Background to the Study

Since 2009, the Boko Haram insurgency and the government’s military response has killed thousands and displaced more than three million people. Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of adults and children. Both Christians and Muslims have been victims of Boko Haram’s brutality. The most well known kidnapping case in international media in recent years is from 2014, where 276 mostly Christian female students were kidnapped from the Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State. Borno State is the epicentre of the Boko Haram insurgency, which has affected northern Nigeria, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.

The North East of Nigeria is a heavily patriarchal society, both in the predominantly Muslim community and in the Christian community. The region’s religious and cultural norms have defined women’s status through reproduction and largely confined them to a domestic role (despite their actual participation in agricultural tasks). Women’s access to education and formal labor market is restricted in a context where men as seen as breadwinners and women as caregivers. Women in the North East do not usually own land or homes which makes them vulnerable in case of divorce or widowhood. Northern women are furthermore politically marginalised. The representation of women in legislative state assemblies in the North East is extremely low. Cultural, religious and legal inequalities combined with poverty, has contributed to further marginalization with high female illiteracy, low school attendance and high rates of child marriage.

This context places restrictions on women’s mobility and plays on conservative gender ideologies, which are further acted on by the insurgency. This complicates peacebuilding and specifically the inclusion of women as full actors in prevention, protection, mediation and peace building including reconstruction.

Insurgency and counter-insurgency have dramatically changed the lives of thousands of women and girls, casting them voluntarily, by force or for lack of other options into new, evolving roles outside the domestic sphere. Some women fight against Boko Haram within local vigilante units, like the kungiyar marhaba (hunters’association) and notably the Borno state-based Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF). Others play critical roles in relief and reconciliation, while many displaced by fighting find themselves with new responsibilities as heads of households.

Despite the changing role of women, they are still largely marginalized from political decision-making processes.

Although northern Nigerian women (Christian as well as Muslim) are often are stereotyped as marginalized and portrayed as victims, the new roles women are taking in the context of violent terrorism is creating counter-narratives were women demonstrate agency through informal peacebuilding activities. Some women courageously buy time for men and boys to escape when Boko Haram attacks their community. They also hide men and boys, including dressing them as women/girls to facilitate their escapes, and smuggle them to safety. Although women have largely been excluded from peacebuilding discussions, women have negotiated with Boko Haram at the local level to have abductees returned and even offered themselves in exchange for their children. Others try to bring Boko Haram and government officials to the negotiating table such as Aisha Wakil and Hamsatu Al Amin have done.

Women in Borno have organised and participated in numerous marches, ralllies, campaigns and protests to draw attention to abuses, demand participation and action for peace. One of the most widespread actions they took involved the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG)campaign. Meant to be a one-day march in 2014 to bring back the Chibok school girls, the movement includes a call to bring all girls and women home. In addition to the work in the North East itself, for the last five years BBOG has held weekly sit in in Abuja, numerous events in Lagos, Ibadan, Kaduna and other cities of Nigeria, as well as mobilising an global virtual campaign. Women’s organisations are also mediating and building community support for returned abductees who are pregnant/having children whose fathers are/were in Boko Haram. There is a stigma, especially for women who have children born to Boko Haram fathers, even if the pregnancy was against their will. This is a major obstacle to reintegration into community life, which women actively work to change.

Advocacy against stigma and reintegration of abductees is a major topic on the agenda inside and outside of the camps, but also other issues are dealt with. These include: economic support for families whose fathers/husbands were killed, injured or missing, as well as humanitarian relief for those displaced in general; organising capacity-building for making a livelihood for women – sometimes being able to include also (very) small capital grants so that the trainees can actually use the capacity building; caring for ‘separated children’ including orphans, and working with ‘gang youth.’ This work is conducted by local women’s organizations such as Women in New Nigeria (WINN), the Borno Women’s Development Initiative, the University of Maiduguri Muslim Women’s Group, the Borno State Christian Association women’s wing, Hope in Legislative for the vulnerable and marginalised, Al Ansar, Hope for All Foundation. Some projects are also carried out by international NGOs active in the area, like the Norwegian Refugee Council and Search for Common Ground.

However, Nigerian women’s organisations, both national and especially state and local community associations, are badly under-resourced. In the current context in Borno state and local women’s organisations were doing the work described above with very small funds, often through donations through connections and contexts. When the INGOs came in, with their donor aid, they were given privileged access to IDP camps and set up their own projects and programmes – often ignoring the work that had been done previously and hiring (at much higher salaries) women to work on the INGO programmes.

The violence and brutality of Boko Haram is a major cause of insecurity, but there is also a growing concern among IDP women in the region regarding sexual exploitation and domestic violence. Household gender relations have changed as women’s economic contributions to household maintenance, to a large extent through informal work, became more clearly needed and more visible. This change in status has led to what a reported increase in violence against women within the household, because men feel their masculinity threatened.

But the violence also extends to the insecurity within the IDP camps. Supposedly a safe haven, corruption in the distribution of limited humanitarian supplies and abuse of power by members of security forces and camp staff inside the government controlled IDP camps renders women vulnerable. Stories emerging from our interviews confirm that security force members too often require sexual ‘favours’ before granting exit passes from camps to women or reduce their misappropriation of food and supplies intended for camp residents. IDP women inside the camps have started to voice their concerns about both coerced sex and ‘sex for money.’

Organisations like Baobab for Women’s Human Rights Borno state branch have taken this up and demanded accountability.

Poverty and inability to procure food for their families also made girls more vulnerable to child marriage and women increasingly vulnerable to solicitation and sexual exploitation in exchange for food or other assistance. Organizations such as the Centre for Women and Adolescents and Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative have been active against domestic violence and child marriage. For example, they try to sensitise the parent in the community on the harmful effects of child marriage, such as negative health consequences. Sensitizing sessions target parents as well as the girls at risk.

Added to that, the legal framework is lacking. None of the six states in the North East geo-political zone have enacted the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, passed at Federal level in 2015, after fourteen years of campaigning nationally by women’s rights and gender activists, including women from North East Nigeria. Legal reform is seen as an important step in protecting women from gender based violence.

Boko Haram has attacked both Christians and Muslims, convincing women’s organizations to combine forces to find ways to create more tolerant communities and build peace. A Network of Civil Society Organizations in Borno State (NECSOB), directed by a woman Fatima Shehu Imam, mobilized along inter-faith lines to provide humanitarian aid and assistance to victims of the insurgency. Women’s organizations throughout the northern states affected by Boko Haram attacks have built alliances across religious differences, including to protest abduction of girls and women.

Indeed, working across sectarian divides had long been a strategy of the women’s movement – both at national level as with their participation in the Legislative Advocacy Coalition Against Violence Against Women, for the passage of the 2015 Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (VAPP), and at state level in continuing to push for local state adoption of the federal VAPP Act, and, in peace work, for example, Borno state was the first to develop a State Action Plan for the implementation of UNSCR 1325 on ensuring women’s participation in peace-making. In all of these women in the North East (as elsewhere in Nigeria) have come together across religious and other identity lines to defend and promote women’s rights.