#BringBackOurGirls. Bring Back Our Empathy

They have been gone for a long time. 23 days on the calendar. A lifetime if one of the girls is your family.

The story is finally on the front pages of the news daily and dominating the World’s political agenda, but those who care have criticised the media for their slow uptake of this story. Reticence? Low public appetite for these types of stories? These voices also have criticised the Nigerian government for their slow or ineffective actions thus far. Endemic corruption? Incompetence? These voices criticised world governments and agencies for not jumping in sooner. We have since learned that at least some of these bodies were ready to act on the first notice of the missing girls.

But it felt, for a long, long time in the last 23 days, that these girls had been abandoned to their fate. That the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, started by Nigerian activist Oby Ezekwesili, was shouting through Twitter and Facebook to a largely empty world, getting echoes back from only those of us who made it our business to find out what happened and to care about hundreds of frightened girls and their families: preaching to the choir.

I speak for myself. I was terrified, angry, sad, wanted to take some action. Something. Anything, other than just feeling helpless. I am still terrified, angry, and sad. But I have taken some action. And I am an ordinary person, raising two little girls nowhere near Nigeria. And I would want them to know that I would fight for these girls, as I would fight for them.

Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize winning Nigerian writer, stated so much in a CNN interview:

“It’s one of those rather child-like situations that if you shut your eyes, if you don’t exhibit the tactile evidence of the missing humanity here, that somehow the problem will go away.”

It is not just “a Nigerian problem,” he said.

“I’m calling for the international community, the United Nations – this is a problem. This is a global problem. And a foothold is being very deeply entrenched in West Africa.”

We cannot fail our children. And we are doing just that by ignoring our own humanity. We need to care.

Thing is, lots of people in the “international community” just don’t care. Apathy, indifference, racism. We have gotten used to waiting for the celebrity or politician to come along and say something for us–and they have, in droves. Michelle Obama’s expression of empathy in a photo she Tweeted stands out especially. And she’s gotten a lot more people to care now. If we rely on the celebrity or even political validation of a cause before WE act, we increase the risk of inaction. Empathy is not a democratic process. WE should not wait for others to make us care. WE must speak up for ourselves, expend the energy to care, to weep, to feel angered, to take up some call to action. Or these crimes against children will continue to happen.

Here’s the truth. Some people simply cannot tolerate other peoples’ suffering. I know lots of these kinds of people. Some of these people even have children of their own, whom they put to bed each night and expect that they will be there in the morning. Would be utterly outraged if the police or their government did not jump into action to find them, and would feel betrayed if those around them didn’t care.

But somehow, their empathy switch for these hundreds of girls in a remote part of Nigeria did not switch ‘on’. Or maybe they looked at the news story or their friend’s Facebook update or heard about it and said ‘too bad’, shook their head, and went back to doing what they were doing before.

And that’s wrong. It’s not okay to sit still about this.

And no, we can’t all even realistically help as individuals. But we can and should show that we are affected by something that the Universe itself–if it spoke–would say was just plain wrong.

I am reminded of a movie that I find difficult to watch, A Time to Kill, based on the John Grisham novel. The father, played by Samuel Jackson, killed his little girl’s rapists and abductors. Liam Neeson’s character did the same in Taken. These stories had relatively happy endings. These dads got their girls back and they were reunited, able to rebuild their lives. WE like the way those stories end. Maybe WE are afraid of the way this story will end, because these kinds of stories often end badly. But they don’t have to.

On behalf of these hundreds of girls in Nigeria and children (girls and boys) everywhere else in the world who are abducted, raped, sold into slavery, tortured, killed, and everything else in between, WE are not as outraged as the men in these movies. Perhaps some of us genuinely don’t care, but I have to believe this is a tiny minority and I also must believe that these people must have a biological lack of mental or emphatic faculty.

#BringBackOurGirls is a powerful, direct message to Boko Haram from the International Community: YOU, terrorists, bring back OUR girls. WE, the people who care, their mothers and fathers, sisters brothers, friends, and strangers the world over who want them safely home again. It doesn’t have to end badly. And if it does, we can work like hell to make sure that it happens fewer times and to fewer children.

As Malala Yousafzai has said, using the same WE: “If we remain silent then this will spread, this will happen more and more and more.”

We cannot fail our children. Here’s what WE can do:

bring back our girls