“Gender has always been a component of the way [Boko Haram] violence has happened, and it’s become more explicitly so”

This post is part of a series of interviews with subject matter experts on the northeast of Nigeria and the ongoing militant violence. TAP hopes these interviews will contribute to an issue-driven conversation on what relevant actors in the region can do to help stop the violence and improve well-being of Nigerians living in violence-prone areas.

Elizabeth Pearson is a gender and extremism analyst who is studying towards a PhD at King’s College London on gender norms in Jihadi and counter-Jihadi radicalisation. and a member of the Nigerian Security Network. She co-wrote a report titled, “Women, Gender and the evolving tactics of Boko Haram,” Journal of Terrorism Research, Volume 5, Issue 1, February 2014. This report addresses an under-researched aspect of Boko Haram’s activities: gender-based violence (GBV) and its targeting of women. It argues that 2013 marked a significant evolution in Boko Haram’s tactics, with a series of kidnappings, in which one of the main features was the instrumental use of women. In this interview, Pearson puts the well-known abduction of over 200 girls in Chibok Local Government Area spurned the #BringBackOurGirls protests in Nigeria and elsewhere in context. She discusses the ways in which gender-based violence has featured in the ongoing insurgency on the part of both the military and the militants, the ways in which Muslim and Christian women have been treated durning the violence by the militant group, and the ways in which the government can help communities affected by the violence in the remote communities affected by the violence.

Thanks so much Liz for agreeing to speak with me. Now, following the really illuminating report that you did on gender based violence about these women and the ongoing insurgency in the north-eastern part of Nigeria, I have just a few questions, starting with this one.

Do you reckon that gender based violence is a mere by-product of Boko Haram’s larger strategy in the North East, or is it part and parcel of their strategy?

I would say it is part and parcel of its strategy. It’s really integral to what’s going on in terms of the ideology which is very strongly gendered partly because of the insistence and the desire for Sharia law, which has very codified and very distinct ideas about the roles that men and women should have. So, the ideology is part of why it is integral, but more recently, there has been a real directive from Shekau in terms of abductions of women. Since 2012, there’s been a specific directive about abducting women which has really sort of ratcheted this up. Gender has always been a component of the way violence has happened and it’s become more explicitly so since its leader Mohammed Shekau has ordered and threatened the abduction of women, which began in 2012, and has been happening for the past years more than now.

There is a lot that has been said about #BringBackOurGirls, but it is really just one instance of abduction and gender-based violence. That was something that really came through in your report and also even in response to the first question. I was just wondering if you could help put what happened in Chibok in context, how many girls have been previously kidnapped, what has been the fate of these girls that have experienced the violence, how have they fared?

Well, I think why [what happened in Chibok] has been so shocking and why it has made headlines and rightly so around the world is because of the numbers of girls taken. But yes, women living in the north-eastern part of Nigeria have known for some time that they are vulnerable to being kidnapped and abducted by Boko Haram. These abductions started in 2013. Now, up until Chibok, the numbers that were taken in any one case were much smaller, so anything from around a dozen to twenty women were taken at a time in attacks that really weren’t so widely reported but that people knew where happening. One of the hostage negotiators Steven Davis has been speaking about how many girls and women he thinks has been taken in total, and he guesses that perhaps as many again have been taken by Boko Haram. So that’s a lot of women and girls.

Women have been released in prisoner exchanges with the Nigerian government, so some of them have been unharmed and have spoken to the press. Not Chibok girls now, but other women that have been taken have been bartered successfully with the Nigerian government. This obviously makes taking girls a successful strategy for Boko Haram. There are other girls that have escaped. There are certain parts of northeast Nigeria, which has been more affected than the others. Gwoza is one region where quite a lot or perhaps dozens of young Christian women have been taken in raids to go with them, to look after them, to cook, to clean and forcing them to convert to Islam. If they are Christians, they are forcing them to marry, raping the women in some cases and beating them. There was quite a well reported case of a young girl who is nineteen years old; she is a Christian teenager who had escaped from one such group. She had been with them for a few months,and she described being beaten and forced to convert to Islam, so we know from women who have either been freed or who have escaped what kinds of circumstances that they are been held in.

Ok. Would you say that there has been a marked difference between the soldiers and the Boko Haram’s use of women in the ongoing conflict? Not to try to imply that you know soldiers and Boko Haram are the same, or try to put them in the same box. I was just wondering if how women are used in the conflict differs from both sides.

It’s difficult to equate what Boko Haram are doing with what the Nigerian government are doing. They are two; one is a violent really very brutal and insurgency, the other is trying to combat that insurgency but it’s unfortunate that women have been caught up in this conflict and treated in comparable ways by both sides and they have been used as a way of attacking the other side. So, Boko Haram have been abducting women and they haven’t stopped doing this even since Chibok. Ever since the world’s focus has been on Nigeria, they have kept going. Partly as way of saying even though the world’s eyes are upon us, we are going to keep going with this and unfortunately the Nigerian government know that the police have been arresting and detaining the wives and family members of Boko Haram including one of Shekau’s own wives and that began in November 2011. And this is something that Shekau appears to have taken very personally, because it is something that he repeatedly referred to in video messages throughout 2012 before kidnapping really started in 2013. So it seems that if it was a strategy to try and get Boko Haram to the negotiating table, to try to get them to admit defeat didn’t really work. None of those Boko Haram women have been charged with anything and some of them have been released and exchanged. So there’s a similarity there and that women are been used by both sides as a way like pawns in this conflict as a way of attacking, each attacking the other side.

Thanks for that. You go into some details as to how Boko Haram has targeted Christian women and girls and even in response to the previous question, you went into some details about how Christian women and girls have been affected in the report that you wrote. It talked about the police’s barracks assault in Bama in February 2013, and chronicling the violence against women up until now. Would you say that Muslim women are not targeted by Boko Haram? I mean, are they being spared you know just as curious as to how you see in your analysis, how you see if there’s been a difference between the way Muslim women have been affected and Christian women have been affected by the ongoing violence in the North East.

I think it’s fair to say that there has been for sometime, a marked gender based violence directed at Christian women because of their faith. So for some time, Christian women have been forced to convert, they have been targeted for not wearing Islamic clothing they have been abused and harassed because of their faith in a way that Muslim women have not experienced. But it’s not the case that Muslim women are not also targeted. Boko Haram is very definite that moderate Muslims who do not buy into their ideology are also fair targets. Now Boko Haram has been treating men and women differently in its raids. There have been a number of cases where they have, for example, attacked colleges and attacked colleges accommodation and they have killed the men with no mercy. They have been completely brutal. There was a case earlier this year at a college where men were locked into dormitories, the dormitories set on fire, and those men trying to escape through the windows had their throats slit and that was an instance in which women were abducted alongside. There have been cases of where Muslim women and Christian women have been separated out into two groups and where Christian women have been attacked and raped and Muslim women have been “spared”. So, there is a difference in a way the women are treated in the attacks, and Muslim women and Christian women are treated in attacks. Certainly that’s true, but I think anybody who disagrees with Boko Haram is not treated leniently. It would be wrong to characterize all of the violence happening as being carried out by Boko Haram insurgents has something to do with religion. There are also more complicated factors that come into this. There is evidence that ethnicity is the basis for attacks. There is also struggle over resources and some of the attacks are purely criminal it would seem, so not every Boko Haram insurgent is fighting for an ideology. So I think that important to flag up as well. Although Boko Haram have a religious ideology, have an Islamist ideology a lot of the violence is caused by other factors that are not to do with religion.

I thought it was really important to really bring those points out, and I am glad you answered the questions and so specifically as well because one of the more troubling things that happened, is the whispers about how a lot of these girls are Christians and the question of the religion you know coming out as a talking point. In your paper, you also made a point that gender-based violence encompasses violence aimed at boys as well. In what way would you say that Boko Haram has targeted boys?

Well, they don’t see women as combatants they are targeting them as they are using them as recruits coerced into violence sometimes, coerced into joining insurgency where perhaps they don’t want to, paid sometimes to carry out attacks and treated with a greater degree of ruthlessness. They are more likely to be killed during attacks where women are sometimes “spared”. It is not to say that Boko Haram does not kill women. It does but men specifically in raids are more likely to be killed. We have seen more instances of Boko Haram maltreating women in different ways, but letting them live.

Some of the fathers of the over 200 abducted girls from Chibok Local Government in Borno State have come to the #BringBackOurGirls sit-ins that have been arranged in solidarity with them. I have spoken to some of the family members, and I remember this one father talking about how a lot of the family of the girls left are no longer lucid. One would see a mother on the street asking strangers, “that have you seen my daughter?” We are still very much in the thick of it, but I wonder if it is too soon to think about what can be done to rehabilitate people who managed to escape Boko Haram’s captivity, and I don’t know if you can give some examples of working with other countries to bring about reintegration and counselling on this sort of scale.

Liz: I can’t begin to imagine what people in Chibok and so many other parts of Northern Nigeria are going through when they loose groups of young women to Boko Haram. It is unimaginable and they clearly need support and they need help and they need to get the girls back. People who are living with the threat of random attack in parts of Nigeria which are unable to be policed, so it seems the courage that it just takes to go about their everyday lives is phenomenal and it is fantastic you are talking to people and you are documenting peoples’ stories. Other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, other countries in the world have been dealing with conflict, they have been dealing with unfortunately similar cases of the adoption of the rape, of the salient excess slavery of young women of young men in Mozambique, in Sierra Leone, in Rwanda, in Uganda and in Somalia. These kinds of activities are all known, they are all experienced, and in those countries, there have been efforts to try and help people recover from the awful things that they are put through.

I know that UNICEF is doing well with NGO’s in Somalia, there has been a really fantastic program by World Vision Children of War Rehabilitation Centre in Uganda helping young children who are abducted by Joseph Konye into the LRA Lord’s resistance army. There have been doing that work for some years, there is hope, there is hope that peoples’ lives can be turned around, and there are plenty of people out there who have experienced this. So it can possibly be too soon for Nigeria to begin to learn from this. I know that there have been calls from American lawmakers in Nigeria to set up funds to try and help people. People have been incredibly proactive in Nigeria, protest moves against the adoption led by women in Nigeria has been huge, and has had a knock on effect all over the world there is the willingness that it’s just a question of getting the resources to try and help people in terms of counselling.

I think that the Nigerian government is aware of the problem there was the whole world after the ending sexual violence in conflict, summit in London recently, knows what the damages that can been done. Nigeria has a national action plan on safeguarding women in conflict [the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325] and that action plan in Nigeria was launched in summer 2013 and that action plan talked about, it was aware of the threat to women kidnapped in the some of the Northern region. So there is awareness, there is a need and there is a question of providing the resources, the facilities for people to get help and hopefully that’s something that would be, you know better than I, I’m sure, what help is going on for people hopefully that will be something that is really been invested in the future because there is obviously a need.

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