Nigerian women, who suffer most from poverty, climate change and violence, are valuable agents of change. Why is this not recognised?
The displacement crisis in Nigeria underlines the intersection between peace, security, and gender. In June 2016, International Organisation for Migration statistics revealed that over 2 million Nigerians have been forced to flee their homes.
But this intersection is not apparent without considering the systemic issues affecting the country. 60% of Nigerians are living in extreme poverty, lacking water and economic livelihoods; 70% of this demographic are women and girls.
According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), 59.5 million persons have been displaced globally. It is estimated that Sub-Saharan Africa, including Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria, account for about 17%. The statistics reveal that 3.7 million are refugees and 11.4 million are internally displaced people of which 4.5 million were newly displaced in 2014.
Food insecurity, environmental degradation and violence
Northern Nigeria is characterised by semi-arid land with rainfall of less than 600 millimetres yearly, making it the lowest in the Sahel belt of the African continent. This affects the biodiversity of the soil. Agriculture is centred in northern Nigeria and accounts for 42% of national GDP. 80% of north Nigerians are involved in pastoralism and crop production. However, this region of the country remains the least infrastructural and economically efficient.
Coupled with the high rates of poverty in the region, violent attacks from the Boko Haram terrorist group have led to the destruction of property and lands for crop cultivation in Northern Nigeria. This has resulted in immense food insecurity and low food production, causing many farmers to flee their homes. They reman unwilling to return home due to the fear of violence.
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the violence in north-eastern Nigeria by Boko Haram has affected food availability and access to farmlands. It is estimated by the organization that about 900,000 lack the ability to meet their basic food needs and 3.9 million are in need of food support, with Borno state accounting for 60% of these vulnerable households.
The violent attacks on land and property in the country have exacerbated the impact of climate change. The violence of Boko Haram is also fuelling climate change in the form of environmental degradation across the region and further stressing already scarce resources such as food and water.
Women at the frontline of change
The effects of both ongoing violence and ecological destruction in the region have revealed gendered dimensions. Women have been deeply affected by the violent crisis in northern Nigeria and constitute a large portion of displaced persons (53%) across the region.
Despite the patriarchal nature of societies across northern Nigeria, women in the region have played an active role in the campaign and fight against Boko Haram. Women have positioned themselves at the forefront of protests against the insurgent group, especially in Abuja and Borno, where they have played an important role as vocal agents of change through political action and protests. This was seen notably in April 2014, after Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Chibok schoolgirls, when a ‘Million Woman March’ was organised in Abuja.
Women under the aegis of Concerned Mothers of Borno have also been actively involved in the march for peace in the region since as early as 2009. The group was formed by Borno women in the state capital, Maiduguri. Vigilante groups such as the Civilian Joint Task Force in Maiduguri have also been involved in the battle to oust Boko Haram insurgents. Almost 50 women are among the 10,000 member group.
Narratives gathered from Ishaya Ibrahim and Sadia Ismail, who I met during my time in Nigeria, show that women have played other important roles both during the violent crisis and while in displacement. According to Ishaya, who had fled from violence in Borno state:
“They [Boko Haram] arrived [at Chibok] on motor bikes and started to attack churches, targeting the doors. They separated the men from the women. All the women were taken outside while all 43 men remained in the church. They killed all of them. Some of the men were beheaded while others were shot. After that, they rode around with their bikes looking for other men hiding or running. The women had to carry and bury the dead men’s corpses.”
Ishaya’s account illustrates the roles that women are forced to adopt in times of violence and disaster. Many women, especially widows, have been forced to rise to the occasion, taking leadership roles in the family and the community, and making difficult and painful decisions after carrying and burying the corpses of their dead brothers, fathers and husbands.
Sadia Ismail has worked with the Ace Charity Foundation in Abuja and volunteered as a teacher for children residing in the Area 1 camp in Abuja from July 2015 to January 2016. During this period, she taught mathematics, English and social/emotional development. She is also one of the millions who migrated away from the north-east to seek refuge in more peaceful areas of the country.
Before moving to Abuja, she lived with her husband and in-laws in Gwoza local government area in Borno state, when they were left with no choice. On a Tuesday evening in August 2014, violence and gunshots from Boko Haram forced many to flee for their safety. The attack displaced her and her family for days.
“The men had to hide in a big rock [cave] in the outskirts of Gwoza because the Boko Haram attackers were killing and kidnapping any of the men they could find. Because of this, women had to take food to the men in the rock everyday.”
Sadia’s story shows how women have been placed in situations where they have no choice but to demonstrate their capacity for adaption in times of severe insecurity. The location of the men’s hideout was in the mountains at the outskirts of Gwoza local government area, bordering Adamawa state. The area is characterised by hills and mountains which have been notorious hideouts for Boko Haram insurgents since 2009. This causes a serious security issue for women migrating back and forth in order to gather food for their men.
Similarly, many women, especially those who have returned from the captivity of Boko Haram, are stigmatised and their children – born as a result of their forced marriage to insurgents – are considered as ‘bad blood’ in their home communities. In addition, many of these former captives are suffering from psychological distress resulting from the physical, sexual and mental abuse they experienced in captivity.
Unfortunately there continues to be gaps in information and the actual number of abductions and former captives are unknown. The predominance of male officials in camps to talk to makes it harder for internally-displaced women to report any sexual violence they have experienced.
Women as active participants of conflict
As Chitra Nagarajan puts it, “women as victims and survivors of violence is just one side of the story. They are also active participants in both Jamāʻat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-daʻwa wal-Jihād (JAS) and in groups aimed at stopping the sect.”
While women are often seen as victims in cases of conflict and insecurity, it is also important to understand the roles women play in the violence itself. Women in Boko Haram do not merely represent passive apolitical roles but are also capable of being conscious political-religious activists as well. They have also been instrumental in Boko Haram tactics, which have been effective in advancing strikes across the region. Women are rarely suspected and can easily get away with concealing weapons in their clothing.
The faces and voices of returnees have been blurred by the societal stigma associated with the terrorist group.
In a CNN report, an interview with a female former captive of the insurgents revealed that young girls would fight to wear bombs, not because they themselves had become devout to the violent ideology of the sect, but for the hope of escaping the sexual abuse they experienced while in captivity.
The lack of formal statistics on both sexual violence and female combatants is detrimental to the overall strategy of the Nigerian government in combating the crisis. Women’s voices are being heard as protesters and proponents of peace against the conflict, but there is an absence of advocacy for female returnees from Boko Haram and a lack of livelihood opportunities for the internally-displaced who are living in camps. The faces and voices of returnees have been blurred by the societal stigma associated with the terrorist group. This could place women in more vulnerable situations and induce local grievances amongst them, leading to more violence.
It is important for the international community, the Nigerian government and relevant stakeholders to decisively focus on women as valuable agents of change and social mobilisers, with the ability to curb the impacts of violence and also environmental degradation. Women’s plights in displacement must be analysed and addressed with urgency and women must be included in strategising, designing and implementation of interventions.