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:
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.
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.
Develop urgently programs to increase women’s recruitment in local police forces and deploy them in IDP camps as soon as possible.
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.
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.
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:
Commit to greater representation of women in government-funded programs and support inclusive peacebuilding initiatives in the North East.
Ensure that public and private development and reconstruction plans are based on a gender-sensitive analysis of the insurgency and counter-insurgency.
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.
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:
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.
Design programs to strengthen women’s participation in politics and local governance.
Prioritise increasing girls’ access to primary and secondary schools; and develop a program to upgrade Quranic education, ensuring equal access for girls.
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:
Expand and improve gender-sensitive aspects of aid programs in all Boko Haram-affected areas.
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.
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 experien