Collage of girls activism photos

Six ways social media put girls' rights in the spotlight

It’s easy to dismiss social media campaigns as merely ‘clicktivism’. But from Pakistan to Nigeria online activism is driving real progress for girls.

The Arab Spring, no make-up selfies, ice-bucket challenges: social media can make a big difference to causes that change people’s lives for the better. While some question the impact social media can have in the real world, we look at how it’s been instrumental in bringing worldwide attention to the challenges girls face, leading to significant steps forward for girls’ rights.

1. #BringBackOurGirls

The world barely seemed to shrug when insurgents kidnapped 276 girls from a school in Chibok, Nigeria in April 2014. But then #BringBackOurGirls started trending on Twitter, and within days the missing girls were headline news around the globe - the campaign to return them receiving support from Michelle Obama, Emma Watson and Ellen DeGeneres, among others.

The search continues for the 219 girls still missing, but the international pressure that helped return some of the girls would never have happened without the work of Oby Ezekwesili, who started the social media campaign and now runs an organisation of the same name that’s urging Nigerians to get involved both on and offline.

#BringBackOurGirls showed the world that the lives and rights of the missing schoolgirls mattered. More than that, it the overwhelming global attention pressured the Nigerian government to continue to search for the missing girls. Sadly, while not all of them have been found, the search led to the release of other girls and women in May and at the beginning of August.

2. #SelfieWithDaughter

Sex-selective abortion is a big problem in India, where many value male babies over female. The #SelfieWithDaughter campaign aimed to change these attitudes. It started in Haryana state, known for its skewed boy-girl ratio, and went viral after the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, pledged his support in his regular radio address.

As well as getting people to celebrate the role of girls in Indian society, subsequent media coverage of the campaign also put pressure on the Modi government to do more for girls in their policies – for example, ensuring prosecutions for pre-natal gender testing and voicing its support on Twitter.

#DearSisters impact is so much greater than just a popular hashtag.

3. #DearSisters

Last year, the Malala Fund’s #StrongerThan campaign in support of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls gained support from Michelle Obama and the model Iman. This year’s #DearSisters campaign for the one-year anniversary of the kidnapping built on that by encouraging people to send messages of hope to the victims, ensuring their story isn’t forgotten.

Malala tweet

“#StrongerThan was a way of allowing people to share their story and see how it fits with others around the world,” explains the Malala Fund’s Malaka Gharib. “For #DearSisters we wanted to ask our members to do something totally different for the missing girls, so we collected real letters and sent more than 5,000 from 100 countries to show solidarity with the families. Its impact is so much greater than just a popular hashtag.”

Leveraging the power of the internet comes naturally for Malala. Her diaries, published on the BBC website as an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Swat, Pakistan, when the Taliban banned girls from going to school, demonstrated her articulateness, courage and determination to speak up for girls’ rights. The dreadful circumstances that led to her being shot shocked the world.

“Our mission is to echo girls’ voices in a really big way because that’s how Malala got her voice,” says Gharib. “From girls in northern Nigeria threatened by Boko Haram to girls in Syrian refugee camps, we’re using social media to get their stories out there, just like Malala did with the BBC.”

From girls in northern Nigeria threatened by Boko Haram to girls in Syrian refugee camps, we’re using social media to get their stories out there.

4. #BeingFemaleInNigeria

What’s the best way to make something socially acceptable? By talking about it being socially unacceptable. That’s what started to happen last month in Nigeria, where a conversation about the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk at a book club in Abuja grew into an online national debate about the treatment of girls and women throughout the country.

The #BeingFemaleInNigeria hashtag caught on like wildfire after one of the book club’s members, Florence Warmate, began tweeting it along with her experiences of sexism. Both women and men shared instances of culturally ingrained gender disparity.

Given the events in Chibok, there’s no more important conversation for the country to be having right now. Of course, we think conversations about what it means to be female should be happening everywhere. It shows that girls and women have voices that should be heard and rights that must be respected.

The campaign to #EndFGM within a generation has become a reality rather than an aspiration.

5. #EndFGM

The first Zero Tolerance to FGM Day happened on 6 February 2003, when the then-First Lady of Nigeria inaugurated the day at a conference in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The UN then declared it an international day.

But, it took a young British activist to push the day to global prominence. In early 2014, Fahma Mohamed launched a petition in the UK asking for the government to warn schools about FGM. Within days her online petition gained 230,000 signatures.

Before April last year, the Twittersphere had never heard of #EndFGM, when an article in Cosmopolitan magazine birthed the hashtag. Since then, it’s snowballed into a positive force for change, with variations on the hashtag being tweeted at least nearly 12,500 times reaching nearly 820 million people around the world.

Then, in July 2014, the world’s first Girl Summit took place in London, hosted by the UK Government and UNICEF. That event focused global attention on FGM and child marriage, and 12 countries where the practice is prevalent made commitments to eliminate the cutting of girls.

Since then, Egypt jailed a doctor for the first time over the FGM-related death of a 13-year-old girl; Kenya launched a series of arrests over FGM; Nigeria passed a law banning it, and many more countries have developed action plans to tackle FGM or to ensure robust data was collected on the practice.

The campaign to #EndFGM within a generation has become a reality rather than an aspiration.

6. #GirlDeclaration

Officially launched in October 2013, the Girl Declaration aims to ensure girls are included in the post-2015 development agenda, aka the Sustainable Development Goals.

A collaborative effort from over 20 international development organisations, the campaign reached 93 million people in its first 10 days, which led to tens of thousands signing up to lend their support. It also received backing from such high-profile figures as Oprah Winfrey, Desmond Tutu and over 120 other Declaration signatories.

Now, as September nears and UN member states get ready to ratify the SDGs and set the development agenda for the next 15 years, girls’ unique potential has been recognised. The final outcome doc, released this past weekend, incorporates many of the key issues highlighted in the Declaration. It’s a huge win for girls, and a huge win for all those behind #GirlDeclaration.