“Bring Back Our Girls” has become a global campaign involving everyone from rock stars, politicians and sportspeople to ordinary members of the public. As a result the plight of 250 kidnapped Nigerian school girls is known the planet over. But a recent Sunday Times article by Dan Hodges puts the movement into context and provides a wake-up call as we turn our attention to another child-focused campaign – Child Protection Week. His contention is that whilst the world has successfully expressed its outrage at the abduction of these innocent girls we are currently impotent to do anything to successfully liberate them. So much so that we have resorted to sending the modern day version of a message in a bottle to Boko Haram – the terrorist group holding the youngsters captive; a plea of no more than 140 characters usually prefaced by the familiar Twitter-friendly hashtag. The point is a telling one: it has been over a month since the girls were kidnapped. Why are the political and spiritual leaders of the free world; US President Barak Obama and his wife Michelle, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Archbishop Desmond Tutu to name but a few – holding up little bits of cardboard with messages pleading – with terrorists – for the release of the girls? Is this the best they can do? Have we replaced quick, decisive action – in this case actually liberating these girls – with catchy social media slogans? On a more personal level do we feel that we have done our bit when we hit the retweet button, like the Facebook post or forward the e-mail containing the catchy slogan? And how much good does this do? Will the girls be released because all those famous people posed with the Bring Back Our Girls slogan or because I retweeted it? Or do we involve ourselves with these campaigns; posing with slogans, circulating no make-up selfies for cancer; forwarding on the plight of animals; signing on-line petitions – because we want to help but don’t know what else to do? (By the way social media campaigns are also big business so some of us do it for the money – but that’s a whole different story.) Now I am not saying that we should not create awareness. What I am saying is that awareness must not trump action – ever. Awareness must bring about action. It must be created so that we can fight a more strategic battle equipped with the necessary facts. A direct message to Boko Haram does not do this. On one level it can be seen as an ineffectual but harmless awareness campaign. On another level it gives us and our impotence away to Boko Haram. It says: “None of us has a clue how to handle this situation so we are just going to ask nicely”. They must be laughing. And this brings me back to Child Protection Week which runs in the first week of June. During such campaigns – Child Protection Week, 16 days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children etc – we hear celebrities, activists and talk show hosts quoting slogans, catch phrases and statistics many of which are inaccurate. We then repeat, retweet and forward these in an attempt to ‘do our bit’ for creating awareness. Let me give you an example. You may have heard the phrase; “a child is raped every 3 minutes in our country.” Apart from the fact that the claim is unsubstantiated, what happens when such a message is repeated in an anti-child abuse campaign? It demonstrates to every child abuser, paedophile and trafficker that they can continue what they are doing without much fear of being caught. It sends a loud message that the good guys are losing the battle and the bad guys can continue their abuse unfettered. Ironically, in forwarding this kind of quote you may well be contributing to the crisis of child abuse in our country. And what about the well known phrase; “South Africa is the rape capital of the world”? Does this not normalize rape; even suggest that South Africa is a safe-haven for rapists and people with abusive tendencies? We must be cautious before getting involved in social media campaigns and ask ourselves if promoting a particular message is inadvertently doing more harm than good. In the case of Child Protection Week, here are three practical things you can rather do:
  1. If you are aware of a child needing protection from abuse, neglect, hunger or physical danger report it to the police, Child Welfare or Childline.
  2. Mentor a vulnerable child (for more information visit www.peaceagency.org.za)
  3. Volunteer your time or expertise to NGO’s working with children in need of care and protection. Feel free to e-mail for a list of these in your area. justin@peaceagency.org.za
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency. This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysen: gang raped, mutilated and murdered.