Women of the Senate band together over missing girls

The New York TimesMay 14, 2014 

— All 20 female senators find themselves in fierce bipartisan agreement on at least one topic.

Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., drafted a letter to President Barack Obama last week condemning the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamist radicals - and by the same afternoon, every one of their female Senate colleagues had signed it.

“When I started rounding up support on the Senate floor, the response I would get was: ‘Where should I sign? I’m outraged too,’” Collins said. “There was no need to convince or cajole or persuade.”

Since then, the 20 senators - 16 Democrats and four Republicans - have banded together to highlight what several described as the “horrific” situation in Nigeria, where Boko Haram, the terrorist network, has claimed responsibility for the abduction of 276 girls from a school last month.

“This is a great example of why it’s important to have women in positions of power, because they will pick up on certain kinds of issues, like this one,” said Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “While it’s important for all the members of the Senate to speak out, it is powerful when the women come together across party lines to speak out, and they become the messenger.”

On Monday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. - whose Twitter feed has been dominated by news of the kidnappings - took to the Senate floor to give a speech demanding immediate action “to help bring these girls home to their families and bring these kidnappers to justice.”

On the same day, Mikulski, who also spoke on the Senate floor, rounded up 11 of the Democrats to pose for a picture holding a large sign with #BringBackOurGirls in red letters, which many of the senators then sent out via a Twitter message.

(Michelle Obama started the social media campaign last week, posting a somber-looking photo in which she, too, held a #BringBackOurGirls sign, calling the kidnappings by the radical Islamist group an “unconscionable” act.)

And Tuesday evening, the female senators gathered for a private dinner with Secretary of State John Kerry at which, according to several present, they pushed seeking to have the United Nations designate Boko Haram as a terrorist organization on its Qaida sanctions list; providing surveillance assets to try to locate the missing girls; considering assistance to the Nigerian government by providing a team of Special Forces to locate and rescue the girls; and coordinating the search for the girls on an international front.

Several of those who attended the meeting said they left feeling encouraged.

“The kidnapping of hundreds of children by Boko Haram is an unconscionable crime, and we will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and to hold the perpetrators to justice,” Kerry said in a statement Wednesday.

Although the tangible results of the senators’ efforts remain unclear, they showed their ability to bring both national and international attention to the issue.

“I think when the women of the Senate come together across party lines, it’s very powerful, and effective,” said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La. “I think when the women stand united on an issue like this, we can bring a tremendous amount of moral authority to the issue.”

Collins said the actions by her female colleagues helped “shine a spotlight on the urgency of the problem but also made it impossible for people to ignore the plight of these girls.”

“It served as a catalyst for action when very little - painfully, woefully little - was being done,” she added.

Some have criticized the White House as being slow to act. Although the administration offered its help to President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, the United States has not sent troops and is unlikely to do so, in part because the girls are not thought to all still be together and because of the inherent risks in trying such a large-scale rescue. U.S. surveillance aircraft, however, both manned and unmanned, are making flights over the region to help locate the girls.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, has also come under scrutiny in connection with Boko Haram. Under her tenure as secretary of state, the State Department did not classify the group as a terrorist organization, although it did designate its three leading members as foreign terrorists.

Clinton supporters say the State Department was worried that branding the group as a terrorist organization could backfire by elevating the group’s prestige. The designation was made last November, after Clinton had left the Cabinet.

On Wednesday afternoon, the State Department invited the female senators, along with the top members of the relevant Senate committees, to a classified briefing on the issue. On Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs is holding a hearing on the threat of Boko Haram, and the House leadership has requested a complete briefing from the White House next week.

The Senate’s female members have a history of reaching agreement on major issues where they can find common ground. Last year, all 20 joined together to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. And Collins led two of her female Republican colleagues in creating the bipartisan group that helped reach the budget compromise that ultimately reopened the government after a 16-day shutdown last fall. (All 20 also voted for the final budget deal.)

“These girls cry out for a voice,” Klobuchar said, “and it’s one of those things where we all agree that something has to be done and that it has to be a much more major part of our foreign policy.”

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