective [in promoting development, health, and education] than the empowerment of women and girls. And I would venture that no policy is more important in preventing conflict, or in achieving reconciliation after a conflict has ended.”
Mahdi, Fonda, and Steinem’s tones were somber, but their words focused on forward movement. A recent deal allowed the release of some girls, and Mahdi believes we can build on the hope that provided. There is a possibility this could lead to further negotiations with Boko Haram, and potentially the rescue of more girls.
When it comes to progress for women around the world, Fonda expressed that empowering girls before they reach puberty is a powerful agent of change. “If you want to make a big impact, girls are the group who will make the change,” said Fonda. Girls must learn at a young age — prior to the absorption of ingrained oppression — that they do not have to accept violence.
Steinem stated that our ideas about gender and dominance are made-up, and we can un-make them up. We can deconstruct systematic biases, and we can diligently draw attention to global injustices to curb violence against women.