The midnight kidnapping of 250 schoolgirls by the Islamist group Boko Haram from their dormitory at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok on April 14 2014 sparked headlines worldwide. Nearly two years on, 196 are still being held captive.
There was nothing isolated about the incident, which embodies the horror of the insurgency plaguing Nigeria and its neighbours. Scores of women and girls, initially Christians but later on Muslims, have been abducted as part of the sect’s strategy to extend its grip over the country’s northeast state. By awarding “wives”, willing or forced, to fighters, its leaders seek to attract male recruits and encourage combatants.
But, according to a new International Crisis Group report, from early on some women also saw the attractions – the group’s religious discourse; potentially greater freedom and protection; socioeconomic opportunities; and a refuge from endemic corruption, entrenched discrimination, widespread poverty and social anomie.
Because they were not considered a threat at first, women and girls could 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, the sect began training women to fight.
As the counterinsurgency grew, some women responded by helping to guard checkpoints or taking up arms in local vigilante units.
Although disrupting established patterns has given some women better prospects, seven years of war has mostly caused suffering. It has also further entrenched discriminatory practices and gender stereotypes in a deeply divided, traumatised society.
Women were often the only survivors after Boko Haram had either forcibly recruited or killed their men and older boys – or the military had arrested them. As the war spread, the insurgency and counterinsurgency forced nearly two million people, the overwhelming majority of whom were women, to leave their homes.
But the means women have resorted to to survive and the blurred line between victims and perpetrators have led to a climate of suspicion surrounding those displaced, not only by Boko Haram’s other victims but also by government agencies.
Separated from their husbands and sons, hundreds of thousands of women live with their children in government camps where food is scarce and healthcare dismal. In these camps, mostly staffed by male guards, some have suffered sexual violence or have resorted to “survival sex” in exchange for food, money or permission to leave the camp. As they struggle to feed their loved ones, some have denounced corruption and the diversion of food aid, relief funds and services by officials.
The situation of widows is particularly problematic. Although they can inherit a husband’s assets if they have supporting witnesses or records from village or district heads, there is little to claim in places ravaged by war.
Gender-based violence, poor treatment of those displaced, distrust of women either known or suspected to have associated with Boko Haram, and abuses by the Nigerian military have added serious long-term risks to the humanitarian crisis. They are undermining military gains and fuelling grievances against the state of the kind that gave rise to Boko Haram in the first place.
Immediate measures should be taken by the federal and northern state governments to combat the stigmatisation and marginalisation of former Boko Haram wives and slaves, as well as children fathered by Boko Haram members.
Bearing in mind that the group remains capable of launching attacks, Nigeria should support isolated women, especially widows, given that they are more susceptible to manipulation by jihadists.
The army should not systematically detain all women found in newly recovered areas. The tactics some have had to adopt to survive should not be held against them indiscriminately. The reunification of families – the only safety net for many – should be a priority. A federal database should be set up to facilitate the search for missing persons and more resources made available to reunite families.
Attention should be paid to gender-sensitive programmes, including those designed to strengthen women’s participation in politics and local governance, and to increase girls’ access to education, in both state schools and upgraded Quranic schools.
Mainstream Islamic groups can play a significant role in empowering women to do their part to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and build support for women’s education and civic participation.
Countering the sect and rebuilding society in the northeast requires the government and its international partners to tackle entrenched gender discrimination, and to enhance the role of women in building sustainable peace.
Ayo Obe is the vice-chairperson of the International Crisis Group board of trustees, an independent conflict