Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Listening to the stories of Boko Haram’s wives

Boko Haram has abducted women and girls for use as maids, wives, and spies. Speaking to the survivors is not easy.

Umar Ahmad Umar
17 July 2019, 7.00am
Two women who were kidnapped by Boko Haram and forced to marry insurgents.
Kristin Palitza/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

My name is Umar Ahmad Umar. I work with the Development Research and Project Center (dRPC) in Nigeria, an intermediary non-profit established to strengthen the capacity within civil society organisations and government agencies to work together for inclusive development. The dRPC was founded in 1994 in Kano State, northern Nigeria. Our work focuses on public health; girls' education; gender-based violence; and faith and development. Policy and participatory research are central to all dRPC's projects.

Most recently, the dRPC has conducted research on: child marriage in West Africa (Ford Foundation 2013); the capacity of civil society organisations in Nigeria; radicalisation, counter radicalisation and deradicalisation in the northeast Nigeria; and the implementation of Sharia in northern Nigeria.

The dRPC is one of the 10 organisations and institutions partnering with the Conjugal Slavery in War (CSiW) project. In this project, we document cases of forced marriage in conflict situations in northeast Nigeria. The dRPC is also tracking initiatives that seek redress for victims of Boko Haram (BH) through either international prosecution or local reparations programmes. In its work for the CSiW project, dRPC has interviewed numerous survivors of forced marriage and rape at the hands of BH insurgents. Our qualitative research approach has allowed us to document the experiences of respondents during captivity in great depth.

Access has been a key challenge in conducting this research. Gaining access to formal settlements/camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs), where most IDPs reside, is difficult due to heavy security presence, suspicion of researchers, and ongoing insurgency in the region. Security officials are, in most cases, very hostile to researchers, as they have been known to indict the guards for sexually exploiting women and girls displaced by the conflict. In conducting research we adhere to ethical research protocols informed by a do no harm policy. This means that we must obtain ethical approvals from IDP camp managers. Even when approval is granted, we are constrained in interviewing child survivors of force marriages only when an official, camp community leader, or guardian is present.

What are some of the emotional challenges for participants in your research?

Perhaps a more significant challenge faced is the unwillingness of many survivors to recount their stories for the purposes of the project's research inquiry. Global interest in the story of abduction has resulted in girls telling their stories on numerous occasions, very often in a disconnected way as result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We addressed this challenge by training our young female researchers to be empathetic, create a safe environment, and encourage participants to recount their story as if they were speaking to a friend. We also give survivors the option to opt out of the process at any point if they do not want to continue with the interviews.

Can you tell us about some of your preliminary results?

Guided by the aforementioned ethical considerations and methodology, original stories were collected by field researchers regarding masculinity, enslavement and forced marriages at times of war from 50 people (44 females, 6 males). Those interviewed included previously abducted women, IDPs, widows, vigilante members, and community leaders who have firsthand experience of the issues relating to the research questions. The summary of the research findings are:

  • More nuanced picture of experiences of women (and men) in captivity: Our interviews report that the majority of girls were abducted during invasion of small towns and villages by the insurgents; some of them were taken either directly from their homes in the presence of their families while others were taken in-transit while trying to escape to other towns or when they were sent on errands.
  • Roles of women in BH camps: Women assume a lot of roles both within and outside the rebel camps, ranging from taking care of household chores to engaging in procreation. They also can take on the role of combatants, performing infiltrative roles such as spying or being a suicide bomber. It is suggested that the presence of women in the camps serves as a morale booster to the rebels as well as allows for procreation, which was important to them so that their progeny can continue with their cause.
  • Resistance by the women: While instilling fear ensured cooperation and obedience among some of the girls, others expressed resistance to the advances of the rebels. For some of them, resistance was evident immediately following marriage; while for others they would only try to escape after gaining the trust of their husbands and when the rebels had let their guard down.
  • Post-conflict relations with forced husbands: Despite documented reports of rescued girls requesting reunion with their militant husbands, none of the girls we interviewed had existing post-conflict relations with forced husbands. Rather, the girls we interviewed despised their husbands and wanted nothing else to do with them
  • Stigma on return: Survivors of abduction and sexual violence by BH have often faced stigmatisation upon returning to family. For those that return with children born of militant fathers, their offspring are often rejected by family and close relatives. Our findings, however, did not show this. Respondents reported they currently do not face any form of stigma from family, relatives or fellow cohabitants in the camps. This may be because the girls were resident in camps hence surrounded by people with similar experiences.

The research findings will be packaged into the Nigeria Country Report on Conjugal Slavery in War, which will be used to engage relevant stakeholders on the need to address the plight of people affected by BH in northeast Nigeria.

Your work with religious and traditional leaders is also ground-breaking. Can you share some of your work in this area?

dRPC conducts a lot of advocacy work because we believe that advocacy will bring about policy change. Although this project is aimed at providing researchers, academics and students with data on the victims of sexual violence in conflict situations, we included some activities that discussed policy issues. One key activity conducted is the ‘Consultative meeting on the religious stance on stigmatization of victims of sexual violence and children born out of war’. A communiqué was issued at the end of the consultative meetings by the 22 participants, including religious leaders from both the Islamic and Christian faiths drawn from the Adamawa, Borno, Kano, Kaduna, Niger, Plateau states in Nigeria as well as Egypt.

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