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Since 2011, when Boko Haram (and its subsequent off-shoots) entered its current violent phase, kidnapping women and girls has been a defining characteristic. Boko Haram seeks women as wives for its fighters—who are often too poor to pay a bride price—as domestic or sexual slaves, and as suicide bombers. Boko Haram’s most notorious kidnapping, at least to those in the West, was the abduction of 276 school girls from Chibok in 2014, more than 100 of whom remain in captivity. The total number of Boko Haram kidnapping victims is unclear, but it is likely in the thousands.
As the military dislodged Boko Haram in 2015 from the territory it had captured and occupied earlier, victims of suicide bombers grew as a proportion of those the group killed through August 2018. Between June 2014, when Boko Haram reportedly deployed its first female suicide bomber, and February 2018, about 468 women and girls have been deployed or arrested in 240 suicide attacks, the most by any terrorist movement, killing roughly 1,200 and injuring some 3,000, according to a report [PDF] by the Counterterrorism Center. These numbers have no doubt climbed in the years since. The number of women and girls involved in suicide attacks, most likely through coercion but some voluntarily, is part of the reason why female victims that escape or are liberated are too often shunned by their communities. There is a popular fear that they remain Boko Haram at heart.
Perhaps because of international compassion fatigue, perhaps because the horror is so great, women and girl kidnap victims have largely fallen off the Western media radar, all the more so in this time of coronavirus. Hence, the New York Times has done a service by telling the stories of some kidnap victims who escape and the challenges they have faced since, stories that are painful to read.