This think-piece discusses findings from a recent field trip to Maiduguri in northeast Nigeria related to my research project supported by the African Peacebuilding Network.1In commemoration of 16 Days of Activism 2018 and in remembrance of the 125 women and girls reported as brutally gang-raped in Sudan earlier this month, this piece draws renewed attention to female vulnerability to sexual violence during conflict and the urgent need for informed and coordinated interventions. It explores an ongoing crisis of sexual violence that is prolonging the war on the bodies and psyches of women and girls. My intention is not to essentialize the victimhood of women and girls in this war. Rather, I seek to redirect attention toward a multifaceted threat with wide-ranging, long-term implications for the conflict-affected region of northeast Nigeria.

Understanding the Roots of Sexual Violence in a Time of War

The escalation of sexual violence against at least 6535 women and girls across the northeast has complex dimensions.2This figure is disaggregated into rape/other sexual assault, survival sex and early/forced marriage. Borno alone accounts for 590 of 1174 or 50% of rape cases and 863 of 1538 or 56% of survival sex incidents. Source: North East Nigeria Vulnerability Screening Report June 2016. The breakdown of SGBV committed by perpetrators is 27.3% unknown, 17.8% police and army, 15.4% intimate partners and 5.8% relatives. UNFPA, 2018, Sexual and Gender-based Violence Assessment in North-East Nigeria. Although it is difficult to distill the exact causes of sexual violence, even against children as young as three months old, it is possible to pinpoint several underlying factors, such as the continued indifference towards gender inequality, discrimination against women and girls, poverty, and a tolerance of gender-based violence across Nigeria. Misogyny is arguably more pronounced in parts of the northeast where girls are discouraged from going to school and married off as young brides to much older men.

Rape as a Weapon of War

Boko Haram fighters have abducted thousands of women and girls since 2009. Many abductees have been systematically abused and raped. There are reports of abducted women being forcefully impregnated while in captivity as part of the group’s effort to reproduce itself. In the context of a violent conflict in which many children have lost one or both parents, been displaced, abducted, and killed, girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence while boys are susceptible to its normalization as a weapon of control. The absence of male relatives is particularly significant in a culture where men typically serve as breadwinners and guardians of women and girls. Social norms and family structures have been further undermined by cases where sons are induced or forced to rape their own mothers—a deliberate terrorist tactic to alienate recruits from existing social networks.

Widespread poverty, relative deprivation, and the collapse of family structures in many conflict-affected communities have spawned a “sex-for-food” economy, particularly in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host communities. Women in one IDP group interview told me they had not seen or heard from their husbands in over three years and did not know their whereabouts. They survive by selling crafts and working menial jobs that either pay as little as a few hundred nairas or do not pay cash but offer tiny food portions for several hours’ work in Maiduguri’s scorching heat. This situation has been compounded by inadequate relief measures, further hampered the diversion of relief goods by a few unscrupulous relief workers who collude with community leaders and members.

A Deeply-Rooted Culture of Silence

The silence surrounding sexual violence in Borno makes it difficult to investigate and prosecute rapes in an environment of violent conflict. The shame and stigma associated with abuse and the preoccupation with preserving individual and family dignity, as well as the marriage prospects of abused girls and young women, prevents victims from reporting to the police. Non-reporting and non-prosecution of such abuses make it difficult to accurately assess the full extent of sexual violence across the different spaces that women occupy.

“A Protection Gap is Evident”

Three UN special rapporteurs who visited Maiduguri in January 2016 concluded that internally displaced women and girls faced a “protection gap.” The protection deficit persists despite improvements in provisioning and bridging access gaps since 2016. There is a need for better coordination of the resourcing of the activities of all organizations working in the area of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This includes the N3lewa Centre (a Kanuri word meaning “wellbeing”)—the only sexual assault referral center in Borno—established in Maiduguri in February 2018.

Amnesty International, female IDPs, and women activists have reported rape committed by Nigerian soldiers. These assaults are said to have occurred while women and girls were returning from captivity and during detention in military and IDP camps. While this cannot be said to be characteristic of Nigeria’s military, it evidences the re-victimization of women and girls by a matrix of people, including humanitarian and emergency management workers, mandated to protect them. The army has denied the rapes and the government has reportedly declared several Amnesty International staff personae non gratae for reporting them, further narrowing survivors’ already limited access to justice and support.

Eroding Masculinities?

Several respondents indicated a “crisis of masculinity” among men accustomed to providing for their immediate and extended families but who now live in IDP camps and depend on the goodwill of others in order to eat. This has resulted in higher levels of domestic violence and increased use of illicit drugs and aphrodisiacs by men to increase their libido and sexual prowess in a bid to prove their virility.

The Implications

For survivors, the physiological effects of SGBV include illness or even death, unwanted pregnancies that may end in infanticide (as has occurred in at least one IDP camp in Maiduguri), and health complications like fistula. 3Susan McKay, “The Effects of Armed Conflict on Girls and Women,” Peace and Conflict 4, no. 4 (1998):381–392. Psychosocial consequences include trauma, mental illness, flashbacks and nightmares, and drug addiction. In addition, social stigma, dislocation, and rejection by communities and families can impede survivors’ ability to function normally. A fractured society increases the vulnerability of children living at the margins to crises of identity.

SGBV in Borno: The Need for Holistic Responses

Women activists and, more recently, networks of local and international humanitarian organizations have worked individually and collectively, often at personal risk and with very limited resources, to secure justice and support for survivors. Yet the scale of sexual abuse outweighs the scope of the response. To further strengthen the capacity to respond, I recommend that the federal government and state governments in the northeast should:

  • review the various crisis response laws and regulations to make gender and SGBV more integral to all frameworks,
  • ensure independent investigations into abuses of power and violations of displaced persons, especially women and girls,
  • work toward understanding intricate traditional leadership systems, especially those led by women, and integrate them into ongoing SGBV responses, and
  • work with traditional women leaders, civil society, and other organizations to expand sexual assault referral centers and mechanisms.

Furthermore, humanitarian and civil society sectors should:

  • improve coordination and funding of multipartite humanitarian response mechanisms
  • engage in strong awareness and prevention campaigns, particularly in communities outside urban areas, and
  • document progress in order to determine what works and what does not.

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