A month ago today, up to 300 girls were kidnapped from a school in northern Nigeria. It is reported that over 200 – some say 276 – are still missing. Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group who carried out the abductions, has threatened to sell the girls. If this happens they will possibly be sold into sexual slavery, and might be transferred to Nigeria’s neighbouring countries, Chad and Cameroon.
The plight of these girls is a terrifying example of violence against women in situations of chronic armed violence. Such areas, however, despite their levels of violence are not recognised as being places of armed conflict. So, despite chronically high-levels of armed violence in Nigeria, levels of political violence that surpass that seen in Somalia, for instance Nigeria itself has not officially been classified as conflict zone.
Would it have made a difference if it was a “conflict”? It appears so. As many as 140 governments are coming together in London in June to mobilize global support for ending sexual violence in conflict. But this initiative, however noble in itself, would not include fighting for the girls of Chibok, Nigeria, simply because it is not classified as war.
Armed violence in this African economic giant is endemic. Amnesty International reports that armed violence between government and rebel groups in 2014 resulted in at least 2000 deaths. Boko Haram has been active in Nigeria since 2002 and has been the main armed group terrorising the public in that country. AOAV’s recent report on armed violence in Nigeria also highlights that for tens of thousands of Nigerians, armed violence is an “ugly and daily truth”.
The Nigerian government, plain and simply, is unable – or even unwilling – to effectively protect its population. And when they do try, they often overstep the mark. Hundreds are currently being held captive by the Nigerian security forces on suspicion of having collaborated with Boko Haram, without right to access to justice or any due process protections. In fact, as AOAV found, disproportionate use of force by government agents has been one of the main sources of armed violence there.
Violence often begets violence, too. Since 2009, Boko Haram has targeted schools, burning them to the ground and kidnapping and killing teachers. They have demanded that schools be shut down, and have violently targeted pupils. For many living in Nigeria, women and girls in particular, their daily conditions of fear, insecurity and armed violence are – quite simply – indistinguishable from conditions they would experience in a conflict zone.
And people feel powerless as a result. Today, very little information about kidnapped girls is really known. The government claims it is working to find them, but it is unclear what actions it is taking to do so. The real presence of impunity and inaction dominates this whole horror story.
The international community itself was slow to respond in any concerning way as to what has happened to the girls. Thankfully, the past few days has seen government representatives, journalists and social media campaigns jumping into action. This is undeniably a positive thing, and hopefully the girls will be returned to their homes safely.
However, it has to be remembered that this attack is part of a bigger picture: the use of violence against women and sexual violence in armed violence situations is just as terrible, just as lethal and just as unacceptable as it is in war. And that unless we acknowledge this and act as one, there will be countless more girls, over time, who are kidnapped, raped and tortured. And who – next time – will be there to plea for them to be brought back home?
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