Get Opinion in your inbox -- sign up for our weekly newsletter
Opinion Op-Ed

The heroic women of Nigeria are standing up to Boko Haram

Who is standing up against Boko Haram? Nigerian women
The world needs to start seeing African women for the heroes they so often are

Weeks after the abduction of more than 300 Nigerian schoolgirls taken in a case of mass sex trafficking, the global media finally took note of the crime.

Why the shift? Because of the bravery of Nigerian women, who took to the streets to demand that the world pay attention. African women tend to be portrayed as victims — the raped, the suffering, the poor mothers of the poor girls. But across Africa, women are ending conflicts, reshaping governments and bringing attention to crucial issues. In this story, as in many others, they are the heroes.

Days after their daughters were taken, when it was clear the military would do nothing, the local women and men of Chibok, Borno state, pooled their money, bought gas for their motorcycles and bravely set out for the 30,000-square-mile Sambisa Forest, where the Boko Haram hides out. Villagers they met along the way said they had seen the girls but that pursuing them was too dangerous. When the parents tried to share what they had learned with the military, they were told to write a report.

Met with official silence, angry women across Nigeria began to raise their voices. On April 24, a coalition of Borno women's rights groups said they were ready to mobilize thousands of women to reenter the forest to demand the girls' release. On April 30, and on every day since then, crowds of women protested in the capital, Abuja.

On May 1, a coalition of Muslim and Christian women protested in Kaduna state. On May 2, women threatened to converge in Lagos and elsewhere, then walk en masse to Borno and enter the Sambisa Forest naked in search of the girls. On May 5, women in Ogun state protested at a solidarity rally, and the president of Nigeria's Market Women Assn. ordered six major Lagos open-air markets closed in protest — the Lagos equivalent of the New York Stock Exchange shutting down. Those market women decided to forgo their livelihoods — some families went without meals — because what had happened in the community mattered more. Women protested in Kwara, Nasarawa and Plateau states.

Contrast these actions with those of Nigeria's leaders, whose governance is too often based on what makes them look good to the international community. At the time the girls were taken, their focus was on sending security forces to Abuja, to make the city clean and safe for the political leaders coming to attend the World Economic Forum.

Myth and stereotype blind the world to the reality of what African women are accomplishing. In 1996, when 139 girls were taken from their Aboke, Uganda, boarding school by members of the Lord's Resistance Army, the school's deputy head mistress, Sister Rachele Fassera, an Italian nun, followed the rebels and was able to buy back 109 of the girls. Angelina Atyam, a mother whose daughter was not returned, became one of Uganda's leading peace activists and made trips to the United Nations to advocate for the missing girls. Those who survived eventually reunited with their families, including Atyam's daughter. For years, Western media had no idea what had happened.

During the worst days of the 14-year civil war in my own country, Liberia, thousands of Christian and Muslim women gathered in a field along our capital city's main road, where we sat for months in the rain and sun, demanding peace. Women's protests spread across the country, and when peace talks in Ghana broke down, we barricaded the conference room until they resumed. But outside Liberia, no one seemed to notice us.

As a woman and a mother, I pray for the safe return of all the abducted girls. I also applaud the strength of the women who continue to fight for them. They are African women — women who can function under the harshest conditions, who in the face of murder and rape continually stand up to fight. Strong. Resilient. Powerful. It is time for the world to put away the image of African women as victims and see them as the everyday heroes they are.

Leymah Gbowee won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her work bringing peace to Liberia. She is president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa. This piece was written with Carol Mithers, also coauthor of Gbowee's memoir, "Mighty Be Our Powers."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Boko Haram chose its victims for a reason -- to stop progress

    Boko Haram chose its victims for a reason -- to stop progress

    Millions of people around the world have tweeted in recent weeks using the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. That's an important sentiment, and not just as it relates to the kidnapping of 276 female students by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

  • Where terror groups get their guns

    Where terror groups get their guns

    We who live in the developed world tell others how much we love and respect women, yet we buy oil and sell arms to those who do not respect women. And when those arms are used to hurt women, we begin to shout as if we are innocent of the evil that people can do with weapons of mass destruction....

  • Nigeria: Where corruption and insurrection go hand in hand

    Nigeria: Where corruption and insurrection go hand in hand

    Nearly every country facing an extremist insurgency is run by a kleptocratic clique. Corruption, in other words, has security implications.

  • Sure, Boko Haram is bad, but don't overlook Nigeria's corrupt ways

    Sure, Boko Haram is bad, but don't overlook Nigeria's corrupt ways

    It’s a nasty business, this abduction of 270 teenage girls in Nigeria by the Boko Haram terrorist group. But should dealing with these terrorists be our business too?

  • Would the GOP's healthcare ideas work? It depends on your definition of 'work.'

    Would the GOP's healthcare ideas work? It depends on your definition of 'work.'

    Just like in the 2012 election, every Republican candidate for president wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Some of the candidates have even come forward with ideas for replacing it, and we are beginning to get a sense of what Republican healthcare reform might look like.

  • Back to school, again and again

    Back to school, again and again

    Even in places that remain in touch with the rhythms of agriculture, few seasonal markers prove as heady, reliable and poignant as the reopening of school. Every September the crosswalks ripen with kids in their back-to-school clothes; the long yellow buses harvest our lanes and streets. First...

  • Compulsory kindergarten: Still a bad idea

    Compulsory kindergarten: Still a bad idea

    Kindergarten hasn't been its old self for a long time. After decades of increasing focus on academics, it recently became more standardized as well; the curriculum for California's 5-year-olds is now aligned with the Common Core academic standards. Kindergarten teachers are no longer preoccupied...

  • Return to New Orleans - an open hand, a welcome home

    Return to New Orleans - an open hand, a welcome home

    Like most people with people "at home" in New Orleans, I found myself both here and there in 2005. By late August, I was daily monitoring weather maps two time zones away. I watched how a "tropical system" gathered force, how it garnered enough ferocity to be granted a name. Katrina looked serious,...