The Girls Have Spoken: Education Wins in Nigeria, NOT Boko Haram
Date and time
It has been six years since I last visited Borno State in northern Nigeria, when I was still a doctoral candidate researching the management of those displaced by Boko Harem’s campaign of religious extremism and mass violence for my thesis. Yet, despite being born and bred myself in northern Nigeria, nothing prepared me for the distressing situation I encountered in 2016, just two years after Boko Haram unleashed even more fear and chaos when they abducted nearly 300 girls in the town of Chibok in Borno. Fast-forward to the fall of 2022 and I am back in Borno, this time on behalf of GSF to meet with potential partners for our Interim Reparative Measures (IRM) project. I was once again confronted with the harsh realities of the many women and girls who survived Boko Haram’s systematic use of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). To be a survivor of Boko Haram’s terrorist insurgence is traumatic enough, but to survive their sexual violence and forced marriage, survivors must also now navigate the complicated rehabilitation and reintegration processes back into their communities. Witnessing the ongoing consequences of surviving Boko Haram’s CRSV amongst women and girls in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, I was amazed by the determination of the women that I met in their unwillingness to let Boko Harem win.
Since 2014, Boko Haram has employed sexual violence as a weapon of war and employed the kidnapping of young schoolgirls to propagate their extremist anti-western education rhetoric, (that empowers and encourages girls to have the same access to education as boys). To achieve this, girls as young as nine years old were: raped, forcefully married to insurgents, utilised as sex slaves by terrorist fighters, purposefully used to breed the next generation of insurgent fighters, and at times sold as sex slaves to fighters in neighboring countries, like Niger and Cameroon where Boko Haram also had a major presence. Most of the survivors I interacted with in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps and host communities in Girei, Fufore, and Maiduguri Metropolitan Council MMC experienced at least three or more of these heinous violations, all resulting in the still-standing fear to send their girls back to school.
In addition to the physical and psychological impacts of Boko Haram’s violence, I also bore witness to the lethal ideological attack that the insurgents unleashed on education for girls. It was in-fact Boko Haram’ s anti-education rhetoric that had them stalking schools and kidnapping young girls (and boys) from primary, secondary, and even tertiary educational institutions. Attacks from which communities have still not recovered, as evidenced by the severe lack of enrolment of young girls in particular in schools. According to UNICEF, after more than 13 years since Boko Harem disrupted an already tepid educational system in northeast Nigeria, nearly 56% of the children displaced because of Boko Haram still do not attend school.
Sitting under large-leafed trees in the IDP camps that shelter more than 2.1 million displaced persons, I spoke with many survivors that have been left to determine how to confront their current situation with little assistance from the duty bearers responsible for their desperate state. What I heard was a sad cycle of fear and resignation to the societal status quo towards survivors of CRSV, whose situation is made even more hopeless thanks to the additional complications as a result of their captivity. Pervading social disruptions (discrimination and stigmatization because of the sexual violence), in addition to health and mental health needs have greatly affected their economic situation, with many living in extreme poverty. High poverty rates in the northeast in-turn contributes to the rush of many survivors to get married off at early ages in exchange for the guaranteed bride wealth.
But early marriages are also a means to an end in that it saves them from the unfair stigmatization and discrimination which many survivors face within their communities for the sexual violence endured at the hands of Boko Haram. I learned during my visit that some survivors have been derogatorily labelled such things as “Boko Haram wives”, “terrorist spies”, or even terrorists themselves! According to many of these young women, marriage at least provides a perceived pathway back to society, but more-often-than-not, marriage keeps the girls from ever returning to school. All of these added hurdles which survivors have to overcome in order to access education means their absence from school is even more prolonged and pronounced.
It is because of these added difficulties for survivors of CRSV that education as reparation (amongst other types of reparations) forms the crux of GSF’s efforts in Nigeria. Education not only enables survivors to escape the extremely destitute situation they find themselves in, but it also empowers them economically, reduces the risk of further abuse from stigmatizing communities, and improves survivors’ status in society by conferring qualifications that supports future employment. This then helps both the reintegration into their communities, and just as significantly, the recognition of what they have survived.
As I spoke to many of the survivors during my trip, what was most striking is the high value they attach to education, both as a right to and a form of reparation. With our survivor-centric approach and co-creation process with survivors that allows for the meaningful contribution of survivors in the development of reparation programs, we know that education is what these young women and girls truly want and need. It is GSF’s sincerest belief that reparations for survivors are possible, affordable, and should not wait, and so neither should education. As such, until the appropriate duty bearers provide formal reparations for the trauma experienced by these women, GSF will facilitate interim reparative measures that have been designed by survivors for survivors.
I will forever remember what one determined young woman (whom I will call Larai) told me during my visit, “I want to resume school because if I finish school and graduate, then Boko Haram will not have won. I will then be the winner.” Now is the time to ensure all young girls like Larai can see themselves as winners, and bring them reparations now.