With the kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls dominating the headlines, what has gone largely unnoticed is that some of the world’s most powerful women in fields such as media, business, fashion and politics recently convened in Nigeria for a conference intended to empower global leaders.
Attendees and speakers at the third annual WIE Africa Symposium (“WIE” stands for Women, Inspiration and Enterprise), held on May 3, included movers and shakers such as CEO of Johnson Publishing Co. Desiree Rogers and CNN anchor Isha Sesay, as well as African powerhouses like business tycoon and billionaire Folorunsho Alakija and business executive Jennifer Obayuwana.
In addition to these prominent leaders, the conference could well have included women from the town where the girls’ abduction took place, Chibok, given the Herculean efforts and proven leadership skills that these local women displayed in raising global awareness about the hostage crisis created by the terror group Boko Haram. These women worked tirelessly, and many did so without first world resources like the Internet.
Kudos are in order for them, and for all of their counterparts worldwide who also worked to bring attention to the abduction, in light of accusations that local law-enforcement officials were not initially doing everything they could to rescue the more than 200 girls who were taken. There’s also the perception that mainstream news organizations did not cover the incident with as much fervor as they should have.
Social media campaigns were strengthened by mothers and daughters in the West; the de facto spokeswomen on the ground in Nigeria worked to put a human face to the conflict; and several dozen activists in major cities rallied protesters. Women like Gugulethu Mlambo in New York City, for instance, organized an awareness rally and encouraged women to wear a gele—the traditional head scarf worn by Nigerian women.
Female members of the Congressional Black Caucus held a press conference on Wednesday at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, D.C., to denounce the actions of Boko Haram and demand the return of the schoolgirls to their families. These are examples of how women “bridged the gap” (this year’s theme for the symposium) and turned the world’s eyes to a catastrophe that was not being addressed adequately.
Arise TV anchor Lola Ogunnaike was at the conference and spoke to The Root about how the kidnapping came up frequently during panel discussions and weaved itself into the overall spirit of the gathering.
“The ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign was something that all of the women were speaking about over lunch, in between panels and from the stage,” Oguinnaike described. She went on to describe the ubiquitous sense of unity that was apparent during those discussions: “Even though it’s happening hours away in the North, women in Lagos have felt this intimately.”
And many of the attributes that Oguinnaike said the attendees possessed, like a natural “curiosity about the world, and a desire to build bridges and connect with other women,” are arguably the characteristics that are fueling the global reaction to the Nigerian crisis: togetherness.
That spirit of togetherness extends to the White House, where first lady Michelle Obama showed her support by tweeting out a photo of herself holding up a sign with the hashtag phrase that’s become synonymous with the relief effort: #BringBackOurGirls.
Ibrahim Musa Abdullahi, an attorney in Abuja, says he created the hashtag after hearing a variation of the phrase being repeated in chants. A white American woman, Ramaa Mosley, told ABC News that she was eager to put the hashtag to use after hearing a radio report about the kidnapping, and Nigerian mothers on the ground saying, “Bring back our girls.” Many Americans, like Mosley, took the hashtag and ran with it.
It's wonderful because Americans tend to get a bad rap for having a myopic view of the world, in part because of a sense that they see themselves at the center of it, but Oguinnaike thinks that many Americans are actually being groomed to view themselves as citizens of the world. At least she knows that is the case with Michelle Obama’s daughters. During an interview with Oguinnaike in 2011, the first lady explained how one of the reasons Sasha and Malia travel with her during her engagements abroad is that she wants them to have that kind of foreign exposure and connect with people living in other cultures.
If this kidnapping crisis proves anything, it is that you don’t need a passport to become a “global citizen.”
“Anyone can travel now with the advent of technology and social media,” Oguinnaike said. “You really are just a click away with resources like Google.“
But there can be consequences to accessing information. Oguinnaike is concerned about the broad brushstroke that is being used to paint Nigeria in a negative light.
“The idea of how the entire country is this lawless place where young girls are abducted on a regular basis couldn’t be further from the truth,” she explained. “Most of Nigeria is actually very safe for women, but there is that region, the proverbial bad apple, and it’s done irrevocable damage to the image of the country.
“Thank goodness for social media,” she continued, “because while mainstream media across the globe was ignoring this and didn’t see fit to cover the abduction of more than 200 girls, people on social media took to Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and made this a headline, made this a story worth discussing.”
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.
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