The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: Abducted Girls and the Power of Mothers

So, the news that 276 girls have been abducted in Nigeria last month is finally getting some attention in the United States media. Secretary of State John Kerry even stepped up and offered U.S. assistance in finding them (it sure took him long enough!). The help we offer could be monumental but I’m guessing that it actually will be minimal. Aid to Africa is rarely popular. One wonders if we’re doing more in the search for Malaysian Flight 370 in which the people involved are most likely dead.

The reasons why the U.S. media is barely mentioning this terrible event are fairly obvious: the girls are not white (replace French for the

Photo by Michael Fleshman -

Photo by Michael Fleshman –

word African and imagine the outrage) and the fact that this took place in Africa, a continent most Americans care little about. The reason why this terrorist group, Boko Haram, took them is also clear: Because. They. Can.

Girls all over the world are sold into sexual slavery and marriages they do not want at alarmingly high rates. This usually happens in places in which the status of women is extremely low, where women are relatively uneducated. I do not believe it is an accident that many girls are abused and kidnapped when they are at school. An educated woman is a dangerous one. So, kidnap girls when they are young and uneducated. What can they do about it? Nothing. Who can they turn to in their time of need? Probably no one. And men, especially violent, abusive men, know this. That’s why this type of abduction is not new; it’s happened before.

In 1996, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) kidnapped 139 girls from their boarding school in Uganda. Just as they did in Nigeria, the armed men appeared in the middle of the night and took as many girls as they could. Most of the girls involved in that abduction were lucky. The deputy head mistress of the college, Italian Sister Rachele Fassera, courageously pursued the rebels and, because her European ancestry and religiosity held some sway with them, she was able to negotiate for the release of 109 of them. Unfortunately, 30 girls had to remain with the rebels. While most of them survived and eventually returned to their families, their experiences with the LRA were horrific.

When this type of event befalls girls, who cares? Who takes action, organizes marches, meets with influential people, and does not allow the girls’ absence to go unnoticed? Mothers do. Although there are other people who care about these missing girls (and many fathers definitely play an important role), it is mothers who are at the forefront of protest. It is mothers who are the faces of despair and it is mothers who never give up.

In the LRA abuction, Angelina Atyam, mother of Charlotte, one of the 30 kidnapped girls, tirelessly met with diplomats and human rights groups and repeatedly told her story to whomever would listen. When Ms. Atyam learned that a well-known commander was holding Charlotte as his “wife,” she immediately traveled to the village where the commander’s mother lived in order to forgive and bond with her over the violence in both of their children’s lives. She became the co-founder and president of the Concerned Parents Association which advocated for the release of all abducted Ugandan children, the peaceful resolution of the armed conflict and forgiveness of the LRA, and increased awareness of the plight of children in war everywhere.

As a result of her work, Ms. Atyam won the 1998 United Nations prize for human rights and even met with a representative of the LRA. He promised to let Charlotte go if she agreed to stop her advocacy work. Ms. Atyam refused unless they released all 30 of the abducted girls. The LRA rebuffed her counter-offer. As a result, Ms. Atyam continued her advocacy work and has not stopped fighting for justice even after Charlotte returned home in 2004. In her eyes, she transformed from one mother fighting for her daughter into Mama Angelina, Mother of all missing children.

Ms. Atyam’s story may be exceptional but she is not unique in her zeal to fight for her child. The night the Ugandan girls were taken, another mother of an abducted girl followed Sister Rachale and, at great risk to herself, demanded that her daughter be released. She left only when she was told that her daughter would be killed if she did not. In Nigeria, mothers and fathers have risked their lives trying to go in armed only with machetes, sticks and rocks to get their daughters back. And on Wednesday, just as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo did in Argentina during the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of Nigerian mothers marched in Lagos and Kano in protest, demanding that the Nigerian government find and return their daughters to them.

It is during circumstances like this that it is easy to despair, to believe that girls will always be at the mercy of violent men and that there is little we can do. But perhaps that is not the case; maybe we have just gone about protecting girls in the wrong way. Most governments have proven themselves to be ineffectual and relatively uncaring about the plight of girls, so it may be time to go around them.

Perhaps we should follow Ms. Atyam’s example and begin networking with other mothers. There are more of us than there are of them and love is a formidable force for change. Moreover, there is a great deal of power in being a mother. As poet William Ross Wallace pointed out in 1865, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” Maybe it’s time to take him literally and see what the power of mothers working together can do. So, to all the other mothers out there: I’m up for it if you are.

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