On May 29, international delegates to the Women in Public Service Project Institute held “Bring Back Our Girls” signs in front of the Massachusetts State House in Boston. The women, representing more than 20 countries, created handmade signs in English and other languages and stood in solidarity to protest the abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria.
The State House visit was part of the two-week Women in Public Service Project (WPSP) Institute taking place at Mount Holyoke, Smith, and Simmons colleges. Education for women and girls is a major theme tying together the WPSP’s mission, the three women’s colleges, and the work undertaken by WPSP delegates.
In April, Mount Holyoke students were heading into the home stretch of the semester, rushing to finish the many projects claiming their attention. No one questioned their right to pursue an education.
But half a world away, the militant group Boko Haram abducted hundreds of schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria. Kymberly Newberry FP’16 recalls hearing about the incident on BBC radio before most Americans knew about the kidnappings. “At first, I just couldn’t believe it, but then I immediately thought, “Somebody’s got to help.”
She responded by educating the campus community via an open letter to the United Nations and to the Nigerian government condemning the incident and urging readers to stand for women’s rights. She printed her letter (the text of which is below) onto poster-size paper and placed it on a stand in the library’s entrance, a high-traffic area of campus. “I wrote the letter because the preeminent women’s schools shouldn’t remain silent on the issue,” Newberry says.
Soon, her letter had been read and signed by nearly 500 members of the Mount Holyoke community. “Seeing all those signatures made me weep,” she says. “Each name is a prayer. It’s all we can send right now.”
President Lynn Pasquerella said the Chibok abduction, much like the 2012 attempted assassination of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, was “nothing less than an attempt to extinguish the future and the light of change.”
“Mount Holyoke opposes the forces that would deny girls the basic human right of access to education,” she said. “The 300 girls kidnapped by extremists in Nigeria were taken from their families for the ‘crime’ of going to school. This horrifying event is one of many highlighting the stark and unsettling reality underscored by former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who noted in her UN address on International Women's Day, 2013, that gender equality is the ‘great unfinished business of the twenty-first century.’ ”
—By Emily Harrison Weir
Kymberly Newberry’s letter
Beloved Mount Holyoke:
On the night of Monday April 14, 2014, heavily armed gunmen entered a girls boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria. Two hundred girls ranging in age from 12 to 18 were abducted and allegedly taken to the Sambisa forest. It has been reported that several of the girls have been ferried across the border into neighboring countries of Chad and Cameroon, where they have been forced to “marry” their abductors. During an emotional interview, a young man spoke of his missing 15-year-old sister, “my sister was sitting her final exams after six years of study. Parents took the risk to allow the girls to stay at the boarding school, to make sure they had the chance to write the final exams, so their hopes of further studies were not aborted.”
In 1837, founder Mary Lyon implored Mount Holyoke women to "go where no one else will go and do what no one else will do." She believed that an exemplary education for all women was the key to our agency and a bridge to their significant contributions to societies everywhere in the world. Our presence as Mount Holyoke women today, and our collective voices urging the return of all of these students is how we bear witness to the ongoing mission of this institution.
We cannot stand mute in the face of these catastrophic circumstances.
As this nightmare unfolds five thousand miles away, let our bonds of sisterhood in the words of the philosopher, theologian and educator, Howard Thurman, be the “steadying thread,” that delivers faith and grace to our stolen sisters. Let us be bold, and unflinching in our stand against all acts prohibiting young women from the right to education and the right to be fearless, and free thinking citizens of the world.
Please, affix your signature to the attached letter, which in one week, will be forwarded to the Nigerian Government and the United Nations organization, UN Women.
Be still and listen, the voice of Mary Lyon is whispering, “yes, yes, yes.”
Kymberly S. Newberry
Frances Perkins Scholar ’16