As the world observes International Day of the Child, we should stop and consider the critical need to protect civilians, including children, across northeast Nigeria. With some degree of success, the Nigerian government has pushed back armed opposition groups in the country’s northeast – especially Jama’atu Sunnah Lida’awati Wal Jihad and Islamic State West Africa, collectively known as Boko Haram. Yet civilians in the region continue to live under the constant threat of harm.
While the conflict impacts civilians of all ages, girls and boys face different types of harm than women and men. In April, CIVIC met with civilians in Maiduguri and Rann. These meetings provided insights into the protection challenges that children face, including physical, sexual, and psychological trauma, being recruited by armed groups and subjected to all forms of violence, or being separated from partners or caregivers. These interviews underscore how an entire generation of Nigerian children must navigate the long-lasting impact of harm resulting from failures to protect civilians.
Nigerian children experience physical violence at the hands of both state and non-state actors. A May 2017 report from the United Nations (UN) Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict found that attacks over a four-year period by armed opposition groups – which have killed over 3,900 children and harmed another 7,300 – were the leading cause of child casualties, followed closely by children carrying and detonating explosives. Individuals interviewed also reported that their children had been beaten or – on one occasion – killed by state and non-state security actors. They also suggested that – in the case of state security actors – their children were targeted because they were considered “children of Boko Haram.”
Sexual abuse against children is rampant not only by security actors but also by fellow civilians, particularly in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Although rates of reported cases of gender based violence against girls are higher, sexual abuse has affected both boys and girls across the northeast.
An overwhelming number of children and young people have perpetrated, experienced or witnessed violence. Many children have had their parents and husbands detained under suspicion of association with armed opposition groups, often for years, with no information as to where they are, what has happened to them and even whether they are still alive. Research has shown that traumatized children are more likely to arm themselves to seek revenge, fueling the cycle of violence. UNICEF estimates that some 2.7 million children in Nigeria are in need of psychosocial support, yet mental healthcare in Nigeria is woefully lacking, with fewer than 150 psychiatrists for Nigeria’s population of over 180 million.
In addition to these broader trends, boys and girls face different protection challenges. Both armed non-state groups and community militias, like the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), have forcefully recruited young boys to serve in a variety of roles, including intelligence, operations, and combat. Boys have also voluntarily joined non-state armed groups or the CJTF for myriad reasons ranging from belonging to revenge to security. Security sector actors often fail to recognize the distinction between civilian boys and combatants, as required under International Humanitarian Law. There are reports of some boys being detained – often in abhorrent conditions – under suspicion of allegiances to armed opposition groups. According to several of those interviewed, some have been missing for years, leaving their grieving families to ponder their fate.
Girls in northeast Nigeria face their own set of depravations and violations. Armed opposition groups have increasingly relied on girls to carry and detonate explosives as they attract less attention than adult men. Girls are also coerced into providing operational support and subjected to forced marriages with members of armed opposition groups. Conversely, many girls choose to join these groups and marry fighters for varied reasons, including ideological, financial, security, adventure or love. There have also been reported incidents of girls being trained in how to use weapons, taking part in attacks and guarding bases.
Girls are victims of rape and sexual abuse perpetrated by nearly all actors to the conflict. One woman we interviewed shared that an undercover policewoman in her IDP camp found that every woman in the camp had experienced some form of sexual abuse. Further, both women and girls are often stigmatized as “wives of Boko Haram” and viewed by community members as tainted. Another woman who spoke with CIVIC mentioned that her son – the child of an armed opposition group fighter – was ignored, teased, and bullied by other children because of his paternity.
On the International Day of the Child, it is essential to remember the needs of the youngest civilians caught in conflict. Despite the challenging context, we must adopt strategies to help children protect themselves and each other. The international community also needs to press the government of Nigeria to fulfill its responsibility to protect all its citizens – children and adults alike. At the request of the government, CIVIC helped to develop a national protection of civilians policy. It has yet to be passed. Adopting and fully implementing this policy should be a priority for the government and would demonstrate its commitment to civilian protection.
Moreover, the government of Nigeria should grant access by child protection actors to sites of military detention, support the implementation of disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration programs for children associated with armed groups, and provide psychosocial care and good quality health facilities. And in instances where government actors caused civilian harm, it should acknowledge the harm it perpetrated – a process called amends – by apologizing or tendering ex gratia payments as gestures of respect for those lost. Incorporating the needs of children into a comprehensive amends strategy created with direct input from civilians will be key to addressing the needs of this vulnerable population and ensuring some measure of justice.