UNICEF taps Snapchat to spread word about Nigeria's child refugees

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UNICEF has turned to Snapchat for a social media campaign highlighting the plight of the 800,000 children who have been forced to flee their homes in northeast Nigeria by the conflict raging between the military and insurgents.

To reinforce the message of its new report, Missing Childhoods, UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) is using Snapchat for the first time. The agency is sharing images from leading Snapchat artists based on drawings by children in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon. The initiative is called #BringBackOurChildhood, and is modelled after the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter campaign launched a year ago after hundreds of girls were kidnapped in Chibok, Nigeria, by the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist sect Boko Haram.

Millions of tweets have been sent with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls in protest of the mass kidnapping.

Boko Haram is opposed to what they see as a Western model of education. The group specifically targets, among other things, the education of girls.

Boko Haram in 2014 attacked some 300 schools, killing hundreds of teachers and children, according to UNICEF. The sect regularly rapes young women and girls and forces them into marriage and labor camps. Children are made to serve as cooks and lookouts and to fight alongside armed groups; they are sometimes used as human bombs and in at least one case, a young girl was sent to her death with a bomb strapped to her chest.

“According to statistics from UNESCO,” the Missing Childhoods report says, “the number of children of primary age not attending school in Nigeria has increased from 8 million in 2007 to 10.5 million—the highest figure in the world. Nearly 60 percent of these children are in the north of the country. As the conflict continues, this staggering number is likely to increase further.”

UNICEF says that a lack of security and funding constrains efforts to reach affected children, and has called for the warring parties to allow humanitarian access to conflict zones, to stop attacks on schools and return abducted children to their families.

The #BringBackOurChildhood campaign was conceived in partnership with Snapchat artist celebrity Shaun McBride and multimedia marketing company Softway Solutions. UNICEF is urging the public, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram users, to participate in #BringBackOurChildhood by sending a snap of what they would miss the most if forced to leave their home.

This strategy, aimed at reaching a maximum number of people with the minimum expenditure of funds, in part of an effort to put pressure on factions in Nigeria to end the attacks on children. It is also meant to raise awareness of the crisis in order to prompt donations for humanitarian efforts.

UNICEF is dependent on governments and private agencies for contributions but has been faced with a severe funding shortfall. The agency says that so far in 2015 it’s only received about 15 percent of the needed $26.5 million for a proper humanitarian response to Nigeria’s crisis.

In addition to attracting international donors to increase financial support for relief efforts in Nigeria and surrounding countries, the #BringBackOurChildhood campaign may help push the incoming government to prioritize children’s issues. The new government is set to take charge next month. It’s headed by retired Gen. Muhammadu Buhar, from the war-torn northern part of the country.

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