Boko Haram, Nigeria’s homegrown Islamist insurgency, whose name in Hausa roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden,” has abducted at least 500 women and girls from northern Nigerian since 2009 and has perpetrated numerous human rights abuses against them in captivity. The April 14, 2014 abduction of 276 girls from a secondary school in Chibok, a rural town in Borno State, focused a much-needed spotlight on this increasing scourge.

While much has been written about Boko Haram and the horrific threat it poses, very little is known about the abuses endured by women and girls in captivity. Such victims are obviously hard to find. This report, based on field research, including interviews with victims and witnesses of abduction, documents the abduction of women and girls by Boko Haram, highlighting the harrowing experiences of some of the abducted women and girls. There remain many more women and girls in captivity whose stories have not yet been told.
From June through August 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed 30 individuals who were abducted by Boko Haram between April 2013 and April 2014, and 16 others who witnessed the abductions. The victims, including 12 students of the Chibok School who escaped from Boko Haram custody after they were abducted, provided further details of the abuses they endured. The women and girls described how they were abducted from their homes and villages while working on the farms, fetching water, or attending school. The victims were held in eight different Boko Haram camps that they believed to be in the
518-square-kilometer Sambisa Forest Reserve and around the Gwoza hills for periods ranging from two days to three months. They saw scores of other women and children, but were unable to ascertain if some, or all, had also been abducted or if they were family members of the insurgents. The women and children ranged from infancy to 65 years old. The Gwoza hills, which form a natural barrier between Nigeria and Cameroon, overlook Sambisa forest to the north and runs from Pulka town, 80 miles south east of Maiduguri, Borno State into Cameroon’s Far North region.
The women and girls told Human Rights Watch that for refusing to convert to Islam, they and many others they saw in the camps were subjected to physical and psychological abuse; forced labor; forced participation in military operations, including carrying ammunition or luring men into ambush; forced marriage to their captors; and sexual abuse, including rape. In addition, they were made to cook, clean, and perform other household chores. Others served as porters, carrying the loot stolen by the insurgents from villages and towns they had attacked. While some of the women and girls seemed to have been taken arbitrarily, the majority appeared to have been targeted for abduction because they were students, Christians, or both.
The Victims
Most of the abductions documented in this report took place in the predominantly Christian area of southern Borno State, and all but one of the victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch were Christian. The victims appear to have been targeted either because of their presumed religious affiliation or for attending western-styled schools. Some of the victims were threatened with death if they refused to convert to Islam. One young woman held in a camp near Gwoza described how combatants placed a noose around her neck and threatened her with death until she renounced her religion; others were repeatedly threatened with whipping, beating, or death unless they converted to Islam, stopped attending school, and complied with Islamic dressing rules, such as wearing veils or the hijab.
When one of the victims, a 15-year-old girl, complained to a Boko Haram commander that she and the other abducted girls were too young for marriage, he pointed at his 5-year-old daughter, and said: “If she got married last year, and is just waiting till puberty for its consummation, how can you at your age be too young to marry?”
Women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that some Boko Haram commanders appeared to make some effort to protect them from sexual violence. However, Human Rights Watch documented eight cases of sexual violence perpetrated by Boko Haram combatants; most cases of rape occurred after the victims were forced to marry. Social workers who have worked with some of the victims in Borno and Adamawa states told Human Rights Watch that the rape of women and girls abducted by Boko Haram has been underreported because of a culture of silence, stigma, and shame around sexual abuse in Nigeria’s conservative North.
The increase in the number of abductions since mid-2013 appears to mark a change of strategy by Boko Haram. From 2009 through early 2013, the group did not appear to target women and girls specifically. Instead, it primarily launched assaults against those it considered part of an unjust and corrupt system: members of the security services, politicians, civil servants, and other symbols of authority. By early 2012 schools and students became increasingly targeted for attacks, worsening already dire education indices in the Northeast, which has the lowest primary and secondary school net attendance ratio in the country.
From 2009 to early 2013, according to Human Rights Watch’s research and monitoring of abuses, Boko Haram abducted individual women and girls from their homes or from the street during attacks on their communities. These abductions took place most often in Boko Haram’s then-strongholds of Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, or Damaturu, the capital of neighboring Yobe State. In most of the documented cases, married women were abducted as punishment for not supporting the group’s ideology, while unmarried women and girls were taken as brides after insurgents hastily offered a dowry to the families, who feared to resist.
The abduction of 276 schoolgirls from in Chibok is the biggest single incident of abduction by Boko Haram at time of writing. The relative ease with which it carried out the Chibok abductions appears to have emboldened Boko Haram to carry out more abductions elsewhere.
Videos released by Boko Haram’s leaders in January and May 2013 suggest three key motives for the initial abductions: to retaliate against the government for its alleged detention of family members, including the wives of the group’s leaders; to punish students for attending Western schools; and to forcefully convert Christian women and girls to Islam. Some of the victims and analysts interviewed by Human Rights Watch have suggested women and girls are also being used for tactical reasons, such as to lure security forces to an ambush, force payment of a ransom, or for a prisoner exchange.
Residents of villages and towns ravaged by Boko Haram attacks during which women and girls were abducted complained about inadequate government response to prevent attacks and protect victims, often in imminent danger, and to provide adequate medical and psychological support for victims.
Many of the victims and witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch recounted instances when the security forces had been overwhelmed because insufficient troops had been deployed to a given town or because they appeared to have run out of ammunition during the course of an attack. Others described how members of their community had informed authorities about impending attacks, but were met with a feeble response.
Many of the victims and their family members expressed the ongoing anguish resulting from their ordeal, including deep fears of re-abduction, sleeplessness, and frustration for insufficient support from the government. However, of the victims interviewed, only the Chibok students who escaped from Boko Haram captivity had received limited counseling and medical care. None of the other victims of abduction or other violations, all from desperately poor families, had received or were aware of any government supported mental health or medical care. The federal and state funds, set up with support from international agencies and foreign governments in the wake of the high-profile Chibok abductions, have targeted the escaped Chibok girls but appear not to have widely benefitted the many other victims of Boko Haram abuses.
The abuses against women and girls documented in this report occurred against the backdrop of a dramatic increase in the pace and intensity of Boko Haram’s attacks against civilian targets from mid-2013, after the federal government imposed a state of emergency in Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe states. Based on credible media reports and field investigations, Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 4,000 civilians have been killed in over 192 attacks since May 2013 in northeast Nigeria and in the federal capital, Abuja. At least 2,053 civilians were killed by Boko Haram in the first half of 2014.
Human Rights Watch has previously documented the widespread abuses carried out by the Nigerian security forces in responding to the attacks by Boko Haram. Since 2009, security forces have used excessive force, burned homes, engaged in physical abuse, “disappeared” victims, and extra-judicially killed those suspected of supporting Boko Haram.
Few members of the security forces implicated in serious violations of humanitarian and human rights law, including violations against girls and women, have been prosecuted. To ensure accountability, Nigerian authorities should investigate and prosecute, based on international fair trial standards, those who committed serious crimes in violation of national and international law during the conflict, including members of Boko Haram, security forces, and pro-government vigilante groups. In addition, the government should provide adequate measures to protect schools and the right to education, and ensure access to medical and mental health services to victims of abduction and other violence. The government should also ensure that hospitals and clinics treating civilian victims are equipped with medical supplies to treat survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
The international community should encourage and support transparent investigations and prosecution of perpetrators of human rights abuses by Boko Haram as well as violations by government security forces and allied groups, and should assist the Nigerian government to provide protection for schools as well as physical and mental health care to all victims of abductions and other violations perpetrated by Boko Haram.
The Nigerian government and the international community should ensure that women participate fully in all national and international efforts to maintain and promote peace and security in Nigeria. The Nigerian government failed to include women in its delegations to Paris Summit on Security in Nigeria in May 2013 and the London Ministerial on security in Nigeria in June 2014. Participants at both meetings committed to civilian protection and human rights and to the prevention of sexual violence in conflict. Human Rights Watch urges the Nigerian government to comply with its National Action Plan for the Implementation of UNSCR 1325 and other related resolutions in Nigeria, which commits the government to take special measures to include women at all levels of peace processes.
Human Rights Watch urges Boko Haram to comply with the principles of international humanitarian and human rights law and to end immediately the killing, maiming, rape, and abduction of Nigeria’s civilian population including students, which has suffered greatly over the past five years.