Beyond Chibok: Boko Haram’s kidnapping of more than 500 Nigerian girls and women

Martha Mark, the mother of kidnapped school girl Monica Mark cries as she displays her photo, in the family house, in Chibok, Nigeria. In a new video released late Oct 31, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau dashed hopes for a prisoner exchange to get the girls released. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba, File)

When the uniformed men started separating the Muslims from the Christians, she knew they were not police officers. The blockade, made up of dozens of vehicles, in Firgi, Nigeria, stopped people in May of 2013. Muslim men were given the option to join Boko Haram or be killed. One 20 year-old woman recounted what happened next.

“They slit the throat of some of the men, saying they’d not waste bullets on them. Christian women wearing pants were shot in the leg and left to die. Older Muslim men and women wearing Muslim veils were released to go, while the rest of us were driven to their camp in Sambisa forest,” she said to Human Rights Watch.

She is just one of the more than 500 women and girls abducted by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, said Human Rights Watch. The group garnered national attention in April 2014 for its abduction of 274 schoolgirls from Chibok. The majority of the girls are still held by Boko Haram. Her story is unfortunately not a unique, according to evidence uncovered by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

A photo of Hauwa Nkatai, a 16 year old schoolgirl of Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State. She is still in captivity along with 219 students abducted by members of Boko Haram, on April 14, 2014. © 2014 Benedicte Kurzen/ NOOR /Redux

A photo of Hauwa Nkatai, a 16 year old schoolgirl of Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State. She is still in captivity along with 219 students abducted by members of Boko Haram, on April 14, 2014.
© 2014 Benedicte Kurzen/ NOOR /Redux

Boko Haram, once focused on launching attacks against government officials, have killed more than 4,000 civilians in the last 18 months. For years it infrequently committed abductions, but that changed May 2013. The kidnappings of women suddenly accelerated and continue until today. More than 30 young people, boys older than 13 and girls older than 11, were kidnapped in a two day period at the end of October. It came at a time when reports indicated that Boko Haram and the Nigerian government may have found an avenue for peace, following the announcement of a cease-fire.

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with 46 people who were witnesses to or victims of Boko Haram abductions, in three Nigerian states. The women and girls described suffering a range of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Boko Haram militants. While some say that a few leaders attempted to protect them, some of the girls were subjected to sexual violence.

Non-Muslim girls were forces to convert. All but one of the 30 abducted girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch are Christian. The majority of the schoolgirls in Chibok are Christian and Boko Haram appears to be targeting predominantly Christian areas for abductions. One 23-year-old woman and her mother were captured by Boko Haram last November and told they would be killed if they did not convert to Islam. They initially resisted, but relented in order to save their lives.

“We were made to recite some words in Arabic and showed how to pray. Then they let us go after three days because my mother promised we will convince our husbands to become Muslims,” said the woman.

Others who resisted conversion were subjected to physical violence.

“When I objected to his claim, he tied a rope around my neck and beat me with a plastic cable until I almost passed out,” said another woman who was held in a camp near the town of Gwoza. “An insurgent who I recognized from my village convinced me to accept Islam lest I should be killed. So I agreed.”

Other women and girls were forced to marry Boko Haram members and some had to work for the militants. Human Rights Watch said Boko Haram commanders attempted to protect the women before they were to be “married,” but in one case a girl was sexually assaulted while trying to use the bathroom. Human Rights Watch says more must be done by the Nigerian government and its supporters to bring the captured girls home and end the cycle of abductions in northern Nigeria.

“The Chibok tragedy and #BringBackOurGirls campaign focused much-needed global attention to the horrific vulnerability of girls in northeastern Nigeria,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the Nigerian government and its allies need to step up their efforts to put an end to these brutal abductions and provide for the medical, psychological, and social needs of the women and girls who have managed to escape.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.