Girls freed from Boko Haram in Nigeria can face further detention and abuse by military, Amnesty report finds

6/10/2024, 2:50 p.m.
Girls and young women freed from Boko Haram terrorists in northeast Nigeria continue to suffer severe hardships, including unlawful military …
Girls rescued by Nigerian soldiers from Islamist militants Boko Haram at Sambisa Forest line up to collect donated clothes at the Malkohi refugee camp in Yola in May 2015. Mandatory Credit: Emmanuel Arewa/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource

 Girls and young women freed from Boko Haram terrorists in northeast Nigeria continue to suffer severe hardships, including unlawful military detention, neglect, and inadequate support to start over, according to a new Amnesty International report.

While protracted military detention has decreased recently, the report released Monday noted that many women still experienced mistreatment.

Titled, “‘Help us build our lives’: Girl Survivors of Boko Haram and Military Abuses in Northeast Nigeria,” it probes how girls and young women have been abducted, forced into marriage, and subjected to sexual violence by Boko Haram.

Survivors recounted giving birth to children fathered by Boko Haram fighters, often when they were still minors themselves. One young woman revealed that she twice witnessed Boko Haram members execute women who had taken contraceptive pills.

Based on 126 interviews with women and girls aged between 12 and 48 years old, including 82 who survived being abused while children, the report details the atrocities carried out by Boko Haram. The interviews were conducted between 2019 and 2024 in northeast Nigeria, with the majority undertaken in the past year.

Amnesty has contacted several global partners about its findings, including the office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, urging it to investigate “crimes under international law committed by all parties during the conflict in north-east Nigeria.”

Amnesty researchers say they spoke to nearly 50 girls and young women who escaped Boko Haram and found their way to government-held territory, risking their lives and those of their children in the process.

However, their horrific experiences at the hands of their captors were further compounded by the hardship they faced once they regained their freedom.

 “These girls, many of whom are now young women, had their childhood stolen from them and suffered a litany of war crimes and other human rights abuses. They are now showing remarkable bravery as they seek to take control of their future,” said Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s regional director for West and Central Africa.

‘Wives of Boko Haram’

Among the 126, the Amnesty team spoke to 31 girls and young women who described being unlawfully imprisoned in military custody between 2015 and mid-2023 for periods ranging from a few days to over four years, accused of having allegiances with Boko Haram.

They described being humiliated by soldiers who called them “wives of Boko Haram” and accused them of being behind killings carried out by the terror group.

Several told Amnesty researchers of enduring beatings while detained by the military. One of them, named NV in the report, said she fled Boko Haram in 2021 when she was around 20. She said she was held for two months in Madagali, Adamawa State, by soldiers.

NV said: “When they [soldiers] brought food… they gave us a portion in our hand and soup in one bowl for all of us to share… As a toilet, they gave us a plastic bag.”

Another, called GN in the report, said Nigerian soldiers detained her after they raided the camp where she and others were held by Boko Haram, before being taken to an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp. She had been forcibly married to a Boko Haram fighter while in captivity but remarried while living in the IDP for an extended period.

She later received a call from her Boko Haram “husband” asking her to come back to him, which aroused suspicion from a neighbor who reported her to security forces, GN said.

“Nigerian soldiers detained her in Bama Prison for around one month in the second half of 2021 and beat her with a cane for three days. She was pregnant at the time. The soldiers blindfolded her and transferred her to Giwa Barracks in Maiduguri. GN was unlawfully detained there for around one year, during which she gave birth,” the report stated.

By the time she regained her freedom, her Boko Haram “husband” had sued her and her new husband in sharia (Islamic) court and they were ordered to pay him money, it added.

Amnesty International said it had communicated its findings to Nigerian federal and state authorities.

In response, the Nigerian Defense Headquarters in a statement sent to CNN Monday said the Armed Forces of Nigeria AFN “makes it unequivocally clear that, it is a professional military force that operates within the ambit of International law of armed conflict.”

Adding that it would encourage Amnesty “to approach the military high command to substantiate their allegations. The military has self regulating mechanisms with which it administers the military justice system to address any proven case of misconduct of personnel.”

CNN has contacted the Nigerian Army and the Borno State authorities for comment on the allegations.

The Borno State government, under an initiative to reintegrate fleeing and surrendered Boko Haram fighters, gave reassurances that they would not be prosecuted but allowed to stay with their families, including their wives, according to the report.

“Borno State Governor Babagana Zulum promised that Boko Haram fighters would not be handed over to the military and would be provided with services and allowed to stay with their families, including their ‘wives,’” the report said.

When Amnesty asked girls and young women about the screening process conducted by the military or government authorities after they had exited Boko Haram, “none of the interviewees said they were asked whether they had married or joined Boko Haram freely.” This failure to attempt to identify victims of forced marriage or trafficking makes it even harder for the women and girls to access the support they are entitled to, the report said.

A decade-long reign of terror

Since 2009, the armed Islamist group Boko Haram has waged an insurgency estimated to have killed more than 35,000 people and displaced two million people in the country’s northeast, according to the UN.

During a reign of terror that spanned more than a decade, Boko Haram launched attacks on families in the northeast of Nigeria, with tactics including “suicide bombings, abductions, torture, rape, forced marriages, and recruitment of child soldiers,” according to the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

One of Boko Haram’s most notorious abductions was the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014, when nearly 300 students were taken from their school in Chibok, Borno State. This event prompted global outrage and spotlighted the insurgent group’s brutal tactics.

Since the Chibok abductions, many more girls have been abducted; most of them were forced into marriage. According to the report, Boko Haram engages in child and forced marriage.

The interviewees described harsh treatment and public punishments and at least 31 girls told Amnesty researchers they were forced to witness lashings, amputations, and beheadings.

One girl referred to as GH in the report, was held captive for about 10 years.

She recounted often being forced to watch violent punishments. “Sometimes I dream about the corpses that I saw or the stoning of the women that I saw. Once I open my eyes, I can’t go back to sleep again,” she said in the report.

Many survivors of Boko Haram told Amnesty that they witnessed Boko Haram killing their relatives.

One young woman, named as CB in the report, said she was abducted at around age 13 in 2014.

“One day, Boko Haram … came into our house. They told our father we were non-believers. They shot my father in the back of his head, and the bullet came through his eyes. We started crying. They said if we don’t keep quiet, they will kill my mother too,” she told researchers.

Kidnapped girls were also forced into sexual slavery and domestic servitude as “wives,” with at least 33 survivors telling Amnesty they were raped by the men they were forced to marry.

One teenager, named as HA in the Amnesty report, said she agreed to get married to a Boko Haram militant to save her father’s life. She added that she was frequently raped and beaten during the “marriage,” with other Boko Haram fighters helping her husband as he forced himself on her.

Consequently, many of the girls and young women face long-term issues relating to their health, have had limited access to education, and suffer stigma from their loved ones and their community.

Amnesty says the women and girls are speaking out to seek urgent help and support.

“These survivors are overlooked and abandoned. This needs to change … on their terms and with their active and meaningful participation. Their message must no longer be ignored: “Help us rebuild our lives.”