from Africa in Transition

Boko Haram’s Violence Against Women and Girls Demands Justice

A protester at a "Bring Back Our Girls" protest as they march to the presidential villa to deliver a letter to Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan in Abuja, calling for the release of schoolgirls from Chibok kidnapped by Boko Haram, May 22, 2014. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

This is a guest blog post by Sherrie Russell-Brown. Sherrie is a researcher, consultant, and international lawyer focusing on armed conflict, gender, security, international justice, and humanitarian law in sub-Saharan Africa. She coordinates a collaborative group of experts dedicated to promoting research and analysis of the Sahel, and, in particular, the Boko Haram insurgency. Sherrie holds a Juris Doctor and Master of Laws in human rights law from Columbia University School of Law.

Following Boko Haram’s abduction of girls from a school in Dapchi, International Crisis Group released a report in April on how to prevent future kidnappings in Nigeria. It lays out in detail what steps the Nigerian government, foreign governments, and local actors should take to defeat Boko Haram and overcome the destruction that they have wrought. Moreover, Crisis Group also examined Boko Haram’s gender-based violence and has proposed ways to address it.

To date, not one member of Boko Haram has been prosecuted for sexual violence. Yet, as President Buhari mulls granting amnesty to repentant members of Boko Haram, justice requires accountability for their crimes, including those that are gender-based. 

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Boko Haram

Women and Women's Rights

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Sub-Saharan Africa

It is worth noting that the protocols and laws needed to do this are already in place. A core strategic objective under Pillar 3 of Nigeria's second National Action Plan (2017-2020) for the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 and related resolutions is the protection of women’s and girls' rights and security and prosecution of violators of such rights. Nigeria has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), enacted the Child Rights Act (CRA) and the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act. However, as is often the case, the implementation of these laws, policies, agreements, and protocols is the challenge.

To be clear, both genders have been targeted by Boko Haram. In February 2014, less than two months before the Chibok girls were kidnapped, Boko Haram killed at least twenty-nine male students at the Federal Government College, Buni Yadi, in Yobe state. Men and boys have been abducted, killed, or forcibly conscripted by Boko Haram. 

However, Crisis Group brings much-needed attention to the prominent role that violence against women and girls plays in Boko Haram’s ideology and actions. Girls' education, and with it girls' empowerment, are under direct attack by the group. The insurgents who returned the Dapchi girls warned residents against sending their daughters back to school, or else they would be kidnapped again. (Fifteen-year old Leah Sharibu, the lone Christian among the Dapchi girls, refused to convert to Islam and remains in captivity.) In addition, Boko Haram has used women and girls as person-borne improvised explosive devices (PBIEDs), so-called “suicide bombers,” more than any other terrorist group in history. By the end of 2017, 454 women and girls had been deployed or arrested in 232 incidents, which killed 1,225 people. Reported incidents of Boko Haram rape, sexual slavery, forced marriages, and other incidents of sexual violence in northeast Nigeria increased from 644 in 2016 to 997 in 2017.

But women are more than just victims. While some are, of course, supporters of Boko Haram and perpetrators of violence themselves, they have also played a vital role in the fight against the group. In the opening scene of Black Panther, Okoye, the head of King T’Challa's all-female personal security, the Dora Milaje and Nakia, a female Wakandan intelligence officer, help rescue a group of women (and a male child soldier) who had been abducted by an extremist terror network reminiscent of Boko Haram. In that spirit, Aisha Bakari Gombi, also known as the “Queen Hunter,” commands a band of male hunters and has helped the Nigerian military fight Boko Haram and rescue hundreds of men, women, and children in northeast Nigeria. Off the battlefield, Oby Ezekwesili, Saudatu Mahdi and Hadiza Bala Usman, cofounders of #BringBackOurGirls, have been campaigning for the return, reintegration, and rehabilitation of abductees of Boko Haram of both genders. Hamsatu Allamin has been working to change the narrative of "Boko Haram" (roughly translated as "education is a sin") to "Boko Halal" ("education is good"). One education initiative underway is an Africa-America Institute plan to introduce a new digital learning tool in Nigeria and Ghana. She has also highlighted the need for a communication strategy to counter the influence of Boko Haram. Eleanor Nwadinobi has worked to increase the participation of women and girls in peacebuilding institutions by supporting safe spaces called "peace clubs."

As Justice Louis Brandeis once remarked, "[s]unlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." Once we have acknowledged Boko Haram’s sexual and gender-based crimes, however, providing justice to survivors and victims is an essential next step