Amid reports that hundreds of women and girls have been rescued from terrorist camps in Nigeria, a renowned champion for girls said she hopes it is only the beginning of an effort to bring people home. “We can seize on their rescue to add more pressure on our government,” said Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former minister of education in Nigeria and a force behind the “Bring Back Our Girls” hashtag campaign.
Ezekwesili ignited the campaign last year after more than 200 girls were taken from a school in the Nigerian town of Chibok. On Tuesday, the Nigerian military said it had rescued nearly 300 women and girls from a Boko Haram terrorist stronghold. The military said the girls from Chibok are still missing.
Boko Haram has abducted at least 2,000 women and girls since the start of 2014, according to a recent report from Amnesty International. The militants want to create an Islamic state and wipe out Western influence from schools. In one of their many killing sprees, the terrorists shot and burned to death 59 schoolboys in February 2014. Boko Haram massacred an estimated 7,300 people in 2014 alone, according to a recent report from UNICEF.
Ezekwesili said it is “profoundly heartbreaking” that the Chibok girls remain missing, but that Tuesday’s rescue was a milestone. “That these girls and women who were also captives of those savages—for God knows how long—can now breathe the air of freedom is certainly victory,” she said in an email from Nigeria. She added that the government must “spare no effort in finding our #ChibokGirls and all other abductees.”
In a fiery call to action at the Women in the World Summit in New York last week, Ezekwesili called the Chibok girls “unfinished business for the world.” She criticized the Nigerian government for “dillydallying” when the girls were abducted, a year ago this month. At the time, President Goodluck Jonathan did not publicly address the abduction for weeks. Ezekwesili said leadership “must be about something deeper than yourself—that is where our president failed.”
Ezekwesili, recently named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people, noted that “citizens refused to go silent” on the girls and so the Nigerian government had to “deal with it.”
Nigerians recently elected a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, who has vowed to defeat Boko Haram. But he has said he does not know if the Chibok girls can be found. The U.S. has sent advisers, investigators, and surveillance equipment to aid efforts to find the girls. A recent report from the BBC said a woman had seen more than 50 of the girls alive this spring. The girls were in Islamic attire, she said, being escorted by militants in the northeast.
“I believe in miracles,” Ezekwesili said at the summit. “Like the parents of our Chibok girls, we will not stop hoping until there is absolutely no reason to hope. There is no evidence that they are dead, so we must keep hoping.” She added, “They’re somewhere on the face of the planet. We need to selectively determine that they will be found.” Turning to the audience, she said, “We just need you to please not go away. Don’t move on.”
Women and girls who have escaped Boko Haram captivity over the years have described deplorable conditions, including physical abuse, forced labor, forced marriage, and sexual assault, according to a Human Rights Watch report released last fall. They said they were taken from farms, villages, and schools.
“We must rapidly bring this to an end,” Ezekwesili said at the summit, and make “a clear statement to every girl child that we’ve got your back.”
Obiageli Ezekwesili spoke last week at the 2015 Women in the World Summit in New York City