This is a guest post by Claire Wilmot, an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Program. She is a master of global affairs candidate at the University of Toronto.
In June 2014, Nigeria experienced its first attack by a female suicide bomber. Since then, Boko Haram has increasingly used girls and women as operatives in suicide attacks on soft targets. According to the Nigeria Security Tracker, Female suicide bombers have been responsible for over 200 deaths since May 2015, nearly half of all casualties from Boko Haram-attributed suicide bombings during this period.
Female suicide bombers serve a number of tactical purposes. They are effective smugglers and rouse less suspicion while moving in civilian areas. Their attacks have a high propaganda value and are more likely to be sensationalized by the media than attacks by men. It is no coincidence that the first series of female suicide attacks in Nigeria took place shortly after 200 girls were abducted on Chibok, capitalizing on the international attention generated by the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. The attacks using female suicide bombers made the government appear weak and stoked fears that the girls had been “weaponized” by Boko Haram.
In Nigeria and also abroad, the dominant narrative of female involvement in terrorist violence is one of coercion. The argument is supported by the high incidences of kidnappings of girls and women (more than 2000 since the insurgency began in 2009), and the testimony of escapees, who report egregious physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their captors. Human rights groups have reported that some girls and women appear to have been “brainwashed.” Moreover, some female bombers have been children as young as seven—incapable of granting informed consent to participate in such an act.
Conventional wisdom suggests that terrorist groups resort to the use of female operatives when they are at their weakest. Boko Haram’s spike in female suicide bombings could indicate that Boko Haram is experiencing difficulty recruiting from its historic support base—young, uneducated, unemployed men from Nigeria’s northeast. Excessive and indiscriminate violence against civilians may be eroding support among communities who previously sympathized with Boko Haram’s vision.
However, according to at least one credible source in northeastern Nigeria, most women in Boko Haram are acting voluntarily. They become suicide bombers to seek revenge for the deaths of their spouses or parents, as well as reunification in the afterlife. Detailing the dire humanitarian situation in the northeast, the source reported that many girls and women in Boko Haram controlled areas feel there is little prospect of a return to civilian life. Those who choose to return face ostracism, and would be ineligible for marriage. In a context of loss and hopelessness, martyrdom becomes an acceptable option. Incidences of gender-based violence and other human rights violations by Nigerian security forces could also push women to support or join Boko Haram out of fear.
In the early days of Boko Haram’s insurgency, one source emphasized that female support for the group’s activities has been understated. Women were reportedly converting female family members, and receiving training in the group’s former stronghold of Markas. That source also claimed that some women had donated their daughters to carry out suicide bombings. Last year, several members of a “female cell” of Boko Haram were apprehended in Abuja, charged with recruiting female members.
The two narratives of female involvement in Boko Haram—passive victims versus active participants—are not mutually exclusive. Both reflect the complexity of gender in insurgencies, and should contribute insight into post-conflict policy. Treating women and girls solely as passive victims can lead to incomplete understandings of conflicts and inadequate subsequent peace processes. Women may also be political actors with grievances that find resonance with extremists, and as important sources of community knowledge, they are uniquely positioned to build or disrupt ideological momentum for political movements. Gender inclusive peacebuilding strategies in Nigeria could help diminish support for extremists.