Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, left, shakes hands with Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, right, at the Presidential villa, in Abuja, Nigeria, Monday, July 14, 2014.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan promised Malala Yousafzai that the missing Nigerian schoolgirls "will be returned as soon as possible," the activist said, succeeding where protests and Twitter campaigns have failed.
After surviving a Taliban assassination attempt in 2012, the Pakistani teen has become an international education activist. She has addressed the United Nations, met with U.S. President Barack Obama and been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Yousafzai marked her 17th birthday Monday with a visit to Nigeria, and urged the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram to free the 219 schoolgirls who were kidnapped in April from the northern Nigerian town of Chibok, calling them her "sisters."
"My birthday wish this year is 'Bring Back Our Girls' now and alive," she said, referring to the #BringBackOurGirls social-media campaign that went viral soon after the kidnapping.
Yousafzai also appealed directly to their captors. "Let them be free. They have committed no crime," she added. "You are misusing the name of Islam ... Islam is a religion of peace."
Both Yousafzai and the missing girls were targeted by Islamic extremists for seeking an education.
The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls first appeared in a tweet by Nigerian corporate lawyer Ibrahim Abdullahi on April 23, who credits Obiageli Ezekwesili, former vice-president of the World Bank's Africa region, with coining the phrase in a TV appearance, according to NBC. U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, Angelina Jolie and Alicia Keys are among the celebrities who've joined the campaign.
The hashtag became popular enough to draw a response from Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram. In a video released Sunday, he taunted supporters by saying, "Bring back our girls? ... Bring back our army!"
In May, The Telegraph reported that there were plans to swap the girls for jailed Boko Haram members, but these plans fell through, as Western governments discouraged Nigeria from negotiating with terrorists.
The outpouring of social-media support contrasts with the Nigerian government's lackluster response to the kidnappings, which has drawn criticism from local residents and international observers alike. Jonathan has been reluctant to talk about the missing girls, and CNN reported that police in Nigeria's capital of Abuja banned protests demanding the girls' return, but reversed its decision in the face of public outrage.
When activists tried to march peacefully to the presidential villa in May, they were blocked by soldiers and police. Jonathan canceled a planned trip to Chibok that same month.
Nigeria rejected British and American offers of help for a month after the kidnappings. The kidnapped girls' fathers who ventured into the forest to search for their daughters claimed they saw no soldiers looking for the girls. United States Sen. Charles Schumer criticized the Nigerian government's "disturbingly slow and half-hearted response" to the kidnappings.
Jonathan's wife, Patience, has also been criticized for her handling of the situation. She accused the protest leader of being a Boko Haram member, and claimed the kidnappings were an organized attempt to discredit her husband.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press
Tags: #BRINGBACKOURGIRLS, MALALA YOUSAFZAI, US & World, WORLD