The rescue by Nigerian security forces of 200 girls and 93 women from a Boko Haram stronghold on Tuesday is a hugely welcome development. I am in Nigeria for a series of meetings this week, and the public sense of relief and pride at their release is palpable. It will take some time for the girls to give a full account of what they endured, and they should be given the privacy and support to do so. But Boko Haram’s track record suggests their experience is likely to have been a highly traumatic one.
Human Rights Watch has interviewed a number of girls who escaped Boko Haram captivity, including some who were seized in the infamous mass kidnapping at Chibok. Their testimony was chilling. They described rape and other sexual violence, physical and psychological abuse, enforced religious conversion, forced marriage and forced labor at the hands of Boko Haram fighters.
More than a year on from Chibok – which provoked global outrage and catalyzed a high-profile international campaign for their rescue, #Bring Back Our Girls - more than 200 girls seized in that incident remain missing. While the “Chibok girls” has become convenient shorthand, Boko Haram’s practice of capturing girls and systematically abusing them is not limited to this one horrific case, and we should not ignore the plight of others or the wider context. The Nigerian military has said, for example, that those rescued this week were not from Chibok. Since 2009, the group has abducted more than 1000 women and girls in Nigeria. Many remain unaccounted for.
President-elect Mohammadu Buhari has committed to improve on the outgoing administration’s sluggish response to the crisis. This is an opportune moment therefore to promote a more comprehensive and effective response to the needs of women and girls in the north-east of the country.
This should include clear protocols for debriefing, transfer and the provision of medical and mental health support to all victims of abduction and other violence, greater security for women and girls, especially in and around schools, increased investment in education, and improved assistance to the estimated 1.2 million Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram violence.
The incoming Nigerian government should also be pressed and supported by its international partners to reform its security forces. The abusive behavior of the Nigerian security forces over many years has been one contributory factor in the radicalization of the region. A more determined commitment to uphold human rights standards would help to marginalize and weaken the extremists and create more favorable conditions for peace, reconciliation and development, not least for women and girls.