Nigeria forces fighting Boko Haram accused of sexual assault

Children in a Nigerian IDP camp buying ice cream with money made selling grass. (Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch/flickr)

Women and girls fleeing the brutal Islamist group Boko Haram are not finding safety in camps for displaced people. The Nigerian soldiers and police who are supposed to protect them are raping and sexually assaulting them, according to Human Rights Watch.

The ongoing fight to rid Nigeria of the terrorist group features evidence of human rights violations and abuse by both sides. Boko Haram continues to carry out violent attacks in Northern Nigeria and abduct women and girls. Nigerian forces stand accused of abusing civilians and mistreating suspected Boko Haram militants.

The latest evidence shows that 43 cases of sexual abuse took place in seven camps in the town of Maiduguri in July. Most of the victims were coerced into sex with promises of marriage, food or money. At least four of the victims were raped, according to the rights group.

“It is bad enough that these women and girls are not getting much-needed support for the horrific trauma they suffered at the hands of Boko Haram,” said Mausi Segun, senior Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “It is disgraceful and outrageous that people who should protect these women and girls are attacking and abusing them.”

Eight of the women who were assaulted arrived at the camps after escaping forced marriages to Boko Haram militants. Perpetrators included police, military, camp leaders and local security groups. All are meant to support and protect the women they abused.

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One girl said a policeman used the guise of friendship to get close to her. The officer suddenly demanded the 17-year-old girl have sex with him. When she refused, he raped her.

“It happened just that one time, but soon I realized I was pregnant,” she said to Human Rights Watch. “When I informed him about my condition, he threatened to shoot and kill me if I told anyone else. So I was too afraid to report him.”

Another woman accepted the advances of a soldier in order to feed her family. The Dalori camp, where she lives, provides only one meal a day. The woman needed to provide for her four children, so she relented to the soldier. He impregnated her and disappeared as soon as he found out.

Sadly this is not a new development. A May report from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees documented the lack of humanitarian support for displaced people. Its focus group discussions uncovered 33 cases of rape or sexual abuse. Nearly a third of the victims were boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 17.

“I found a tendency to downplay the problem of sexual violence and abuse,” said Chaloka Beyani, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, following his visit to camps in late August. “I am concerned that this constitutes a hidden crisis of abuse with fear, stigma and cultural factors as well as impunity for perpetrators leading to under-reporting of abuse to the relevant authorities.”

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The Human Rights Watch report provides evidence that the problem is significant. Some 10,000 civilians are dead as a result of the conflict with Boko Haram, since 2009. The insecurity displaced an estimated 2.5 million people, forcing them to live in the kinds of camps covered in the report.

There is already a major problem of providing enough assistance. Residents of the Pompomari said that they had not received food and medicine since May, when they spoke with Human Rights Watch in July. High rates of malnutrition stalk children in the region, leading UNICEF to issue dire warnings in July.

The lives of millions of Nigerians are already disrupted by Boko Haram. Military and police are supposed to fight back the group and protects civilians. They are perpetrating violence against vulnerable people and leaving them worse off.

“Nobody comes to this camp to talk to us. We IDPs only have one another, but even that is hard because you do not know who to trust,” said a 16-year-old rape survivor. “If you tell them your secret pain or shame, they can use it to mock you later.”

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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.