Nigeria: Women and the Boko Haram Insurgency

Boko Haram’s rise and insurgency have dramatically changed the lives of thousands of women and girls, often casting them voluntarily or by force into new roles outside the domestic sphere. Some joined to escape their social conditions; others were abducted and enslaved. Seven years of war have caused gender-specific suffering. While men have disproportionally been killed, women are an overwhelming majority among the estimated 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the North East. As former wives, slaves or fighters, many bear the stigma of association with the insurgents and are barred from reintroduction into their communities, in part because the lines between militant, sympathiser and forced accomplice are blurred. Although Boko Haram faces strong pushback, it remains capable of launching attacks and conducting multiple suicide bombings. Understanding how women experience the conflict, not only as victims but also as actors, needs to directly inform policies and programs to tackle the roots of the insurgency and strategies for curbing it, as well as facilitate women’s contribution to lasting peace.

Since its emergence in 2002, Boko Haram has paid particular attention to women in rhetoric and actions, partly because of the intense debate surrounding their role in society in the North East. Among other revivalist Islamic movements, the sect called for tighter restrictions on them in some areas of life but also promoted their access to Islamic education and offered financial empowerment. With patriarchy, poverty, corruption, early marriage and illiteracy long thwarting their life chances, some women saw an opportunity in Boko Haram to advance their freedoms or reduce their hardship. Many valued the religious and moral anchoring.

Thereafter, Boko Haram began to abduct women and girls for both political and pragmatic ends, including to protest the arrest of female members and relatives of some leaders. The seizure of more than 200 schoolgirls near Chibok in 2014 was a much publicised spike in a wider trend. The group took Christian and later Muslim females to hurt communities that opposed it, as a politically symbolic imposition of its will and as assets. By awarding “wives” to fighters, it attracted male recruits and incentivised combatants. Because women were not considered a threat, female followers and forced conscripts could initially circulate in government-controlled areas more easily, as spies, messengers, recruiters and smugglers. For the same reason, from mid-2014, Boko Haram turned to female suicide bombers. Increasingly pressed for manpower, it also trained women to fight.

As vigilante militia members, including with the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), hundreds of women help security forces, particularly to frisk females at checkpoints, gather information and identify suspects, and also sometimes to fight Boko Haram. Others work in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and women’s associations or care privately for war victims. In some cases, the war has opened opportunities for women’s activism, illustrated by the establishment of several new women-led NGOs in Maiduguri and the Nigerian involvement in the Bring Back Our Girls international campaign.

Boko Haram attacks, the military’s persecution of suspects and its strategy of emptying contested areas have forced over a million women and girls to flee homes. Some suspected supporters are in detention. Hundreds of thousands of females are in government camps where food is scarce and healthcare dismal; in unofficial camps, the situation can be even worse. Separated from husbands and sons conscripted or killed by Boko Haram or arrested by security forces, many women are now fully responsible for their families’ protection and economic wellbeing.

Harsh treatment of IDPs in camps and detention centres could undermine military gains. If corruption in aid delivery and abuses persist, communities may harbour grievances that could lead them to reject state authority. Meanwhile, the stigma carried by women and girls known or suspected to have been Boko Haram members risks leaving them and their children isolated and alienated, generating new frustration and resistance of the kind that gave rise to Boko Haram.

How gender dynamics play a part in fuelling the Boko Haram insurgency should be a clear warning that women’s integration into decision-making processes at all levels is critical to a durable peace. Countering the sect and rebuilding a peaceful society in the North East requires the government and its international partners to tackle gender discrimination, better protect women and girls affected by the violence and support women’s economic and social reintegration, as well as enhance their role in building sustainable peace. In the short term, reunification of families should be a priority. In the longer term, improvements and gender balance in accessing education, in both state schools and upgraded Quranic schools, is vital.


To better protect women and girls affected by the violence and respond to immediate humanitarian needs

To the Government of Nigeria:

  1. Screen the predominantly female adults from areas formerly controlled by Boko Haram with diverse teams that include protection officers provided by national civil society organisations and trained by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to ensure adequate treatment of both suspects and victims.

  2. Implement urgently greater accountability in distribution of food and gender-sensitive assistance in IDP camps and host communities, including access to sexual and reproductive health information and services for women and girls; give local and international humanitarian organisations access to IDP camps and transfer their management to civilian organisations as soon as possible.

  3. Develop urgently programs to increase women’s recruitment in local police forces and deploy them in IDP camps as soon as possible.

  4. Activate referral mechanisms for women and girls to report sexual and gender-based violence in IDP camps and host communities and ensure that authorities, including the judiciary and police, properly investigate allegations of abuses by security forces and/or the vigilantes that assist them.

  5. Develop special support programs, in partnership with women’s organisations, religious associations and health centres, for women victims of sexual abuse to ensure they and their children are free from discrimination, violence and stigmatisation.

  6. Distinguish Boko Haram ideologues from those who joined for other motives and ensure transparent and fair investigation of both male and female Boko Haram suspects according to international law, including taking account of the level of involvement and seriousness of their crimes; hold all detainees, including women, in humane conditions monitored by humanitarian agencies; and ensure children are granted adequate care.

To support women’s economic and social reintegration, as well as enhance their role in building sustainable peace

To the Government of Nigeria:

  1. Commit to greater representation of women in government-funded programs and support inclusive peacebuilding initiatives in the North East.

  2. Ensure that public and private development and reconstruction plans are based on a gender-sensitive analysis of the insurgency and counter-insurgency.

  3. Make reunification of families a priority, including by allocating more resources to the task and establishing a federal database to facilitate the search for missing persons.

  4. Facilitate access to credit and land for women, recognising that single females and especially widow-headed households need particular support to restart productive activities, for example in traditional crafts, trade or agriculture.

To the affected northern-state governments, especially Borno state:

  1. Engage community leaders, including religious groups, to facilitate reintegration and rehabilitation of all women released from Boko Haram and provide psycho-social support as possible.

  2. Design programs to strengthen women’s participation in politics and local governance.

  3. Prioritise increasing girls’ access to primary and secondary schools; and develop a program to upgrade Quranic education, ensuring equal access for girls.

  4. Develop community-based approaches and sensitisation to address social stigma around former Boko Haram wives and slaves as well as children fathered by Boko Haram members, including by dramatically increasing investment in schools in the North East so as to allow the latter to attend school with other children in the region; and improve coherence and open a public debate by producing a blueprint for reintegration of these groups.

To donors, UN agencies and international NGOs:

  1. Expand and improve gender-sensitive aspects of aid programs in all Boko Haram-affected areas.

  2. Strengthen programs, in partnership with women-led NGOs, to tackle gender stereotypes and raise awareness about women’s roles, including in relation to peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction.


President Muhammadu Buhari, elected in 2015, has reached out to neighbouring Lake Chad basin countries, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and, despite the army’s structural weaknesses, mobilised a more powerful military campaign against Boko Haram, the jihadist insurgency that has destabilised Nigeria’s North East since 2010. The regional effort seems to have put the movement on the defensive, but it still holds some ground, launches deadly attacks on civilians and security forces and has deep roots in certain communities. Even as the fight continues, the government, at state and federal levels, and its international partners must think carefully about how to address the war’s diverse effects on the region’s heterogeneous population, lest Boko Haram or similar groups remain a long-term regional threat.

This report analyses experiences of women and girls in the North East in order to inform interventions to better alleviate their suffering, facilitate their contribution to lasting peace and mitigate the threat from female Boko Haram members. It examines patriarchal norms the sect exploited to attract recruits and tracks the diverse, changing female roles, as valuable abductees, combatants’ wives and slaves, forced or willing fighters, heads of displaced families, community leaders, mothers, wives and daughters. It identifies policy priorities tailored to women’s experiences, including immediate humanitarian aid and protection, longer-term reintegration into normal life of those stigmatised by Boko Haram association and women’s roles in a peaceful North East.

The analysis is based on research in the North East, the federal capital, Abuja, and south-eastern Niger with Boko Haram victims, captives or supporters, as well as community leaders, government officials, humanitarian workers and academics. Scores of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees were interviewed in formal and informal camps in Nigeria and Niger and a rehabilitation centre for ex-sect members in Maiduguri, as well as Boko Haram suspects held in Niger.

II.Women, Patriarchy and Islam in the North East

Boko Haram’s appeal to some women and the significance of women and girls for the group should be understood in the context of the North East’s heavily patriarchal societies, a widespread adherence to Islamic tenets and challenges to established beliefs and practices. The region’s religious and cultural norms, codified in law, have defined women’s status through marriage and childbearing and largely confined them to a domestic role. Their private and public places have been hotly contested by both the male-dominated political and religious elite and civil society, including female activists. What Islam says and what should be codified have been at the debate’s centre.

A.Entrenched Patriarchy

Male dominance has by and large been entrenched in law. Colonialism did little to challenge patriarchal structures in the mostly Muslim north, and independence altered little. At the urging of religious conservatives, Borno and eleven other northern states enacted a stricter version of Sharia (Islamic law) in 2003, with elements of Islamic criminal law. Other provisions reinforced male dominance and further restricted women’s freedoms and rights, including access to education and jobs. As is the norm throughout Nigeria, Muslim women in the North East do not usually own land or homes. While Nigeria does not recognise polygamous unions under federal civil law, the twelve northern states did so under state law at the beginning of the 2000s.

Northern Muslim women are politically marginalised. In 2007, only six of 360 state representatives in the twelve northern states were women, none in Borno. Wives of politicians and traditional rulers generally have no prominent public role, partly due to the practice of purdah (secluding women from society). This power imbalance, combined with high poverty, has contributed to a disproportionately lower socio-economic status for women and girls. Marrying soon after puberty is a main reason the North East has Nigeria’s lowest school attendance ratio and very high female illiteracy. This correlates with large age gaps between husbands and wives, reinforced male dominance and some of the world’s highest fertility rates. The average marriage age has increased slightly in cities and other places with girls’ access to education.

Many women and girls in the North East have long experienced oppression and gender-based violence, but stereotyped views need qualification. Despite a cultural, religious and legal setting that disproportionately restricts them, many women are economic providers in their own right; some sell goods in the market or from home, or perform farming activities, while others work in offices.

B.Contested Womanhood

Womanhood has become a central theme in male-dominated political debate, especially with the rise of revivalist Islam and its increasing influence on northern politics. Religious revivalists perceive the female body as a battleground in a global conflict between Islam and “the West”. All North East states thus refused to sign the 2003 Child Rights Act (CRA), which set eighteen as the minimum marrying age for men and women, thus preventing its implementation on their territory. Some Islamic revivalist groups also push for full purdah, long limited to religious and political elites.

In what may seem to foreign observers a paradox, many women engage with non-violent Islamic movements such as Izala, Nigeria’s largest Salafi group. Salafi Islam embraces conservative interpretations, including on women’s public roles and relations with established Sufi Islam and non-Muslims. But it promotes women’s education, Islamic and Western, and allows believers to free themselves from an Islam mediated by established Sufi clerics. Many women find it useful for advancing in their lives on an Islamic basis on their own terms. In a context of endemic corruption, widespread poverty and social anomie, many value the moral order Islam provides. Civil society groups in the North East occasionally invoke Islam to challenge patriarchal structures and gender inequalities.

While men have dominated the political and religious debate on the place of women in society, some women have also raised their voices. In Borno state, women in a number of civil society organisations and professions such as law, academia and health, and some female civil servants (including the few directors in state ministries) have advocated greater women’s rights and freedom.

Boko Haram leaders made use of the opening created by patriarchy, constraints on women and girls (particularly by patriarchal family members) and grinding socio-economic hardship in the North East to attract followers. Similarly, the debate over a female’s place and role offered opportunity to invoke religious authority to back up the movement’s claims and made women and girls significant for its rhetoric and actions.

III.Boko Haram and Women’s Changing Roles

Boko Haram and the subsequent insurgency and counter-insurgency have dramatically changed the lives of thousands of women and girls, casting them voluntarily, by force or for lack of other options into new, evolving roles outside the domestic sphere. Some joined the movement, first as members of a religious community, later as insurgents, while many are targets of its violence. Some fight against it within local vigilante units; others play critical roles in relief and reconciliation, while many displaced by fighting find themselves with new responsibilities. How roles evolve and relate to discrimination or empowerment have significant implications for North East recovery and stability.

A.Mohammed Yusuf’s Female Supporters

Well before Boko Haram turned to mass violence, when it was essentially one of a variety of revivalist Islamic movements in the Nigerian North, its founder, Mohammed Yusuf, attracted female followers. A reason Boko Haram, not unlike Izala, appealed to many, especially young women, was the opportunity to study the Quran and learn Arabic. Some had received Western education in government schools and, like men, tore up their certificates to show their new allegiance and rejection of the Nigerian state, which they deemed immoral and disappointing. Other factors were Yusuf’s encouragement of marriage within the sect and alleviation of traditional financial demands and social obligations, which gave young women some relief from family pressures. For women involved in hard labour such as farming or fetching water, purdah as promoted by the group may have been an attractive alternative.

Like many other Islamic Salafi leaders worldwide, Yusuf put special emphasis on treatment of the female body to show adherence to correct Islam. He encouraged wearing the niqab, a Saudi-style dress introduced in Nigeria in the 1970s that fully covers face and body. Initially, women could hear him preach at the mosque, where they sat apart from the men. Subsequent debate among Boko Haram clerics over whether to allow women in public led to the decision they should be taught at home and not allowed in mosques. Yusuf considered mixing of sexes a proof of unbelief. A mixed Western style was a major reason to consider a school impure (haram). Unlike in Izala, purdah was required for female followers.

B.The Insurgency

A government crackdown after violent confrontations in June and July 2009 in Maiduguri and several other cities led to the extrajudicial execution of Yusuf by the Nigerian police, as well as the killing of a number of other sect leaders and at least 1,000 supporters. Many members fled to rural areas and neighbouring counties, where they reorganised and began to engage in revenge terror and guerrilla attacks, led by Abubakar Shekau, a Yusuf deputy. Boko Haram recruited women and men, primarily from Maiduguri and other urban areas, with a mixture of coercion and incentives. In 2013, the security forces and civilian vigilantes (the Civilian Joint Task Force, CJTF) forced it out of Maiduguri, but as its insurgency spread to rural areas, more women were recruited or forced to join from villages, cutting across classes. Many married Boko Haram members.

1.Women in Boko Haram’s insurgency

Women’s and girls’ importance for Boko Haram stems from their roles and how they are perceived in society – both in the North East and in Nigeria as a whole. As wives, they enhance social status and provide sexual or domestic services (sometimes forced), thereby becoming valuable incentives for potential male recruits. Their adherence, willing or forced, to the movement’s version of Islam can also contribute to the spreading of its ideology among other women, but possibly also young men. Women can perform roles very different from traditional stereotypes. As the war evolved, women have become recruiters, spies, domestic labour, fighters and forced or willing suicide bombers.

Targeting of women and girls in certain communities helped to attract supporters, establish a political ideology in opposition to the state and sometimes attack Nigerian institutions in areas where it was perceived it would hurt the most. During the insurgency’s early phase, from late 2010, militants targeted individuals, mostly men, suspected of assisting the security forces in their initial crackdown on the sect. Boko Haram began kidnapping women and children in mid-2013, initially Christians in the Gwoza area of south east Borno. Shekau publicised the captures, demanding the government release the wives and children of several Boko Haram leaders, including his own spouses, arrested in 2012, an issue he had repeatedly raised. A deal was negotiated between the authorities and Boko Haram and an exchange was organised, but abductions of women became a core tactic.

On 14 April 2014, Boko Haram seized more than 200 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok, southern Borno state. This became a global affair, with leading female civil society activists throughout Nigeria joining in the Bring Back Our Girls international campaign. The state’s response was apathetic. It took three weeks for President Goodluck Jonathan to make a statement, and his wife, Patience, speculated that the abduction never happened. This so fed into a mounting debate on Jonathan’s performance that some of his allies claimed, without basis, that the abduction was a ploy by northern elites to weaken his government. Boko Haram said it would force the mostly Christian schoolgirls to convert, while trying to use them as bargaining chips. They remain a major symbolic issue. Shekau’s release of 21 Chibok girls in October 2016 after negotiations has been good news for President Buhari.

There have been many more kidnappings. In April 2015, a well-documented report estimated Boko Haram had taken more than 2,000 girls and young women, most unmarried, over the previous twelve months alone. But that figure is a mere indication. Boko Haram probably controlled a few hundred thousand women at the height of its insurgency, and abductions were many. The practice remained extensive well into the second half of 2015, when the movement further expanded its territorial control in Borno state. Reports show that militants mostly killed men (civilian and military), but generally abducted women. In a video, Shekau told followers to kill men but “spare the old, women, the lunatic, and the repentant”.

Beyond trying to free its own female detainees, Boko Haram’s reasons for abducting women and girls are probably mixed. In some local contexts, its actions have ethnic underpinnings; since it recruits more in certain communities than others, the history of hostility between communities has occasionally become part of its jihadist struggle. That it first abducted women in mainly Christian communities and pressured them to convert suggests it sought to spread its version of Islam as well as punish local adversaries. There are early reports of gang rape of Christian women, while Muslims were spared.

There is much ex-captive testimony about insurgents trying to obtain allegiance through a mix of threats, preaching and enticements. In so doing, Boko Haram seems to follow a pre-colonial Lake Chad-area pattern of raiding and enslavement, whereby women and children are captured and integrated into the victorious group.

With the state-sponsored emergence from 2013 of civilian vigilante groups to fight Boko Haram in all communities, the jihadists turned on both Christian and Muslim communities, killing men and capturing women, including Muslim women. For instance, when they captured Kareto, Borno state, in 2015, they treated Muslim women harshly because they had taken part, under military pressure, in desecrating the bodies of killed comrades.

Economic motives may also explain the increase in abductions. As in the nineteenth century wars in the Lake Chad area, Boko Haram used women and girls as rewards to fighters, a significant enticement since raising the resources for marriage is not easy. A former captive reported overhearing lengthy conversations between fighters over marriage prospects. That Boko Haram has occasionally released older women, for instance when food stocks were low or the war moved on, but not younger women demonstrates the latter’s value.

Management of marriageable women and girls, including widows, appears to have been a prerogative of leaders and a contentious issue within the sect. In a 2016 recording, Mamman Nur, a Boko Haram splinter faction leader, criticised Shekau for betraying his promise to marry the Chibok girls to sect members. Boko Haram seems to have distinguished between slaves and wives based on religion, protecting the latter more from abuse. But even that has been controversial, with Nur criticising Shekau for enslaving Muslim women he deemed unfaithful to his version of Islam.

Captured women have generally been kept under surveillance, required to wear the niqab and often compelled to listen to sermons and Quranic education. Eventually, they could be put to work, for instance as carriers, including in attacks, or cooks. While the sect’s claims to moral rigour may have given captive women some protection from sexual violence, as seems to have been the case for several Chibok girls, there have been reports of clandestine, extra-marital rapes in Boko Haram camps. Rape seemed more frequent after captives, sometimes quite young by local standards, were pressured to marry fighters.

After the 2009 crackdown, some women already loyal to Boko Haram left Maiduguri, following their husbands to other towns or the Sambisa forest, a large savanna area south of Maiduguri where Boko Haram has bases. Others stayed behind to care for families or clandestinely support husbands. Yet others continued to join Boko Haram willingly.

In Boko Haram-controlled areas, marriage could bring a measure of security and well-being for women and their extended family. In a village near Kerenowa in the Local Government Area (LGA) of Marte, Borno state, insurgents married 80 girls, offering dowries of 15,000 naira (about $70 in 2014), a considerable sum in a war-torn rural area. Some fathers gave their daughters to fighters under pressure from Boko Haram, and at times women chose such marriages against family wishes. A woman from Walasa, a Kanuri village near Banki, Bama LGA, divorced her husband and married the Boko Haram naqib of Banki. She said her new husband looked after her better and gave her a higher stipend than her first husband. She lamented losing the money she had saved when the military took back her village, burned their house and arrested her. In 2014, Kanuri elders and officials in Niger became increasingly worried about a small but increasing number of single women leaving the Diffa region for Boko Haram-controlled areas in search of business opportunities or a “lucrative” marriage.

Some may have become Boko Haram wives more inadvertently. A nineteen-year-old from Banki said that when she married, in 2013, she did not know that her husband, a trader selling suitcases who would leave for weeks at a time, was in Boko Haram. She never saw him with a weapon until there was fighting nearby with the military, and they had to leave for the Sambisa forest. Her parents told her to go with him, possibly fearing violence from Boko Haram if they prevented her from accompanying her husband.

The sect values Quranic education for women so they can take part in the religious community and obey its rules. Some women joined because they found this attractive and were eager to “acquire knowledge, to memorise the Quran and to learn about Islam more deeply … [all] unique opportunities”. As they grew in militancy, they considered any non-supporter an apostate or non-Muslim and an enemy to be fought. Many were involved as domestic labour, but also recruiters of other women, their husbands or young men, as spies, messengers and smugglers (including of food). For a time, as the army and CJTF focused on male suspects, women were well suited for these roles, as their supposed innocuousness allowed them to circulate more easily than male militants in government areas.

Unlike other West African insurgent groups, such as those in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Boko Haram has nothing like a women’s brigade. Yet, under manpower pressure, particularly from 2014, some women and girls were trained and joined in attacks. The wife of a Boko Haram leader in the Gwoza Hills reportedly carried a gun and killed a vigilante. Armed female militants were sighted in the Sambisa forest, riding their own motorcycles. Women were said to be involved in a 2016 ambush on the military. On 10 July 2014, armed females between fourteen and 21 and fighting “like professionals