By Sarah Rosangela and Kevin George, Center for Civilians in Conflict

WASHINGTON—Three years ago today, Boko Haram abducted up to 276 girls from a school in Chibok, in Northeast Nigeria. Since then, 81 girls have been released or escaped, recounting horror stories of sexual slavery and forced marriages to Boko Haram fighters. On this dreadful anniversary, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) calls for more robust action to bring these girls home and end the threat of sexual gender-based violence that has been a hallmark of the conflict between the Nigerian state and the militant group.

“We have reached out to their captors through local and international intermediaries, and we are ever ready to do everything within our means to ensure the safe release of all the girls,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said yesterday in a statement published by the Premium Times newspaper in Abuja.

But for many across Nigeria and the world, this insistence that the government is doing all it can is not enough. And the world has not forgotten. The famous Bring Back Our Girls campaign, which is focused on the release of the Chibok girls, has grown into a global movement demanding decisive action from the Nigerian government to rescue the 195 girls still held captive by Boko Haram. Today, supporters have posted personal videos with a united message: “We have not forgotten. Give us back our girls.”

There is no doubt the girls’ situation is dire. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, has previously threatened to “sell the remaining girls in the market place,” and there are reports that some of the girls have been married off to the group’s fighters.

In his statement to Premium Times, Buhari stressed that the government is involved in negotiations to free the girls, declaring, “Our intelligence and security forces, who have aptly demonstrated their competence, are very much equal to the task and absolutely committed to the efforts to find and return the schoolgirls and others abducted by Boko Haram.”

But military operations need to be carefully tailored. CIVIC has found that the military response to the threat of Boko Haram is often heavy handed, with counterinsurgency operations harming civilians rather than protecting them. Over the last year, CIVIC has worked with the Nigerian military in the Northeast to sensitize them to the unique challenges women and girls face in the conflict. CIVIC has begun educating the military on issues of sexual exploitation and rehabilitation needs for women and girls, as the military often serves as first responders to released captives.

There is some reason for hope. In October 2016, the International Red Cross and the Swiss government brokered negotiations between the Nigerian government and the group that resulted in the release of 21 girls. And CIVIC supports the Nigerian government in its efforts to negotiate the release of the Chibok schoolgirls, but we also emphasize the need for urgency. For the Chibok girls, three years of their lives are gone. They shouldn’t have to lose another day.

—Julius Gaiya contributed from Abuja, Nigeria

Image courtesy of Michael Fleshman