Abductions of Women and Girls by Boko Haram

Based on interviews with victims, witnesses, medical staff, journalists, and government officials, as well as an analysis of credible media and other reports, Human Rights Watch estimates that Boko Haram has abducted at least 500 women and girls since 2009 from more than a dozen towns and villages in Borno and Yobe states.[46]

Victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were abducted at home, working on their farms, at school, traveling on roads, or during attacks on their village. The victims described seeing scores of other women and children in Boko Haram camps, ranging from infants to 65 years old, but were unable to ascertain how many of them had also been abducted and how many were family members of the combatants.

The abduction of schoolgirls from the Government Secondary School, in Chibok, Borno State, on the night of April 14, 2014, is the biggest single incident of abduction by Boko Haram at time of writing. According to a June 20, 2014 report by Nigeria’s Presidential Fact Finding Committee on the Chibok attack, Boko Haram abducted a total of 276 schoolgirls, 57 of whom have since escaped, while 219 are still unaccounted for.[47] The abductions sparked national and international protests, bringing much-needed attention to the vulnerability of Nigerian women and girls to abduction.

Chibok Abductions

Human Rights Watch interviewed 12 young women and girls who escaped from Boko Haram custody after the school attack. On the day of their abduction, many of the students had taken their West African School Certificate examinations.[48] Unusually, on the evening of the attack, none of the teachers, the principal, or other administrative staff was within the school grounds, the students told Human Rights Watch.[49] The school was reopened in April after the closure of Borno schools in March, as a center for the senior secondary certificate examinations, during which female students lived in dormitories while male students came in daily for the month-long exams.[50]

The young women and girls described hearing gunshots some kilometers away between 11:30 p.m. and 11:45 p.m., and soon after, observed the men entering the school compound on motorcycles.[51] An 18-year-old described what happened after Boko Haram gathered the young women and girls together:[52]

Two men told us we should not worry, we should not run. They said they had come to save us from what is happening inside the town, that they are policemen. We did not know that they were from Boko Haram. The rest of the men came and started shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and at that moment we realized, they were Boko Haram. We were told to be quiet. One of them told us that the horrible things we heard happening elsewhere, like burning houses, killing people, killing students, kidnapping people, would happen to us now. We all started crying and he told us to shut up.

The only guard, a civilian, who had been posted at the gate fled as soon as he saw the Boko Haram fighters approaching the school. According to the teenage students, the lack of security made it easy for the fighters to overrun the compound, seize the young women and girls from their dormitory, and organize their transport. Boko Haram did not arrive with a sufficient number of vehicles, and tried to arrange for more.[53] The students said they believed the primary objective of Boko Haram’s attack was the theft of a brick-making machine as well as food and other supplies. However, this apparently changed once the men realized they had access to the young women and girls and faced little resistance.

Unlike most of the other abductions by Boko Haram that Human Rights Watch has documented, the group in this case did not discriminate on the basis of religion, but abducted all the students, including Muslims. The students described how the men shot in the air and then threatened two Muslim students and instructed them to show them where the brick-making machine was, otherwise they would kill all the students, starting with the Muslims, the escapees told Human Rights Watch.[54]

After looting and burning the school grounds, the men put as many students as they could fit into one truck.[55] The remaining young women and girls were forced to walk for about 10 miles at gunpoint on the route to Boko Haram’s Sambisa forest camp, until they could be accommodated in other vehicles that later arrived. Three girls, for whom there was still no room, were released. Some of the students escaped by jumping off the back of trucks, or hanging on tree branches and jumping down when the trucks had driven off. They sustained injuries including sprains and fractures. Others escaped when the convoy stopped to replenish food supplies; the girls asked to go to the bathroom and then fled. They returned home often days later with the help of local residents.

Other Abduction Cases

The relative ease with which it carried out the Chibok abductions appears to have emboldened Boko Haram to step up abductions elsewhere. On April 16, six women and two children were abducted from Wala village and taken to a camp in Sambisa forest. Another five women from Gujba village in Yobe State were reportedly abducted on April 25.[56] Eleven teenage girls were also abducted during attacks on Wala and Warabe villages in southern Borno State on May 6.[57] In early June, suspected Boko Haram gunmen reportedly kidnapped another 60 women from Kummabza, in Damboa, Borno State.[58]

There were also numerous abductions before Chibok, including during a February 2014 attack on Konduga, a village 35 kilometers from Maiduguri, during which 20 female students attending the Government Girls Science College and five female street traders were abducted. The Konduga attack left more than 53 people dead.

Boko Haram also reportedly abducted at least 20 women from the Fulani ethnic group from Bakin Kogi, Garkin Fulani, and Rugar Hardo villages near Chibok on June 6, 2014.[59] Local residents and media reports indicate that the capture of the Fulani women, who are Muslim, was a kidnap for ransom, different from the previous pattern of abductions.[60] Boko Haram reportedly demanded 800 cattle in exchange for the women’s return to their homes.[61]

Boko Haram has also abducted numerous men and boys, especially young men of fighting age. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the men and boys are often given the option of joining the group or being killed. Other men appeared to have been targeted for abduction because of their specific skills or occupation, which filled a need in the insurgents’ camp. This was the case of a 46-year-old pharmaceutical salesman abducted from Buni Yadi in March 2014 while he sitting outside his shop with a group of friends. A neighbor who witnessed the abduction described what happened:[62]

Armed men rode up on motorcycles and ordered him to load all the drugs in his shop into his car. An aged neighbor who tried to flee when he saw their guns was told not to run because they had come only for the medicine seller who according to them had a duty to use his skills to serve God in their camp.

A 20-year-old woman who was abducted in May 2013 when she ran into a roadblock mounted by insurgents at Firgi, near Bama, told Human Rights Watch:

The blockade was up to 40 vehicles long. When the men in military uniform separated the Muslims from the Christians, we knew then they were Boko Haram. All young men including Muslims were told to either join the insurgents or be killed. They slit the throat of some of the men, saying they’d not waste bullets on them. Christian women wearing pants were shot in the leg and left to die. Older Muslim men and women wearing Muslim veils were released to go, while the rest of us were driven to their camp in Sambisa forest.[63]

Abuses Suffered during Abduction

The 30 women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch were subjected to a variety of abuses, including physical and psychological suffering during and after their abduction, sometimes for refusing to convert to Islam; forced labor, including forced participation in military operations; forced marriage to their captors; and sexual abuse including rape. While some women and girls seem to have been taken at random, the majority appeared to have been targeted—notably students and Christians.

Forced Labor

Fourteen women and girls who had either escaped or were released from Boko Haram camps in the Sambisa forest and Gwoza hills, as well as other witnesses, described how they and others at the camp were routinely forced to cook, clean, and perform household chores while in Boko Haram custody in the camps. In 2010, a woman who had been abducted and held for three days by Boko Haram in 2009 told Human Rights Watch in Maiduguri that she had been forced to wash the bloodied clothes of insurgents killed in the July 2009 violence.[64]

Other abducted women and girls were forced to participate in military operations to support the group. A 19-year-old who was held in several camps in the Gwoza hills for three months in 2013 was forced to participate in attacks and to carry ammunition for her captors:

At first, my job in the camp was to cook for the 14-man group until a month later when I was taken along for an operation. I was told to hold the bullets and lie in the grass while they fought. They came to me for extra bullets as the fight continued during the day. When security forces arrived at the scene and began to shoot at us, I fell down in fright. The insurgents dragged me along on the ground as they fled back to camp.[65]

The victim described another operation:

On the way back from another operation, I was told to approach a group of five men we saw in a nearby village and lure them to where the insurgents were hiding. Afraid because of the killings I had witnessed during the operation, I told the young men, mostly teenage members of the Civilian JTF, that I needed their help. When they followed me for a short distance, the insurgents swooped on them. Once we got back to the camp, they tied the legs and hands of the captives and slit the throats of four of them as they shouted ‘Allahu Akbar.’ Then I was handed a knife to kill the last man. I was shaking with horror and couldn’t do it. The camp leader’s wife took the knife and killed him.>[66]

Another victim told Human Rights Watch that although she was spared work because she had a three-month-old baby when she was abducted in April 2014, she saw others forced to work. She described seeing some of the Chibok schoolgirls forced to cook and clean for other women and girls whom the insurgents had chosen for “special treatment because of their beauty.”[67]

In Gwoza, an area of Borno State where the hilly terrain makes vehicular traffic almost impossible, abductees described having to carry the loot stolen by the insurgents from villages and towns they had attacked. A 15-year-old girl abducted from her home in Pulka, near Gwoza, noted how tired she was after walking for hours through the night with a bundle on her head:

They added more and more piles of clothing and other items stolen from homes and shops they looted before setting on fire each village they passed until I thought I would collapse from the weight of the load. I was relieved when two more girls were abducted in another village. They took over some of the goods I was carrying.[68]

Targeting of Christian Women and Girls, Forced Conversion

The Chibok students interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that nearly all of those abducted from their school, located in a predominantly Christian area of Borno State, were Christian. This is an assertion supported by Christian leaders who say that 90 percent of the abducted girls were Christian.[69] In the video released by Boko Haram after the Chibok abductions, scores of the students were seen chanting in Arabic, as Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau declared that the young women and girls from Christian homes would be sold as slaves in the market.[70]

More broadly, the majority of the abductions documented by Human Rights Watch and many of those credibly reported in the media took place in the predominantly Christian area of southern Borno State. Of the 30 victims of abduction interviewed by Human Rights Watch, 29 were Christian; most appeared to have been targeted because of their religious affiliation. Many were threatened with death if they refused to convert to Islam.

Most of those interviewed described either Christian women and girls being singled out for abduction or Muslim women and girls being allowed to leave shortly after abduction, while Christians were not. According to the former abductees interviewed by Human Rights Watch, unmarried Christian women and girls seemed particularly vulnerable to being held captive for longer periods than those who were married, who were more frequently released after telling Boko Haram they had converted to Islam.[71]

Some Christian women and girls, according to one well-documented report, endured the destruction and looting of their businesses, forced conversions and marriage to Muslim men, or were murdered.[72]

Witnesses and victims of ten different incidents of abduction told Human Rights Watch how insurgents separated Christian and Muslim women, releasing those confirmed to be Muslims and abducting the Christian women. A 22-year-old woman who was stopped at a Boko Haram roadblock near Bama in April 2013 described this dynamic:

As soon as our bus stopped, the insurgents shouted ‘Muslims, stand on this side. Christians, you infidels, stand on the other side.’ Ten people, including the driver, stood on the Muslim side, while I and seven other passengers were in the Christian group. When two men in our group were shot, three of the women began to scream and they were shot in the legs. I quickly shut my eyes and mouth. They told everyone else, including the Muslims, to get back in the bus, but along the way they saw military men ahead, ordered us out, and drove off. I was lucky to escape before we reached Boko Haram’s dreaded camp.[73]

A 23-year-old woman described how, after being abducted with her 47-year-old mother in November 2013, they were threatened with death unless they converted to Islam:

We returned to our village to get food after an attack, thinking the insurgents would have left after one week, but several of them grabbed my mother and I. They had guns and took us to a house in the hills where we met four other people who had been taken—two girls and two boys, all between 13 and 17 years old. The insurgent leader addressed us saying ‘today we’re going to convert you to Islam, then you can choose any one of us to marry, and we’ll give you a place to stay.’ My mother and I were already married so we refused but when they threatened to kill us, my mother advised we should agree because I was in the early stages of pregnancy and was too sick to eat. We were made to recite some words in Arabic and showed how to pray. Then they let us go after three days because my mother promised we will convince our husbands to become Muslims. I don’t know what happened to the other four abducted boys and girls we met in the camp. They were still there when we were allowed to leave.[74]

One woman held by Boko Haram in a camp near Gwoza described how Boko Haram combatants placed a noose around her neck and threatened her with decapitation when she refused to renounce her religion. She told Human Rights Watch:

I was dragged to the camp leader who told me the reason I was brought to the camp was because we Christians worship three gods. When I objected to his claim, he tied a rope around my neck and beat me with a plastic cable until I almost passed out. An insurgent who I recognized from my village convinced me to accept Islam lest I should be killed. So I agreed.[75]

A 19-year-old student who was abducted with four friends when travelling home from school described how pretending to be a Muslim led to her release:

Our friend told them we were all Muslims, and when they asked for our veils, our friend opened her bag and handed each of us her veils. They took us to their camp and watched us join the Muslim prayers for two days before we were released. The leader gave us gifts of cloth fabric and cash, as we left admonishing to always wear veils as good Muslim women.[76]

In cases where forced conversion did not lead to the release of abductees, it usually led to “marriage” to members of Boko Haram. A 15-year-old girl described how a commander in the camp threatened to whip two abducted girls until they agreed to renounce Christianity:

Although we were not whipped, the daily pressure became unbearable, so we agreed [to convert] after five days. On that day, the leader handed us green colored hijabs, gave us new Muslim names, and instructed the other women in the camp to daily teach us Arabic words. A week later, he performed a ceremony, reading out words in Arabic language, and then announced that we were now wedded: my companions to two insurgents in the camp, while I became his wife.[77]

Several witnesses described how abducted married women or those abducted with children were often released when they told Boko Haram they had converted to Islam. According to a 38-year-old victim, abducted in April 2014 with five other Christian women and two infants:

As soon as the armed men stopped our vehicle, the men and women identified as Muslims were released to go. They began to insult those of us that confessed to be Christians, calling us pagans, and drove us to a camp in Sambisa forest. They asked us to join the hundreds of women we saw in the camp cooking and cleaning for Muslim prayers or we would get no food. One woman told us we would be spared if we converted to Islam, and she taught us to pray in Arabic language. After watching us pray for four days, they extracted our pledges to instruct our husbands to accept Islam, then drove us to a nearby town. We were each given different sums of money to transport us back home.[78]

Abductees interviewed by Human Rights Watch described having to comply with Islamic dress rules, such as wearing of veils or the hijab. When they agreed to convert, they were given Muslim names by Boko Haram or Boko Haram sympathizers.

Forced Marriage

Human Rights Watch spoke with six victims and witnesses who had been forced to marry or had witnessed women and girls forced to marry Boko Haram combatants. Spokespersons for the group have frequently expressed an aversion to Western-style education for girls, preferring instead that the girls attend Quranic schools or marry. In the May 2014 video, Abubakar Shekau boasted that the Chibok students would be given in marriage to his group members: “We would also give their hands in marriage because they are our slaves. We would marry them out at the age of nine. We would marry them out at the age of 12.”[79]

Four Christian women and girls told Human Rights Watch how they had been forced into marriage after their abduction in late 2013. One was abducted while working on a farm in Gwoza; another was taken from her home near Gwoza when insurgents could not find her father, a pastor, who was their target. The other two girls were taken from their home in the same area, together with their brother’s wife, who later managed to escape as the insurgents led them from the house.

When one of the girls, a 17-year-old farmer, complained to a Boko Haram commander that they 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?”[80]

Another girl held by insurgents for one month told Human Rights Watch, “When I insisted that I could not marry at 15, the leader, though already married, declared he would marry me himself. He made us recite some words in Arabic after him, handed us new veils, and declared we were now married.”

A 19-year-old girl who was held in a Boko Haram camp in Gwoza told Human Rights Watch that she was offered thousands of naira as dowry to marry one of the insurgents:

I refused the dowry, asking them to go pay to my father if they wanted to marry me. An insurgent who knows my family accepted it on my behalf. He told me he was afraid I would be killed if I continued to refuse. I became confused at the implication of being married to a Boko Haram member, so I pretended to be very ill, and the wedding was postponed until the return of the camp leader, who was travelling to meet the group’s overall leader in the Sambisa camp. He ordered that I should be taken to the hospital [in the local town] for tests before his return. It was the break I’d been praying for. I threatened the woman sent to take me to a hospital in town that I would scream and expose her to Civilian JTF. She quickly walked away as I made my escape.[81]

The victim, who escaped almost three months after her abduction, described how Boko Haram combatants took revenge for her escape against her family and Christian community:

Insurgents disguised as Civilian JTF accused my brother to security forces of being a member of Boko Haram, and he was arrested. He spent two weeks in detention before the leadership of our church was able to convince the military authorities of his innocence. But when the insurgents realized he had been released, they attacked and burnt my family home and all four churches in my village. My entire family was forced to leave the village. Even now I am still afraid.[82]

Rape and Sexual Violence

Human Rights Watch documented eight cases of sexual violence perpetrated by Boko Haram combatants. Five victims, ranging in age from 15 to 22 years old, described their ordeal, while the three other assaults were described by witnesses.

Four of the sexual assaults occurred after the girl or woman was forced to marry a Boko Haram combatant. Before “marriage,” commanders appeared to make some effort to protect women from sexual assault. However, in two cases, insurgents took advantage of the absence of a commander and sexually abused abductees who had yet to be “married.” An 18-year-old victim described how a Boko Haram combatant sexually abused her when she went to use the bathroom:

I did not know he followed me when I walked a short distance away from the tree under which we slept. He grabbed me from behind, roughly fondling me while trying to take off his pants. I screamed in fright and he hurriedly left me as I continued to shout for help.[83]

Another woman, who was raped in 2013 in a Boko Haram camp near Gwoza, described how a commander’s wife appeared to encourage the crime:

I was lying down in the cave pretending to be ill because I did not want the marriage the commander planned to conduct for me with another insurgent on his return from the Sambisa camp. When the insurgent who had paid my dowry came in to force himself on me, the commander’s wife blocked the cave entrance and watched as the man raped me.[84]

A 15-year-old who was abducted in 2013 and spent four weeks with Boko Haram told Human Rights Watch:

After we were declared married I was ordered to live in his cave but I always managed to avoid him. He soon began to threaten me with a knife to have sex with him, and when I still refused he brought out his gun, warning that he would kill me if I shouted. Then he began to rape me every night. He was a huge man in his mid-30s and I had never had sex before. It was very painful and I cried bitterly because I was bleeding afterwards.[85]

A 19-year-old woman, who was married and had children, described how she and one other woman were raped after having been abducted with four other women in April 2014:

When we arrived at the camp they left us under a tree. I managed to sleep; I was exhausted and afraid. Late in the night, two insurgents shook me and another woman awake, saying their leader wanted to see us. We had no choice but to follow them, but as soon as we moved deep into the woods, one of them dragged me away, while his partner took the other woman in another direction. I guessed what they had in mind and began to cry. I begged him, telling him I was a married woman. He ignored my pleas, flung me on the ground, and raped me. I could not tell anyone what happened, not even my husband. I still feel so ashamed and cheated. The other woman told me she was also raped, but vowed never to speak of it again as she was single and believes that news of her rape would foreclose her chances of marriage.[86]

A 20-year-old woman, abducted in September 2013, told Human Rights Watch that the insurgent she was “married” to wore a mask all the time, even when he raped her. Even though she had since escaped, she said, “I am still afraid to go anywhere because he could be any one of the people around me. Every time I see a huge dark man, I jump in fright that it might be him coming to get me back. I stay awake some nights because I dream of those terrible weeks I spent in their camp.”[87]

A November 2013 study published by Nigeria’s Political Violence Research Network (NPRV), a nongovernmental organization, on violence against Christian women in northeast Nigeria documented 17 cases of women and girls who had been raped. The cases included the rape of six women who said they were repeatedly raped for two weeks in May 2013 by insurgents holding them in a house in Maiduguri. The men cited the women’s religion as a reason for the abuse.[88]

Other credible rapes have been reported in the Nigerian media, including the case of a 44-year-old businesswoman who was allegedly raped by teenage combatants while she was held in their camp for not giving money to their “cause.”>[89]

A social worker who has worked extensively with families affected by Boko Haram’s violence said he believes the rape of abducted women and girls has been underreported, given the culture of silence, stigma, and shame around sexual abuse in the deeply conservative and religious areas of northern Nigeria.[90]

He described how he counseled several victims whose relatives insisted on sending them to other towns to avoid the family being ostracized by neighbors. According to this social worker, the conduct of the victims’ family members at times intensified the trauma faced by the victim. In one such case, a husband of a victim abducted in Adamawa State refused to touch his wife after she was raped by an insurgent in a Boko Haram camp in Gwoza in December 2013.[91]

Researchers from the NPVRN concluded similarly that, because of the stigma associated with rape, many victims were unwilling to open up about their horrific experiences.[92]

Women and Girl Insurgents

There is little information about the presence of women and girls in the ranks of Boko Haram. While former abductees interviewed by Human Rights Watch described the presence of hundreds of women and children in Boko Haram camps, it was unclear if they had been abducted or had voluntarily joined their family members involved in Boko Haram.

A few of the apparent wives of Boko Haram commanders were themselves implicated in abuses. One abductee described to Human Rights Watch how the “wife” of a Boko Haram cell leader cut the throat of a young man whom she had been forced to lure into an ambush planned by the insurgents.[93] Another abductee described how a woman working with Boko Haram had beaten her grandmother:

My grandmother’s only offence was answering a local Muslim woman roughly. How could we know she was a Boko Haram agent? When she returned with two insurgents who began to hit and kick my grandmother, I came out to help her and they took me away.[94]

Earlier in June a female suicide bomber reportedly died along with a soldier during an attempt on the 301 Artillery Regiment Quarter Guard in Gombe, a northeastern state that had previously not witnessed insurgency-related violence.[95] The July 2014 arrest in Katsina, northwest Nigeria, of a 10-year-old girl who was allegedly strapped with explosive materials is fueling fears that Boko Haram is increasingly using women and girls, who can easily evade detection, to carry out attacks.[96]

According to a report released by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict in September 2014, forces on both sides of the conflict have enlisted children; during a July 10 attack on Marte, Borno State, witnesses claimed that girls as young as 14 were among the attackers.[97] The Watchlist report also said that Nigerian security forces have caught children as young as 12 fighting alongside members of Boko Haram.[98]