Women and children collect water in Mafa IDP camp, Borno state, north-east Nigeria. Women and children collect water in Mafa IDP camp, Borno state, north-east Nigeria. Photo credit: UNICEF Norway
Sexual violence and the Boko Haram crisis in north-east Nigeria
by Joe Read October 2017

The prevalence of sexual violence within the Boko Haram crisis has been widely reported in humanitarian assessments, human rights reports and media coverage from the early days of the insurgency. Boko Haram’s abuses against women and girls, including abduction, forced conversion to Islam, physical and psychological abuse, forced labour, forced participation in insurgency operations and forced marriage, rape, and other sexual abuse have inspired fear among local communities in north-east Nigeria and contributed to the group’s notoriety, both within the region and globally. However, while Boko Haram’s violence against women and girls has been at the centre of public attention to the crisis, delivering protection and support for women and girls has been an ongoing challenge in the humanitarian response.

In January 2016, three UN Special Rapporteurs visited Maiduguri in Borno State on behalf of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). There they found evidence of widespread sexual abuse and other major protection concerns affecting internally displaced women and girls. They concluded that ‘a protection gap is evident, especially in service delivery and access to justice’ for women and girls victims of Boko Haram’.+UN Special Rapporteurs on sale of children, child pornography and child prostitution; contemporary forms of slavery; and the right to the highest attainable standard of health – Visit to Nigeria, 18 to 22 January 2016, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16983&LangID=E. This was not the first report of a protection deficit in the humanitarian response, nor the first report of sexual exploitation and abuse of displaced women and girls, but it was the first time that UN officials had pinpointed the coalescence of Boko Haram violence and sexual exploitation and abuse in displacement to create extreme vulnerability among displaced women and girls. In April 2016, an assessment report identified gender-based violence as a feature of displacement in the north-east Nigeria crisis, and identified a lack of prioritisation of gender-based violence programming by the humanitarian community in Nigeria.+Refugees International Field Report: Nigeria’s Displaced Women and Girls, April 2016.

The prevalence of sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls by civilian militias, members of the military and the national and state governments’ emergency management cadres has also been highlighted, including in a report by the UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of IDPs following a visit to Maiduguri in August 2016.+‘End of Mission Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Mr. Chaloka Beyani, on his visit to Nigeria, 23 to 26 August 2016’, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspxNewsID=20427&LangID=E. In October 2016, a Human Rights Watch report of sexual exploitation and abuse among IDP women and girls by camp officials led to the establishment of a committee to investigate allegations of trafficking and sexual abuse of IDPs. These reports and others have increased the profile of the unmet needs of vulnerable women and girls in north-east Nigeria, but the challenges experienced by the humanitarian response in providing prevention activities and support and services for survivors have continued. Ongoing attention from government and UN officials, humanitarian agencies and donors is essential to overcome the obstacles to reaching women and girls across the conflict. The structures of exploitation and abuse that have impeded government and humanitarian agencies from responding to the needs of women and girls in the humanitarian response must be addressed in order for resilience, recovery and peace-building activities to be successful, and in pursuit of durable solutions for displaced communities.

A gender emergency: challenges to responding to the needs of women and girls in north-east Nigeria

Access difficulties have been the greatest impediment to responding to the urgent needs of women and girls affected by sexual violence, closely followed by the limited government and international funding allocated to protection activities, particularly gender-based violence. In 2013 and 2014, the negligible presence of protection-mandated agencies in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states presented an almost insurmountable challenge to even collecting information about the protection situation in conflict-affected areas and displacement sites.

Following the large-scale displacement of civilians across Borno state and in northern Adamawa and eastern Yobe states, tens of thousands of IDPs joined informal camps in Maiduguri, Damaturu and Yola towns during 2014. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) established eight camps in Maiduguri by June 2014, accommodating 6,000 IDPs from Bama, Konduga, Damboa and Gwoza Local Government Areas (LGAs).+‘Minister Inspects NEMA IDP Camps’, NEMA press release, 21 June 2014, http://nema.gov.ng/minister-inspects-nema-idps-camps. International support increased during 2015, and by mid-2016 NEMA was attempting to respond to IDP needs in 16 civilian-managed camps in Borno and Adamawa states.+‘Only 6 of 275 Rescued Women Pregnant’, NEMA press release, 21 May 2015, http://nema.gov.ng/only-6-of-275-rescued-women-pregnant.] The large influx of IDPs fleeing Boko Haram-controlled areas propelled largely invisible populations out of small towns and into large urban areas, where they came within the reach of the government administration, national and international media and humanitarian agencies.

Humanitarian agencies began programming in displacementaffected areas such as Yola in Adamawa, Bauchi, Gombe and, cautiously, Maiduguri, in 2015. The number of international NGOs operating in Borno and Yobe states more than doubled during 2015, and doubled again in 2016.

What they found when they arrived in Yola and Maiduguri was jarring to even the most experienced protection actors. Widespread child protection risks, gender-based violence and marginalisation of minority clans and religious communities were found across formal and informal displacement sites, and within the host communities accommodating the large majority (more than 90%) of displaced households. A safety audit conducted by one international NGO in host community sites in Maiduguri identified the priority concerns of displaced women as domestic violence, rape and denial of resources.[footnote]Refugees International Field Report. Women were being beaten when they could not provide food or when they asked for money to buy food, and many also experienced sexual violence while looking for work to provide an income. Increased violence and their inability to procure food for their families also made women increasingly vulnerable to solicitation and sexual exploitation in exchange for food or other assistance. In the camps, military personnel, vigilante groups and camp managers were implicated in unprincipled, corrupt and criminal practices, including aid diversion, theft and sexual exploitation and abuse. Restrictions on freedom of movement due to security regulations were compounded by fears of harassment and sexual violence. Negative coping strategies became increasingly prevalent as households depleted their assets, including child labour, early marriage and transactional sex for shelter, food and non-food needs.

Responding to the needs of women and girls in gender-segregated camps

The organisation of IDP camps by gender has been an enduring challenge for protection, shelter and camp management actors. In this segregated environment, the social fabric that normally protects women and girls has broken down, leaving them with unequal access to basic services or assistance and highly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. The lack of meaningful reporting channels and effective accountability mechanisms for corruption, as well as fear of possible retaliation, has resulted in limited reporting or protests against abuses.

In April 2016, a report on the impact of displacement on women and girls identified the lack of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities as a particular protection risk.+Ibid. Rape and sexual abuse was reported by women and girls going to bathing areas or to collect water in IDP sites. Frontline protection responses, such as sufficient lighting in bathing areas, have gone largely unaddressed.+‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons on his mission to Nigeria’. In December 2016, the Nigerian media stated that officials at Bakassi IDP camp in Maiduguri had disclosed that, between June and December, some 3,213 pregnancies had been recorded resulting from sexual abuse. International humanitarian actors conducting assessments to understand and fill gaps in government assistance in 2015 were unable to convince the authorities to adopt international standards for camp coordination and management and, despite ongoing sup-port to build the government’s capacity to manage IDP camps, including introducing international standards, household sepa-ration continues, particularly in camps housed in public buildings.

Targeting vulnerable women and girls in military camps

As military operations intensified in 2015, prompting further large-scale displacement from rural areas, protected zones and camps were established inside or adjacent to military barracks in LGA capitals. In these camps military personnel acted as default camp managers and coordinators of humanitarian assistance to these areas. International humanitarian actors became aware of these sites, referred to by the military as ‘satellite camps’, in late 2015, but they were considered too sensitive to be publicly discussed. International aid actors secured limited access in April 2016 following vigorous advocacy by senior officials, but reaching these camps remained extremely challenging and reliant on helicopter access to military bases throughout 2016 and 2017.+‘Joint UN Multi-sector Assessment Summary Report: Borno and Yobe States, Nigeria’, April 2016, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/system/files/documents/files/joint_un_multi-sector_assessment-_summary_report_borno_yobe_nigeria_april_2016_final_lowres.pdf.

The gaps in basic services accessible to civilians in these camps resulted in humanitarian needs that surpassed those humanitarian agencies had previously seen in Maiduguri and Yola. Civilians in these camps had experienced Boko Haram violence over a period of years with no access to basic services or humanitarian assistance. These largely agricultural, often isolated, rural communities had been unable to reach the urban centres of Maiduguri, Mubi and Yola during earlier stages of the crisis, when civilians in smaller urban and peri-urban areas had fled Boko Haram’s ‘caliphate’. When these rural communities arrived at the military camps they were not screened for vulnerability, such as experience of sexual violence, abduction or forced marriage by Boko Haram, nor did they receive health or protection assistance. Many households were separated during military screening of civilians, with unaccompanied women often questioned and in some cases detained if they could not prove that they were not affiliated by marriage with members of Boko Haram.

People arriving at the military camps without any means to provide for their basic needs found that they lacked access to sufficient shelter, water and food. Under these conditions, sexual exploitation and abuse became embedded within the structure of assistance provided in the military camps, and the scale of protection needs and acute food insecurity found by humanitarian agencies in mid-2016 exceeded worst-case planning scenarios. Humanitarian agencies had limited access and resources to respond to this second humanitarian emergency and protection crisis. Unable to meet even the most serious needs in these camps, agencies began medical evacuations of civilians with acute health needs to Maiduguri in June 2016. As the scale-up of the humanitarian response in the military camps has continued in 2017 basic service provision has improved, but agencies’ limited presence in these sites prevents comprehensive protection monitoring or the provision of sufficient prevention and protection activities for vulnerable women and girls.

The way forward: a system-wide response to a systemic problem

In 2017, a record number of protection-focused agencies have implemented programming in north-east Nigeria, and the profile of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse continues to increase. Protection actors have welcomed technical support for government and humanitarian agencies, including roll-out workshops for the IASC GBV guidelines in emergencies, and accountability and reporting mechanisms have been put in place in some areas. Several ad hoc monitoring and oversight structures have been established at the state and federal levels, including the Independent Task Force on Feeding, Food Supply and Monitoring of Distribution in IDP camps, the Special Investigation Committee to investigate alleged cases of sexual exploitation by authorities in IDP camps in Maiduguri, and the Senate Ad Hoc Committee, which is tasked with looking into alleged diversion of relief materials by government contractors.+ICRC, Internal Displacement in North East Nigeria: Operationalising the Kampala Convention in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe States, December 2016.

However, unsafe conditions in displacement sites, insecurity and systemic patterns of sexual exploitation and abuse related to the lack of sufficient food and other humanitarian assistance persist. In its response planning for 2018, the humanitarian community must secure agreements with responsible government agencies to implement standards and ground rules, and respect the civilian character of displacement camps in order to address the harmful structures that entrench the vulnerability of women and girls. While there have been marginal improvements with the deployment of NEMA, SEMA and NGO staff to strengthen the civilian character of camp management in military camps, and in some areas civilians can now move freely in and out of the camps, the role of humanitarian actors remains poorly understood by the military. A negotiated agreement between humanitarian actors, government officials and military actors must be secured to allow for civilian freedom of movement and to define the pathway to demilitarisation of the camps. Sustained high-level attention is required by the humanitarian community to monitor and push forward progress in coverage of the needs of vulnerable women and girls and the provision of services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.

Joe Read is former West Africa Regional Analyst at IDMC (2014) and former Humanitarian Affairs Officer at OCHA Nigeria (2015–2016).

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