(London) – Women and girls abducted by the Islamist group Boko Haram are forced to marry, convert, and endure physical and psychological abuse, forced labor, and rape in captivity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The group has abducted more than 500 women and girls since 2009, and intensified abductions since May 2013, when Nigeria imposed a state of emergency in areas where Boko Haram is most active.
The 63-page report, “‘Those Terrible Weeks in Their Camp’: Boko Haram Violence against Women and Girls in Northeast Nigeria,” is based on interviews with more than 46 witnesses and victims of Boko Haram abductions in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states, including with girls who escaped the April 2014 abduction of 276 girls from Chibok secondary school. Their statements suggest that the Nigerian government has failed to adequately protect women and girls from a myriad of abuses, provide them with effective support and mental health and medical care after captivity, ensure access to safe schools, or investigate and prosecute those responsible for the abuses.
“The Chibok tragedy and #BringBackOurGirls campaign focused much-needed global attention to the horrific vulnerability of girls in northeastern Nigeria,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the Nigerian government and its allies need to step up their efforts to put an end to these brutal abductions and provide for the medical, psychological, and social needs of the women and girls who have managed to escape.”
In addition to speaking to women and girls who had been abducted, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed social workers, members of Nigerian and international nongovernmental organizations, diplomats, journalists, religious leaders, and state and federal government officials.
The April 14 abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, a rural town in Borno State, was the biggest single incident of abductions by Boko Haram. However, Boko Haram has abducted numerous other people, both before and since Chibok. The relative ease with which Boko Haram carried out the Chibok abductions seems to have emboldened it to step up abductions elsewhere.
Nigerian Chief of Defense Staff Alex Badeh announced on October 17 a ceasefire agreement between Nigeria and Boko Haram. Hassan Tukur, an aide to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, reported that there was also an agreement for the release of the girls who had been taken from Chibok. Coordinator of the National Information Center, Mike Omeri, however, later said that the schoolgirls' release was still under negotiation.
While Boko Haram has taken some victims arbitrarily, it seems to target students and Christians, in particular. The group threatens victims with whipping, beating, or death unless they convert to Islam, stop attending school, and wear the veil or hijab. Boko Haram translates roughly from the Hausa language as “Western education is forbidden” religiously.
A 19-year-old secondary school student in Konduga, Borno State, told Human Rights Watch that when armed Boko Haram insurgents stopped the vehicle in which she and five other female students were traveling home from school in January, one of the insurgents shouted, “Aha! These are the people we are looking for. So you are the ones with strong heads who insist on attending school when we have said ‘boko’ is ‘haram.’ We will kill you here today.”
The students were held in the insurgents’ camp deep within the 518-square-kilometer Sambisa forest for two days. They were released after they pretended to be Muslims and pledged never to return to school. The young women have not returned to school, swelling the already large number of students who drop out of secondary school in northeast Nigeria. Other women and girls were abducted from their homes and villages, or while working on their farms, fetching water, or selling items on the street.
In the wake of the high-profile Chibok abduction, the Federal and state governments in Nigeria set up funds for the 57 students who escaped Boko Haram, with support from international agencies and foreign governments. The funds, however, appear not to have widely benefitted the many other victims of Boko Haram abuses. None of the other women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch had received or was aware of any government-supported mental health or medical care. Many fear discussing the trauma they endured.
“The survivors of Boko Haram’s violence should not be shamed and frightened into silence,” Bekele said. “It is Boko Haram that should be ashamed of the abuses they commit against women and girls in their extreme interpretation of religious text.”
Before mid-2013, Boko Haram had abducted a small number of individual women and girls, either from their homes or the street in the group’s then-stronghold of Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, or in Damaturu, the capital of Yobe State. In the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, Boko Haram abducted married women as punishment for not supporting the group’s ideology, and took unmarried women and girls as brides after insurgents hastily offered a dowry to the families, who feared retaliation if they resisted.
After the Nigerian government imposed a state of emergency in May 2013 on Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states, Boko Haram began to increasingly target vulnerable groups, including women, children, students, and residents of rural communities. The group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, warned that his fighters would retaliate against the family members of Nigerian security forces, who had arrested and detained the insurgents’ wives and children. On May 7, 2013, for example, insurgents seized four women and eight children from a police barrack in Bama, Borno State.
Human Rights Watch estimates that, since 2009, more than 7,000 civilians have been killed in hundreds of Boko Haram attacks in northeast Nigeria and the federal capital, Abuja. At least 4,000 of those deaths occurred between May 2013 and September 2014. Evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch strongly indicates that the situation in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states, especially Borno State, constitutes an armed conflict to which international humanitarian law – also known as the laws of war – applies.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented widespread abuses by the Nigerian security forces in responding to Boko Haram attacks. Since 2009, security forces have used excessive force, burned homes, physically abused residents, “disappeared” victims, and extrajudicially killed people suspected of supporting Boko Haram.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the Nigerian government could have averted some of Boko Haram’s damage if security forces had acted on information provided by residents about recent, or even impending, attacks. Security forces, witnesses said, seemed to be overwhelmed, either because of an inadequate number of troops or an insufficient supply of ammunition.
Nigerian authorities should urgently provide adequate measures to protect vulnerable communities, including ensuring children safe schools and the right to education, and ensuring victims of abduction and other violence access to medical and mental health services, Human Rights Watch said.
Nigerian authorities should also investigate and prosecute, based on international fair trial standards, those who committed serious crimes during the conflict, including Boko Haram, members of the security forces and pro-government vigilante groups.
“Abuses by Boko Haram and inadequate responses by the government are leaving many people in northern Nigeria beset by fear and anguish,” Bekele said. “The government and its allies need to step up their protection, support services, and prosecutions of abuses on both sides to stop this cycle of terror.”