April 14 marked the second anniversary of the abduction of 276 female students by Boko Haram from a Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Northeastern Nigeria. While the #BringBackOurGirls campaign mobilized support for the girls globally, not all abduction cases have received the same attention as this particular tragedy. It is estimated that more than 2000 women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since the beginning of the conflict. Those that are freed from Boko Haram face numerous challenges reintegrating into their communities. The Nigerian military, in turn, is responsible for the disappearance of many children, especially boys, as a result of counter-insurgency operations.
In early February, Watchlist visited Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in the Northeast of Nigeria. The city has been the epicenter of the conflict in Nigeria and the birthplace of Boko Haram in 2002. The visit offered an opportunity to follow up on the findings and recommendations presented in the report Who Will Care for Us? Grave Violations against Children in Northeastern Nigeria released by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict in September 2014.
Children are disproportionately affected by the conflict. Forced recruitment through abduction during targeted raids by Boko Haram remains one of the most significant threats to their safety and security. Abducted boys are trained for fighting or are used as informants and messengers. Girls are used for domestic work and subjected to rape, torture, forced marriage and religious conversion. Since late 2014, girls have increasingly been used as suicide bombers and some of them are reported to take part in hostilities. Children are also reportedly used as human shields.
Despite some progress in its fight to defeat Boko Haram, the Nigerian government's counter-insurgency measures raise human rights concerns, in particular with regard to arrest, detention, and fair trial guarantees for persons deprived of their liberty. Amnesty International has documented grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and acts of torture, committed by the Nigerian government's security forces with support from local self-defense groups, commonly labelled as the civilian Joint Task Force (JTF). In particular, children who are suspected or found to be members of Boko Haram are apprehended and detained, often outside of the protection of the law, in military detention facilities that are known for the mistreatment of detainees.
The government's military campaign against Boko Haram has also freed women and children from captivity. Child survivors have gone through serious trauma and are often highly stigmatized by their communities, making their reintegration very challenging. Recent research by UNICEF and International Alert found that many women and girls are being labelled 'Boko Haram wives' and 'annoba' - meaning epidemics. Children born of rape are often perceived to have 'bad blood' which translates into discrimination and even persecution.
The Nigerian government's response to these challenges has been limited. As part of the national counterterrorism strategy, the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) established a 'de-radicalization' program to facilitate the rehabilitation of non-combatant women and children associated with Boko Haram, including children born of sexual violence. For approximately six months, women and children, some of them unaccompanied, were kept in a military facility in Kaduna state. Here they were reportedly provided with medical care, psycho-social support, counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), vocational training and other educational activities.
While investing in non-military strategies to counter extremist violence is commendable, little is known about how the program was implemented, and access to the participants has been limited by the government. A unilateral decision by the ONSA to interrupt the program prevented appropriate cooperation with protection actors planning to facilitate the survivors' reintegration into their communities. As a result, the participants' current whereabouts, or their ability to cope within their respective communities is unknown. By late 2015, the program was shut down and it remains unclear how the government plans to rehabilitate or reintegrate women and children freed from Boko Haram.
Watchlist urges the Government of Nigeria to uphold its responsibility to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, to end human rights abuses, and in particular to protect children affected by the conflict in the Northeast. This includes ensuring legal safeguards on the treatment of children who are suspected or found to be affiliated with Boko Haram, and policies to guarantee their timely transfer to child protection actors. The government, humanitarian and civil society organizations should also provide fitting assistance to women and children freed from Boko Haram, and engage with local communities to help overcome their fears, and prevent further stigma and discrimination. The Chibok girls and all the other children who have endured such tragedy deserve as much.