The recent Boko Haram abduction of 110 schoolgirls in Dapchi, Nigeria, drew immediate comparisons to the 2014 abduction of more than 270 girls from a school in Chibok. Beyond the media spotlight, what do we know about Boko Haram’s efforts to abduct — and recruit — women and girls?
A lot of the media reporting on Boko Haram misses the roles of women and girls in this conflict. As I describe in my book, “Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses,” though thousands of girls have been abducted by the insurgents, many others joined voluntarily.
Media reporting puts Boko Haram in the global spotlight
In the Dapchi and Chibok abductions, insurgents seized scores of schoolgirls. Their families were subjected to an array of conflicting statements and harassment from the government, which eventually confirmed that, yes, the girls had been abducted. These abductions rebut the Nigerian government’s repeated claims that it has defeated Boko Haram.
The Chibok abductions, which spurred the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, thrust the fight against Boko Haram into the global spotlight and brought in billions of dollars in military assistance from Western donors to address the conflict in the Chad Basin. The Nigerian government entered into negotiations with Boko Haram insurgents for the release of more than 100 of the girls, in exchange for millions of dollars and the release of several detained Boko Haram insurgent leaders.
But there’s more to this conflict than what appears in media reports. Abductions of both boys and girls are a part of Boko Haram’s operational profile. And there are myriad reasons women and girls join the insurgency of their own volition.
Boko Haram’s practice of kidnapping is much bigger than Chibok
Though it was the Chibok abductions that first brought to light Boko Haram’s practice of kidnapping, the group began making such threats in 2012. In a video released in January of that year, Abubakar Shekau, the group’s leader, threatened “to kidnap the wives of government officials in response to the government imprisoning the wives of Boko Haram members.”
In a video released in September 2012, he taunted viewers: “Since you are now holding our women … just wait and see what will happen to your own women … to your own wives according to sharia law.”
Boko Haram began conducting mass kidnappings following these declarations. Chitra Nagajaran writes that girls were abducted from “schools, markets, during raids on villages and houses and on public transport.”
Boko Haram also committed mass abductions of other women and girls, and there are estimates that the group has abducted as many as 10,000 boys. These boys often serve as fighters — but also are tasked with nonviolent activities such as chores and driving. None of these reports received the attention of the Chibok school raid. Understanding Boko Haram abductions as a rare occurrence, or one that targets only girls, is a wild misrepresentation of the situation.
Not all women in Boko Haram were abducted
It’s undeniable that Boko Haram has abducted thousands of women and girls. Still others joined voluntarily or as a result of the same sort of coercion that men who joined faced. In the research I did for my book, the women who spoke to me often reported that they joined the insurgency because of the material benefits.
Many of the women I interviewed were undergoing a reintegration program in Maiduguri, a midsize city in Borno state, the same state where Chibok is located. These women reported that they joined Boko Haram because of the educational opportunities that the group provided. For many, the insurgents’ near-daily Quranic education was the most consistent access to schooling that they’d had.
Others reported that they joined for money: When they married a Boko Haram fighter, they received their bride price directly, rather than see it paid to their families. A bride price is the money and goods a future husband provides to a woman’s family, which is generally necessary for the marriage to take place. Some of the women bragged about the composition of their bride prices — with one woman boasting that her bride price included euros.
Other women reported that they joined voluntarily because of Boko Haram’s practice of purdah. The practice, also known as “wife seclusion,” involves the avoidance of “public contact.” In the system, a woman’s activities are purposefully designed to limit exposure to the world beyond her home. Women “occupy themselves with household duties and child care,” and are free “from the backbreaking labour of agricultural work and the fetching of firewood and water that occupies most women in rural northeast Nigeria,” anthropologist Scott MacEachern writes in the Globe and Mail.
According to MacEachern, the practice has long historical roots in the region, dating to before the 19th century, and now has strong class connotations. Though it may seem counterintuitive, by joining one of the world’s most lethal and reviled armed groups, women in the Chad Basin can elevate their social status in ways that may previously have been impossible.
Once they join Boko Haram, women play a variety of roles in the insurgency. Nagajaran, for instance, notes that women in the group engage in active fighting, help the group recruit new members, socialize new women and girls into the group, make bombs and serve as suicide bombers.
Though the plight of the girls abducted by Boko Haram is wrenching and attention-grabbing, the disproportionate media attention these events receive obscures similar violence against men and boys in the region and distorts our understanding of what roles women and girls play in the conflict. Many women have been victims of the insurgency, while some have been complicit in the group’s terrorism. Global attention to the abductions of Nigeria’s schoolgirls hopefully can give rise to a broader conversation about the variety of roles that women play in Boko Haram.
Hilary Matfess is a PhD student at Yale University and the author of “Women and the War on Boko Haram.” Follow her on Twitter @HilaryMatfess.