Image Source: GirlHub Nigeria

Image Source: GirlHub Nigeria

In March this year, GirlHub Nigeria invited me to give a talk during Social Media Week Lagos, which I started with a prayer I’d written for little girls. I’d like to share it with you bearing in mind that it is not religion specific.

Dear God, may the next generation of girls not grow up to worry about the same issues that our generation of women worry about, may they not grow up to fight the same struggles that we are fighting. May they come of age into a world that will not discriminate, violate or restrict them from reaching their fullest potential. May they rejoice in their humanity. May they live freely and wholly and contribute to making the world a more interesting and just place.

Unfortunately, the events that have taken place in Nigeria in the past few weeks make the prayer seem utopianist. Yet the truth is, in a country where only eleven percent of girls complete secondary school and where a quarter of girls are married before the age of fifteen the prospects for girls were bleak even before the abduction of hundreds of girls by Boko Haram.

A significant amount of Nigerian girls live under a strict patriarchy where their lives predominantly serve the purpose of servitude to men: fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands, you name it. Don’t get me wrong, both girls and boys are impacted by Nigeria’s cultural, political and economical landscape but make no mistake about it: gender is not a secondary “special” concern of the Boko Haram insurgency – it has everything to do with it. First, because war and conflict always strengthen male dominance: from Serbia to Syria to Somalia, what all conflict situations share in common is that they put more men in power and extract more women from it. Furthermore, using girls as pawns, sex slaves and general caretakers is a way not simply to assert ideological beliefs but to assert male centric ideological beliefs.

This is important because while the #BringTheGirlsBack campaign is first and foremost a campaign to return the abducted girls and fight against the imminent threat of Boko Haram and the lesser-known Ansaru it is also a campaign about creating a more just, safe Nigeria. At least to my sensibilities, #BringBackOurGirls signifies a shift in awareness in the Nigerian psyche that has much to do with demanding better leadership and accountability, and, this should include gender equality.

The past decade has seen many positive developments for women in Nigeria and Africa at large. Together with financial and technological growth, there have come changes in attitudes: African societies are seeing an increasing amount of women leaders in politics, culture, entrepreneurship and so on. And there is a rare opportunity to make women part of the political, social and cultural fabric of society. However, this will only be sustained if we create a better future for girls.

In practical terms, this might mean any number of things: protesting, advocating and raising awareness; mentoring a girl; lobbying that laws that protect girls are enforced; advocating that schools teach girls about leadership; creating apps for girls; crowd funding to write a children’s book for girls. Or just simply stopping when you see a little girl looking shy and sad, to tell her that she is beautiful, strong and that she has the right to flourish.

What matters is not what we do per se but that we understand that the safety and thriving of girls in Nigeria goes hand in hand with the safety and thriving of Nigeria itself. Boko Haram knows this truth about girls’ lives in Nigeria: that is why they have taken our girls.

Please add your thoughts to the conversation!

Minna Salami writes, speaks and advocates on a broad range of Africa, Diaspora and feminist issues. She writes the award-winning blog, MsAfropolitan, and is a member of the Duke University Educator Network as well as the Guardian’s (UK) Africa Network. Follow her on Twitter @MsAfropolitan.

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