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Opinion Nigeria’s children won’t be saved with hashtags alone

Roméo Dallaire is a retired lieutenant-general, and a Senator. In 1993, LGen. Dallaire was appointed Force Commander for UNAMIR, where he bore witness to the Rwandan genocide; Shelly Whitman is the executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

In the past week, the story of hundreds of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria has been prominent in the media, the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has become commonplace on social media feeds, and the global outcry for action has continued to grow in volume.

The global conscience is tormented by how such an appalling act can take place with impunity. The public's hunger for answers results in simplified storylines attempting to explain complex relationships and circumstances. Political imperatives are disguised and in the end children are the victims.

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We discuss concepts of peace and war as if they exist in a vacuum and fail to understand the intricate connections between them. Rather than protecting the whole, governments focus instead on picking up the broken pieces once conflicts break out. By failing to actively protect peace, societies inevitably create the space for conflict to infiltrate. Understanding how issues such as trafficking, child labour and child soldiering are interconnected is a critical element of understanding how to protect peace.

The girls who were abducted by the Boko Haram may be tomorrow's front-line combatants in a conflict against the Nigerian Government. We only need to look as far as the Aboke Girls of Northern Uganda, who were captured by the Lord's Resistance Army and quickly employed as soldiers to wage their war. Claims that the girls in Nigeria will be sold as wives and sex slaves must be understood as a tactic applied to child soldiers in war.

Once conflict takes hold, the basis is created for continued strife and violence, particularly if children are involved. The biggest predictor of violent behavior is initial exposure to violence. We need to break that cycle.

It is not enough to condemn the heinous act of stealing these children. We must recognize this act as part of a larger systemic global problem that may not be stopped with simple solutions parachuted in from external sources.

The abduction of the girls illustrates that children can be a collective rallying point for the international community to come together and work towards the common good.

If we focus on the needs of children in times of peace, we can prevent conflict. We often overlook the security sector's role in maintaining and promoting peace. This requires innovative approaches to reform this sector so as to place a priority on children and understand their critical link to overall peace and security. Soldiers should not be limited to an active role during conflict; rather, the security sector should be regarded as a key stakeholder in the protection of children and communities in times of peace.

The #BringBackOurGirls hashtag is a way of bringing the world's attention to a critical issue, but it is still reactive. What we need now more than ever are sustainable solutions that require shifts in attitude and behaviour, and long-term policy changes.

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