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May 6, 2014

When 'women are slaves', and Australia just ignores it

Hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls have been abducted for daring to go to school. Weeks on, the Australian media has largely ignored it, and the government appears to have done little.

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It was a nightmare come true when more than 200 people went missing in mysterious circumstances recently. They have still not been found, and their families are desperate.

But because these people were Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by militants for daring to go to school, rather than well-off people on an airplane, the Australian media and government have paid it scant attention.

Compare the two. On March 8, Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 disappeared with 239 people on board. On April 16, armed militants attacked a school in Nigeria where girls had gathered to take a physics exam. More than 250 girls were taken and remain missing. The Islamic group Boko Haram, which opposes the education of girls, has claimed responsibility. Leader Abubakar Shekau said this in a recent video:

“I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah … Women are slaves. I want to reassure my Muslim brothers that Allah says slaves are permitted in Islam … I will marry off a woman at the age of 12. I will marry off a girl at the age of nine.”

There are reports some girls (mostly aged 16-18) have already been sold into “marriage” for $12, some have died, and some have been taken to neighbouring countries. Nigerian troops are massing near where many of the girls are being held captive.

And this is how Australia has reacted. Crikey has tracked how many times the Australian media mentioned MH370 and the Nigerian schoolgirls for the two weeks following each incident. There were 2446 mentions for the plane and 60 for the schoolgirls. There were almost 700 television mentions of MH370, compared to one television mention for the Nigerian schoolgirls.

As to the Australian government’s response, Crikey has not been able to find any reference to the abduction of the schoolgirls from Prime Minister Tony Abbott (who has staged repeated media events to talk about MH370) or Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Bishop has issued 13 media releases since the abduction, e.g. “Appointment to the Australia-China Council Board”. None relate to the schoolgirls.

Australia currently sits on the United Nations Security Council and has recently used the role to raise awareness of Anzac Day and comment on the Israel/Palestine situation. It does not appear Australia has raised the issue of the Nigerian captives at the UNSC.

The Australian government has not issued any statements in relation to the kidnappings.

“The idea of selling off whole lots of young women should be creating banner headlines; instead of that we’ve got seven pages on James Packer’s fight.”

Some might suggest it’s not the role of the Australian government to intervene, and Africa is not considered to be within Australia’s sphere of influence (which is Asia-Pacific). But Australia has long had a focus within its aid and development program on educating girls in the developing world, as have Australian NGOs. We do have a relationship with the West African nation; there is a Nigerian High Commission in Canberra, and an Australian High Commission in Abuja, Nigeria (i.e., both countries are in the British Commonwealth). Australia imports more than $2 billion in crude petroleum from Nigeria a year. Nigeria is far from a small player; it’s the most populous country in Africa.

And other Western countries that have promoted girls’ education have been active on the issue. United States Secretary of State John Kerry said this last week:

“The kidnapping of hundreds of children by Boko Haram is an unconscionable crime … We will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and hold the perpetrators to justice.”

CNN reports the US government is sharing intelligence with Nigeria over the issue. A senior US official is travelling to Nigeria to assist. State Department spokespeople have spoken publicly about the abduction. US intelligence has prepared a report for Attorney-General Eric Holder. US senators have introduced a resolution condemning the kidnappings and calling for action. A White House spokesman said President Barack Obama had been briefed on the situation several times; the spokesman said the situation was “an outrage and a tragedy”.

As for the United Kingdom, authorities are talking with Nigeria about rescuing the girls. A UK Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “If we can provide practical assistance we stand ready to do so. We are discussing how we might help with various parts of the Nigerian government and security services.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague has made several statements.

Feminist commentator Eva Cox says Australia has overlooked the issue. “The idea of selling off whole lots of young women should be creating banner headlines; instead of that we’ve got seven pages on James Packer’s fight. I do think we have a wrong sense of proportion about what’s important and what isn’t,” she told Crikey.

“I think it’s a big story … You’ve got 200 girls whose parents were really making an effort to provide them with the education necessary — and they have been kidnapped.”

Cox questions why Australia has spent so much money looking for MH370 but does not appear to have even offered to help Nigeria rescue the girls. “It just seems to be totally out of proportion,” she said.

Labor’s federal foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek today expressed the ALP’s “extreme concern” over the fate of the Nigerian girls.

“The situation is horrific. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare,” Plibersek said. “The Abbott government must do all it can to assist, including using our position on the UN Security Council to help drive an effective international response.”

Federal Greens spokeswoman Larissa Waters told Crikey her party would next week move a Senate motion calling on the Abbott government to make representations to the Nigerian authorities to rescue the schoolgirls.

Crikey sent a media request to Bishop’s office and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade this morning asking what Australia has done in relation to the abductions, and whether Australia has raised it with the Nigerian High Commissioner in Canberra. We have not heard back.

UPDATE: Three hours after this story was published on April 6, Julie Bishop issued a media release about the government’s response to the abduction. It’s the first public comment on the issue from an Australian government minister. The release says:

“The Australian Government has offered support to the Nigerian Government and condemns the group responsible for the abduction of more than 200 school girls from Chibok in Borno State … I have asked the head of Counter Terrorism in DFAT to contact the Nigerian High Commissioner in Canberra to raise our concerns and offer our support. I have also asked Australia’s High Commissioner in Abuja to remain in close contact with the Nigerian Government regarding the abduction of the girls.”

Bishop also says Australia condemned the attacks at a UN Security Council meeting in April. However, the government chose not to convey that message on its dedicated UNSC webpage.

Cathy Alexander —

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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