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Why Is It So Easy to Look Away When the Story Is about Women and Girls?

| May 14, 2014

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As is now widely known, more than 300 young women were kidnapped from their school dormitory in northern Nigeria last month, and 276 of them are still missing.

That’s more than the number of passengers and crew members on the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, a mystery that continues to generate daily news coverage that does little to shed new light on the matter.

And that’s more than the number of celebrity suits and gowns displayed in any of the dozens of slide shows and critiques published last week following the Met Gala.

It took a million tweets and relentless outreach from advocates to break through the noise, resulting finally in an uptick of coverage and an important New York Times editorial last week.

Why did it take so long for the story of these schoolgirls to inch into the global spotlight?

Two reasons: it’s a story about women, and the story takes place in Africa.

The real headline here is that the abduction of these Nigerian girls isn’t an isolated incident—it is just the latest example of the systematic violence and discrimination women and girls face worldwide: one in three women experiences gender-based violence.

Of course, we’re not really surprised by anemic coverage that leaves out the broader context. Even in the United States, we know that male voices and reporters dominate coverage of what we consider to be women’s issues. And that to the extent that matters concerning women and girls make the news, women of color tend to get left behind.

Moreover, the clique of influencers whose attention must be captured to earn coverage keeps shrinking. Just six corporations control the vast majority of media coverage. This consolidation explains some of the herd mentality we see in which stories receive international attention, and which get overlooked.

Perhaps even more telling, only a handful of major news outlets maintain foreign bureaus, often consisting of a single reporter, which in Africa can mean one person charged with covering the entire continent. That means one person to cover all topics related to the lives of more than a billion people in more than 50 countries. It’s no surprise, then, that foreign correspondents deliver cursory analysis and tend to focus on war, famine, extreme poverty, and the occasional election (supplemented, of course by celebrity visits and adoptions).

We need to do better. In the case of the missing schoolgirls in Nigeria, here’s what better might look like:

First and foremost, we need more coverage. The recent increase in pieces is a good start, but not enough. Nearly a month into this kidnapping crisis, far too many people don’t even know that it happened.

Second, within that coverage, the media should elevate Nigerian voices—on the security crisis and on the broader crisis of gender-based violence. Some of these voices should be female. Those voices should not be hard to find, even with the dearth of reporters and resources. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for example, the award-winning novelist and advocate, penned this passionate piece for The Scoop outlining her frustration and the response she would like to see from Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan. She writes:

I do not want a president who, weeks after girls are abducted from a school and days after brave Nigerians have taken to the streets to protest the abductions, merely announces a fact-finding committee to find the girls.

Finally, we need rich analysis that looks beyond individual incidents to help identify trends and growing epidemics, and that links anecdotes to evidence. We keep calling these young women schoolgirls without focusing in on the fact that they aren’t babies—they are adolescent girls, 12-15 years old.

That means old enough to get pregnant. And in northern Nigeria, where rates of maternal mortality and unsafe abortion are high, pregnancy can mean a death sentence for a young woman.

The unexamined story here is: What happens when you rip a young woman out of school in northern Nigeria? As a nation, Nigeria has made some progress in lowering rates of early marriage and adolescent pregnancy. But that progress has been slow to reach the north, and girls who drop out of school are most likely to become mothers when they are still children themselves. In the northeast and northwest, 80-89 percent of young women aged 20-24 married in their teen years.

In northern Nigeria in particular, HIV is also a concern. If these kidnapped young women are raped, who will ensure that they have access to the health care they need? This is a question the media should be asking. And they should be seeking answers from Nigerian experts in health, policy and gender equity.

There is no shortage of sources. Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa with a long and proud history of academics and advocates poised to challenge the status quo and to provide context and analysis. So far, media and blogs have done a better job than mainstream news outlets in seeking out and citing these experts. Beyond Nigeria, violence against women and girls deserves more airtime and column inches. For the sake of the young women still missing, and the generation of young women they represent, we can and must do better.  

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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