This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The Nigerian authorities recently postponed elections that had been scheduled for February, ostensibly to give them more time to fight Boko Haram, the militant Islamic extremist group with ties to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. The delay heightens the already intense levels of fear and instability in the country.
Of particular concern is the safety of Nigeria’s women and girls, who are increasingly becoming targets—and tools—of violence.
“I really fear for this country in the sense that I think that Boko Haram will escalate the violence—and women and girls are instruments in this battle,” says Udy Okon, executive director of the Youth Alive Foundation, a nonprofit focused on youth empowerment and advocacy, especially for girls and young women. “They’ve been used to set off bombs, they’ve been kidnapped, they’ve been raped. I think Boko Haram now knows that when they attack women and girls, they get attention. They get the world to notice.”
In recent months, Boko Haram has reportedly engaged in widespread rape and used girls as young as 10 years old as suicide bombers.
“What does a 10-year-old girl know about throwing a bomb somewhere? She doesn’t even know whose side she’s on,” says Christiana Okechukwu, president and CEO of the Inwelle Study and Resource Center in Enugu, Nigeria, a Global Fund for Women grantee focused on girls’ education and using access to technology to empower girls. Okechukwu calls it “scary” that girls are being manipulated in these ways and says that the increased violence in the country means that “girls’ vulnerability is heightened.”
A Growing Problem
Boko Haram has lately increased its attacks.
In a brutal and deadly massacre on January 12, terrorists invaded the town of Baga, launching grenades, pursuing residents on motorcycles before shooting them down, and burning people in their homes. Many of the estimated 2,000 victims in Baga were women, children and the elderly who “could not run fast enough” from the assailants. Some survivors report that Boko Haram fighters have raped the women who remain in Baga.