IT’S BEEN two years since more than 270 girls were abducted from their school in the town of Chibok, north-eastern Nigeria, sparking a global movement demanding their release that went viral under the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
The girls are still missing, and a new report by UNICEF highlights that the conflict is unfolding, in many ways, primarily as a crisis of children’s care and protection. In North- East Nigeria and increasingly in neighbouring countries, children are killed, maimed, raped, abducted and recruited to armed groups.
More alarming is the use of children, especially girls, as suicide bombers, which has recently become one of the defining features of the conflict.
Over the past two years, nearly 1 in 5 suicide bombers was a child and three quarters of these children were girls. Last year, children were used in half of the suicide bombing attacks in Cameroon, 1 out of 8 in Chad, and 1 out of 7 in Nigeria.
Nightmare not over
The shift in tactics is partly driven by the loss in territory that the group has suffered at the hands of combined military forces from the region. As the military are progressively retaking areas under control by Boko Haram, many women and girls are being freed after months in captivity. But even after their release, their nightmare is not over.
Girls and women kidnapped by Boko Haram often face mistrust, discrimination and persecution upon their return to their communities, according to a new research paper by UNICEF and non- governmental organization International Alert.
Such distrust is creating an atmosphere of terror and suspicion in many communities across the region. Children born as a result of sexual violence risk being rejected and even killed for fear that they could turn against their families and communities when they grow up, Unicef says.
The Boko Haram conflict also worsening an already critical food and nutrition crisis that has been brewing for over a decade. In the Lake Chad region, severe acute malnutrition is high among children.
Insecurity, displacement, unfavourable weather conditions and epidemics have also impacted the nutrition status of children over the past two years. In Boko Haram-affected areas across Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, the estimated number of children with severe acute malnutrition increased from 149,000 to 195,000 between January 2014 and January 2016.
All across the Lake Chad region, farming, fishing and cross-border trade have been severely disrupted. Both buyers and sellers are afraid of suicide bombers targeting markets. Many herdsmen and farmers have lost their livelihoods. Families can no longer afford adequate food, even when it is available in the market. Access to clean water, sanitation and basic health is a challenge for many, the report states.
UNICEF is calling the international community to rally under a new banner, #BringBackOurChildhood, and to increase funding from donors to support conflict-affected women and children in Nigeria and neighbouring countries.
Here is a timeline of the insurgency, developed by Mail & Guardian Africa: