Editor’s note: The International Crisis Group’s special report noted that women are streaming home from Boko Haram’s domain in north-eastern Nigeria, with 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 back as…

The post Returning from the Land of Jihad: The Fate of Women Associated with Boko Haram appeared first on Global Sentinel.

Editor’s note: The International Crisis Group’s special report noted that women are streaming home from Boko Haram’s domain in north-eastern Nigeria, with 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 back as well. 

What’s new? The Nigerian military’s battle with Boko Haram has led tens of thousands of women formerly associated with the group to return to government-held towns across the north east. While prejudice against them has waned, many women remain ostracised and exposed to abuse.

Why does it matter? The successful reintegration of former Boko Haram women can send a powerful signal to their fighter husbands, some of whom are eyeing the possibility of their own surrender. Conversely, their mistreatment could not only dissuade men from demobilising but also prompt women to return to the insurgents’ ranks.

What should be done? The Nigerian government should better protect women returnees from sexual and other abuse; give them and communities greater say in their resettlement; avoid aid that targets only Boko Haram-linked women and provokes social discord; and increase funding for the north east’s development, particularly for the education critical to its recovery.

Executive Summary

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 recent Crisis Group report on one Boko Haram faction, now calling itself the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), details, 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

This report focuses exclusively on women associated with Boko Haram who have returned, voluntarily or through military operations, to civilian areas and camps for the internally displaced in Maiduguri state, as well as other local government areas. Because the full and most precise descriptive term for such women – “women associated with Boko Haram” – is cumbersome in such a long report, we have used “returnees” as shorthand. As we hope the report shows, the complexity of this group defies neat description. Some of the women associated with Boko Haram have suffered abuse, and are survivor returnees; some have rejected the group, and are genuinely “formerly associated”; others remained devoted, even if physically delinked from the group, so they are “associates” and “returnees”, at the same time. We are aware that the term “returnee” normally connotes conventional civilian IDPs, rather than those returning from armed groups. But for the purposes of this report, which also highlights the pervasiveness of stigma, it carries a less pejorative tone than “Boko Haram women”, a phrase that also elides the distinctions among the women themselves. Hence we use the term “returnee” throughout, with all the above caveats.


Boko Haram, the jihadist insurgency roiling north-eastern Nigeria since 2009, is back on the offensive. In 2015, the Nigerian military, with the backing of neighbouring countries (Cameroon, Chad and Niger), began mounting a better coordinated campaign and recaptured much of the territory held by the insurgents. But having split in two in 2016, Boko Haram has regained momentum over the past year. One faction, now calling itself the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), has won a string of battles against the Nigerian army. It is building a proto-state on the banks and islands of Lake Chad, filling gaps in service delivery to cultivate civilian support. The second faction, run by Boko Haram’s former leader, Abubakar Shekau, and based mostly in the Sambisa forest and along the Nigeria-Cameroon border, has also scored some recent military successes. A number of towns and villages continue to be wrested back and forth between military and insurgent control. A decade in, the conflict appears unlikely to end any time soon.

Despite its uneven results, the government’s military campaign has produced a stream of returnees from Boko Haram, mostly women and girls, to hometowns and internally displaced person (IDP) camps. At first these women found return very difficult. They were feared as potential terrorists, since Boko Haram had employed women as suicide bombers. They faced intense stigma, particularly if they had given birth to “Boko Haram children”, namely children fathered by jihadists. In 2015, the stigma was so great that aid groups and local NGOs witnessed cases of infanticide: mothers felt their babies stood no chance at social acceptance.

A woman walks near an IDP camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri, capital of Nigeria’s Borno State, in December 2018.CRISISGROUP/Jorge Gutierrez Lucena

Such stigma appears to have diminished but women associated with Boko Haram still feel the sting of social rejection. As ever larger numbers return, the hostility from state and society such women initially encountered has been replaced by a grudging tolerance. Moreover, both ISWAP and Shekau’s faction focus on military targets, so now send fewer women to stage suicide attacks that kill civilians, meaning the stereotype of the female suicide bomber has lost some of its currency. The opprobrium attached to bearing militants’ children has also waned. But many women and girls remain ostracised and dread maltreatment. Though data is insufficient to establish the scale of the trend, some have opted to go back to Boko Haram.

This report looks at the lives of Boko Haram-linked women in IDP camps and other state-controlled locales in north-eastern Nigeria and offers suggestions for easing their predicament. It is based on field research carried out in Nigeria’s federal capital Abuja and in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, in March, October and December 2018. It incorporates the views of Nigerian civil society organisations, including women’s groups, canvassed at an October workshop held in Maiduguri. Interviewees included Boko Haram-affiliated women living in Maiduguri and others living elsewhere in Borno state (arrangements were made to bring them to the state capital), as well as international humanitarian workers, Nigerian government officials, humanitarian agency officers and former diplomats, soldiers and security experts.

II.Many Reasons to Join, Many Ways to Leave

A.Variety of Affiliations

The story of the Chibok girls has long dominated discussions about women and Boko Haram. The insurgents abducted the 276 college girls in 2014, turning them into a global cause célèbre and feeding the notion that most women who interact with the group do so against their will. Many women and girls were indeed captured in raids or inducted into Boko Haram under threat and coercion, and some endured horrific abuse. But as Crisis Group and others have shown, many also have joined Boko Haram voluntarily. Some have done so with family members’ encouragement. Others have simply followed a male family member – a husband, father or brother – or joined to escape arranged marriages. For most women, motives have been a mix of agency and duress, all of which should be viewed through the prism of government neglect and entrenched patriarchy in the north east. Moreover, even among those captured in raids or coerced, some have found belonging and purpose.

Women’s roles and status in the insurgency vary. Some are wives and housekeepers, but many also serve a variety of support roles, including propaganda, trade, logistics and intelligence gathering. With the notable exception of the suicide bombings for which Boko Haram gained notoriety by repeatedly employing girls and women, women associated with the group have rarely been directly involved in combat or perpetrating violence. Women’s status reflects their partners’ seniority and level of ideological commitment. Wives of committed members and fighters, the rijal(“men” in Arabic), enjoyed considerable privilege. Women in families willing to live under the group but not to commit to it were awam (“commoners” in Arabic) subject to taxation and often hard labour. Some captured women as well as men were slaves obliged to work in rijal households.

The variety of roles and degrees of affiliation are important background for understanding the expectations of women returnees and the perceptions of others about them. Even women who left the group of their own volition tend to have higher expectations of civilian life under state authorities than they might have had previously, due to their time with the militants. Returnees often say the Nigerian government comes up short in comparison to Boko Haram, providing less security and education and fewer other services. Many women do say they are relieved to have left, despite the harsh conditions in the camps where they now live. Still, many, even some whom Boko Haram forced to join, feel that they gained opportunities and a sense of empowerment through association with the group.

 Boko Haram’s interpretations of Islamic law upheld some of the rights of wives vis-à-vis their husbands. 

Many women in Nigeria’s north east, where patriarchy runs deep and under-development is acute, saw in Boko Haram a means of access to education (in the form of Quranic teaching), public space (during religious gatherings), and both general and reproductive medical care, sometimes for the first time. The most privileged among them, the wives of the rijal, were spared some or all of the harsh labour demands usually placed on women, particularly in rural areas, thanks to the recourse to awam or slaves. For them in particular, food tended to be plentiful, largely thanks to Boko Haram’s plunder of non-affiliated communities.

For its women members, Boko Haram thus brought both exploitation and opportunity. Many women, including girls as young as twelve, were forced into marriage, sometimes under threat of death, and subsequently subjected to marital rape. But for many others, and even to some of the former, Boko Haram also offered a decent standard of living relative to that they had previously experienced. While many abducted women were coerced into sexual relations with husbands Boko Haram pressed on them, once married they were protected from rape or sexual abuse by others, whether authority figures or strangers. Moreover, Boko Haram’s interpretations of Islamic law upheld some of the rights of wives vis-à-vis their husbands. Indeed, some women interviewed by Crisis Group say they filed for divorce in Boko Haram’s courts when they judged that their husbands – awam and rijal alike – were not fulfilling their obligations.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, given Boko Haram’s infamous hatred of Nigerian state-run education, Boko Haram also met the aspirations of some of its female associates regarding access to education. Many returnees express disappointment that their children have no access to schooling where they live now, whether religion education, which Boko Haram provided, or a basic state curriculum. They recognise that such education is important for their children’s social betterment.

Overall, therefore, women’s reasons for joining the insurgency and their experience within it are varied and complex. Research on Boko Haram tends to cast the decision to join as either a matter of survival or a rebellion against patriarchy. Yet neither characterisation fully captures the interplay of state corruption and neglect, the stunted aspirations of women in the male-dominated north east, and the space afforded by a militant movement that was seen by many as brutal and predatory but by others as offering justice and empowerment.

B.Variety of Returns

The influx of women returning from Boko Haram began with the Nigerian counter-offensive of 2015, when areas that Boko Haram had held for months or years began falling back under government control. The military and associated vigilantes captured many of these women, while others escaped amid the chaos of fighting between the army and militants. The army has transferred most such women to sites in Maiduguri, or to one of the two dozen towns that it reconquered and has been using to host displaced civilians in areas still threatened by Boko Haram in Borno state (known locally as “garrison towns”).

The returnees number at the very least in the tens of thousands – in 2016 alone, the army said it had brought more than 12,000 people back from Boko Haram areas – and seem to be predominantly women and children. Official accounts of army operations mention only minorities of male survivors (less than 20 per cent of the adult survivors in 2016, for instance), whether captured Boko Haram fighters or liberated awam or slaves. Many returnee women suspect that males found in combat zones are either executed or detained, often indefinitely and incognito, in military prisons, and human rights NGOs and other researchers have documented certain cases (the army denies such abuse).

Some women are accidental returnees, finding themselves stuck in government-controlled areas while travelling to trade or get treatment for themselves or their children. Others are caught up in the insurgency’s factional split: some whose husbands left the Shekau faction to join ISWAP are biding their time in camps, waiting to see if their husbands settle in one place, so they can join them. Finally, some work as scouts for men, sent to query the military or humanitarian workers as to whether they could guarantee the men’s safety, were they to surrender.

A further flood of returns likely lies ahead. ISWAP’s expansion in 2018 has brought thousands more civilians under the militants’ control. In early 2019, more than 800,000 people reportedly lived in what are euphemistically called “hard-to-reach areas” – places where state authority is absent and Boko Haram influential. Many women in these areas are not directly associated with the insurgency, but assuming at least some of such areas are recaptured from militants, the state will suspect many of having joined.

III.The Authorities’ Response: Improvement by Default?

A.First Encounters

Women have felt the war’s effects since its beginning. In 2009, at the outset of the insurrection in Maiduguri, the state detained many wives and other female relatives of militants in the city’s jails and military barracks for questioning or as a punitive measure. Boko Haram leaders actually said they began kidnapping civilian women in retaliation, with the aim of securing their relatives’ release. When the returns began in 2015, the military interned hundreds of women at Giwa Barracks, the main army-run prison in Maiduguri, for months on end. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented the dire conditions of detention, including sexual abuse by soldiers. While held at Giwa Barracks, the women underwent interrogation but did not go on trial. The army never made clear what it considered their legal status – material witnesses or militants in their own right – to be.

Members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), a vigilante group with many chapters, including in IDP camps, and whose formation the army strongly encouraged, played a key part in screening detainees to assess if they posed a threat. The CJTF members were locals, which meant they assessed women, at least in theory, largely on the basis of the women’s past personal and familial associations with Boko Haram.The army released some women as a result.

The military and civilian authorities, even after having nominally screened the women, were understandably vexed as to how to deal with them, as their affiliations with Boko Haram were enormously diverse. Some had signed up voluntarily; others had not. Some had participated in the insurgency and its abuses; others had not or had themselves suffered abuse. The authorities also began taking notice of human rights organisations’ criticisms of how they were treating Boko Haram prisoners, male and female.

 [The Safe House experiment] seemed to have little traction with the group in part because of its infantilising premise: that women – and indeed other Boko Haram recruits – were blank slates for brainwashing. 

The Borno state government experimented in 2016 with a pilot program called the Safe House in Maiduguri. State authorities never formally described the program as a “deradicalisation” effort, preferring the euphemistic term “Safe House” (subsequent efforts discussed below have largely used the term “rehabilitation”). But the safe house program involved a former national security adviser who also helped craft the government’s “deradicalisation program”. The house hosted about 36 women, some with children, in good conditions under guard and removed from surviving adult family members. The cohort was diverse, including women married to both senior and low-ranking fighters. For around sixteen months, all received psychosocial support, skills training, lessons in what the state called “moderate Islam” and therapy designed to make them reject Boko Haram’s violence and intolerance. The process involved an assessment by staff of a local NGO, headed by the former national security adviser, of women along a spectrum of zealotry, based on their responses to or views on predetermined questions.

The project was resource-intensive but ultimately not very successful; fourteen of the 36 women reportedly had returned to the insurgents by the end of 2018. While it is impossible to know what proportion of women outside the Safe House return to militancy, it is striking that a program that offered vastly greater support to women than any other circumstance conceivable, whether in IDP camps, host communities or subsequent programs, did not achieve a better outcome.

Critics in Maiduguri who observed the Safe House experiment said its emphasis on reverse indoctrination was both excessive and misguided. The program devoted too little resources and time to training and preparing women to work and support themselves afterward. Instead, it focused closely on seeking to gauge and reverse the women’s ideological fervour, often through discussions of religious scripture. One woman who went through the program mentioned that an expert involved did not speak the local language. “He waved the Quran in the air and asked us to name which were the bad passages”, she said.This approach, which in her eyes insulted scriptural tenets, made her and others distrustful. It overlooked the legitimate political and social grievances that underpinned the group’s appeal. It seemed to have little traction with the group in part because of its infantilising premise: that women – and indeed other Boko Haram recruits – were blank slates for brainwashing.

Meanwhile, the project made few distinctions among the returnees, reportedly housing awam women alongside committed wives of rijal. Keeping Boko Haram members in good conditions also sparked hostility in the neighbourhood and among other IDPs. This animosity, along with keeping the women in detention, albeit relatively comfortable detention, and apart from their families, made it harder to reintegrate them into society.

Credits| Crisis Group

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