The 14-year long conflict in Northeast Nigeria and the deeply rooted gender-based inequalities have significantly contributed to exacerbating sexual violence in the country. While all genders are vulnerable to sexual violence, women and girls are more affected, especially those in conflict-affected areas.
Data from 2022 show that there has been an increase in recent years in reports of sexual violence perpetrated by armed groups, security forces, and other conflict actors in Nigeria. Similarly, the latest report on conflict-sexual related violence (CSRV) by the UN Secretary General documented 601 incidents of sexual violence in 2021, affecting 326 girls and 275 women. Of the reported cases, 80 percent constituted rape and 5 percent were sexual slavery. These numbers are likely to be an underestimate as many cases of sexual violence go unreported.
Among the tactics used by armed groups and bandits are mass abductions of women and schoolgirls. Many of us still remember the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Chibok and Dapchi, respectively, in 2014 and 2018. While some of them were released, many are still held in captivity, raped, forced into “marriages”, or forced to join armed opposition groups. Similar kidnappings of girls for ransom have also been recorded in Northwest and North Central Nigeria. One of the most memorable incidents happened in 2021 when bandits kidnapped 279 girls from a boarding school in Zamfara state, Northwest Nigeria. The girls were later released following negotiations with the government.
Regardless of whether or not the women and girls are released, the damage has been done. Both the victims/survivors and their families are left with horrific physical and psychological scars which may include bruises, broken bones, injuries to the genitalia, and other physical harm attributable to the violence. Many women and girls who experience CSRV may also face unwanted pregnancies, which can compound their trauma and present numerous challenges, including stigma, discrimination, limited access to healthcare, and childbirth complications. Moreover, these survivors are at an increased risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, gonorrhoea, and syphilis, among others. Victims and survivors of CRSV are also left to deal with severe and enduring mental and emotional trauma, such as depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts without always having access to adequate care to heal and recover. More often than not, the survivors face stigmatization and ostracism from their communities, intensifying their sense of isolation and adding to their psychological trauma.
Regardless of whether or not the women and girls are released, the damage has been done. Both the victims/survivors and their families are left with horrific physical and psychological scars…
Armed groups and criminal actors are not the only groups sexually harming women and girls. Allegations of sexual violence have been made against security forces in various conflict-affected communities across Nigeria. In 2016, Human Rights Watch reported that Nigerian security forces had raped and sexually exploited women and girls displaced by the Boko Haram conflict.
There is a pressing need for accountability for security actors in Nigeria to curb CSRV. More than once, security actors such as the army and the police have been accused of perpetrating sexual violence against women and girls. There is no doubt that these actors need also to be held accountable for their actions if Nigeria is to make any progress towards ending sexual violence in conflict.
One of the reasons why accountability is necessary is that it acts as a deterrent to future perpetrators of sexual violence. When security actors know that they will be held accountable for their actions, they are less likely to commit such crimes. If perpetrators know that they will face punishment, they will think twice before engaging in sexual violence. Accountability is also necessary because it helps restore the confidence of the public in the security actors. When the perpetrators of sexual violence are brought to justice, it sends a message to the public that the government is here to protect its people, including the most vulnerable ones. As a result, people are more likely to trust security actors, which, in turn, creates an environment conducive to improved cooperation between security actors and communities to tackle together sexual violence.
There is a pressing need for accountability for security actors in Nigeria to curb CSRV. More than once, security actors such as the army and the police have been accused of perpetrating sexual violence against women and girls.
Nevertheless, addressing conflict-related sexual violence in Nigeria has been hindered by the lack of political will at national and state levels. This has resulted in insufficient funding for programs and policies to prevent and respond to CRSV. The Nigerian government cut down its funding against rape, targeted at tracking and rehabilitation of survivors, by 49% in 2022 compared to the previous year. This has also contributed to the shrinking of resources for victims of sexual violence, including medical and psychological support services.
Another challenge encountered in Nigeria in the fight against sexual violence is the culture of silence. Many survivors are reluctant to speak up for fear of stigma, retaliation, or further violence. This situation is further complicated by the fact that perpetrators of sexual violence are often not held accountable for their actions, leading to a culture of impunity. It has been extensively documented and reported that women and girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Northeast Nigeria faced ostracization by their communities when they were released or rescued. This challenge underscores the need for spaces and dialogue to raise awareness and educate communities to understand the implications of CRSV and be more sympathetic to victims rather than criminalize them.
Through its engagement with civilians, organized in Community Protection Committees, in Northeast Nigeria, CIVIC helped them identify how to prevent and respond adequately to CRSV, and supported them in establishing channels of communications with relevant authorities. As a result, the Community Protection Committees, made up of women and men, and persons with disabilities, regularly discuss and address their protection concerns and needs with the local authorities and security forces, which has in turn, improved their response to any incident of CSRV, while also providing referral pathways for victims to get the support they need from our partners.
Addressing conflict-related sexual violence in Nigeria requires a long-term and multidimensional approach by all parties, including federal and local authorities, civil society, and international organisations. This can be achieved through cooperation, education, and by allowing affected communities to lead in the response. It is important to educate the public, including victims of sexual violence, about their rights and the consequences of sexual violence. Perpetrators of sexual violence must be held accountable for their actions, which can be achieved by strengthening existing laws and policies.
Further discussions and research are needed to better understand the root causes of sexual violence in Nigeria’s conflict context and identify effective prevention and response strategies. While doing so, it will be critical to ensure that victims and survivors of CRSV are in the driver’s seat.