Nigeria – Fate of Women Associated with Boko Haram: Returning from the Land of Jihad
Date: May 23, 2019
Women are streaming home from Boko Haram’s domain in north-eastern Nigeria, some having escaped captivity and others having left jihadist husbands behind. The state should safeguard these women from abuse, so that they stay in government-held areas and encourage men to come.
The return of women formerly affiliated with the Boko Haram insurgency to areas under the government’s control is a challenge for Nigeria’s authorities.
Since 2015, tens of thousands have fled the group or been captured or rescued by the army. After varying degrees of screening and reintegration support, they live among civilians scarred by the conflict. Many initially faced intense stigma, regardless of their actual commitment to jihadism. That stigma has somewhat subsided as more returnees have arrived, but most former Boko Haram women still suffer ostracism and higher risks of sexual abuse and privation than other displaced women.
Their hardship is a humanitarian concern but also could fuel the conflict: either because they could return to Boko Haram, thus boosting morale and supporting military operations; or because their plight could deter male insurgents inclined to demobilise from doing so. The authorities and aid groups should better protect returnees from abuses, give women and communities more of a say in their resettlement and ensure that aid to women does not provoke a backlash.
Conventional narratives about women and Boko Haram can mislead. Many women were abducted, like the girls from Chibok whose kidnapping by the militants provoked outrage in Nigeria and abroad. But others joined voluntarily.
Some endured terrible abuse while with the group, while others found a sense of fulfilment or belonging.
Apart from female suicide bombers, of whom there are fewer today, most women in Boko Haram committed no act of violence themselves, even if many were complicit in spying, recruitment or coercing other women. Many lived with the militants in fear, but nonetheless enjoyed a reliable food supply, religious education and basic services, including – particularly for those of privileged status – health care. These experiences shaped their expectations of what the state should provide on their return.
Many women associated with Boko Haram suffer considerable hardship on leaving. Their paths out of the insurgency have varied, ranging from escape or rescue to capture or surrender. But whatever their means of departure – and, indeed, no matter whether they were slaves or married to fighters – their life in proximity to the jihadists means that many fellow citizens perceive them as tainted by association. The overt hostility such women encountered in 2015 is waning. But they remain ostracised, their position precarious: unattractive on the marriage market, rejected by relatives, shunned at social gatherings and – without male partners – vulnerable to assault.
The Nigerian authorities’ response has evolved since 2015, when the only alternative to military detention was a small, costly reintegration program. The state now sends women back to civilian life faster, sometimes even forgoing screening (assessment by the authorities as to the danger they pose).
Women may thus miss the chance of receiving counselling or other types of support, but they also spend less time in the hands of security forces or allied vigilantes and militias, which appears to have lessened the scale of abuse that returnees endured in earlier years. Lobbied by human rights groups, the authorities also have taken steps to reduce abuses, while the profusion of humanitarian actors in Borno state has meant greater oversight over the security forces. Nonetheless, sexual exploitation persists: rape still occurs, and many women find themselves forced into “survival sex”, the exchange of sex for protection or resources.
The plight of female returnees is not only a humanitarian concern; if not rectified, it could hinder efforts to end the conflict. Flawed reintegration could force more women to return to the insurgents. Women are a boon to both Boko Haram factions (the group split in 2016) as they can play important support roles for men. Conversely, women who leave Boko Haram could help de-escalate fighting. Their return home could be a litmus test for male fighters, whose defection and reintegration into society is crucial to ending the insurgency. Indeed, in some instances male fighters appear to have explicitly charged wives or sisters to leave and explore prospects for their own demobilisation. If returnee women report fair treatment, they may convince disillusioned insurgents to leave Boko Haram’s ranks.
The federal government, together with authorities in the north-eastern states, in particular Borno, the hardest-hit, should take the following steps:
End abuses. The military’s screening of women emerging from Boko Haram should be professionalised, with clear, standardised assessment criteria and a civilian state body, such as the National Human Rights Commission, providing oversight and minimising the likelihood of mistreatment. Borno state’s State Emergency Management Agency should work with the police, army and Civilian Joint Task Force to shield women from abuse, including by their own staff. They should raise awareness of the seriousness of both rape and sexual exploitation driven by women’s vulnerability, working to create a culture of accountability.
Give women returnees a say in where they resettle. Given continued prejudice, some women may prefer to relocate far from their original homes. The authorities also should give communities in which women will settle the opportunity to voice concerns and discuss how those concerns can be met.
Ensure that aid distribution avoids backlash. Aid providers should avoid targeting only former Boko Haram women, which can stoke resentment among other displaced people or within communities where such women resettle. Moreover, given that many in the north east see programs that empower women as neglectful of men, aid providers should continue to ensure they do not pass over unmarried young men and elderly men when distributing food, as has happened in the past.
Allocate more money for the internally displaced, including women returnees, and for regional development more broadly. In 2019, according to the UN, 7.1 million people (2.3 million girls, 1.9 million boys, 1.6 million women and 1.3 million men) in north-eastern Nigeria relied on humanitarian aid. Local authorities badly need funds to meet their needs. Particularly important are funds for education, which returnees value and are critical to the north east’s recovery.
These measures in themselves will not end the crisis in Nigeria’s north east. As a forthcoming Crisis Group report on one Boko Haram faction, now calling itself the Islamic State West Africa Province, will detail, doing so requires President Muhammadu Buhari’s government to look beyond the military campaign, step up efforts to fill gaps in its provision of basic services that militants increasingly exploit to win support, while avoiding tactics that risk harming civilians. But by helping women who have left Boko Haram return to civilian life in safety and dignity, the authorities can lower risks that those women return to the insurgents’ ranks and potentially encourage further demobilisation, including among male militants. Increasing support for people displaced by the conflict and more generally for the north east’s development can help repair the frayed relations between state and society in north-eastern Nigeria that have fuelled the insurgency.
Abuja/Dakar/Brussels, 21 May 2019