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The Chibok Girls Must Be Found – and Freed
The Chibok Girls Must Be Found – and Freed
Another deeply gendered war is being waged in Ukraine
Another deeply gendered war is being waged in Ukraine
Bring Back Our Girls campaigners look on during a protest procession marking the 500th day since the abduction of girls in Chibok, along a road in Abuja on 27 August 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Commentary / Africa

The Chibok Girls Must Be Found – and Freed

Muhammadu Buhari spoke out clearly when he took over Nigeria’s presidential seat from Goodluck Jonathan in May last year: “We cannot claim to have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls and all other innocent persons held hostage by insurgents”.

At that time, one year had already passed since the 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the insurgent Islamist group Boko Haram. Now, another year later, Nigerians are still waiting to see their government do everything it can to find the girls and Boko Haram’s many other victims.

The ill-fated girls were seized from their dormitory at the Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, Borno state, in a midnight raid on 14 April 2014. Their ordeal since then underscores the toll the Boko Haram insurgency has taken on over one million children, especially girls, in north-east Nigeria and – to a lesser degree – in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The fate of the Chibok girls has come to symbolise the horror of the insurgency, because the victims have been publicly identified by name and face. But there have been countless other incidents where unnamed thousands have been abducted, brutalised, sexually violated and shared out as “wives” to insurgents. Scores have been sent to their death in suicide bombing missions.

The previous government’s response to the kidnapping highlighted much that is wrong with security and governance in Nigeria.

The previous government’s response to the kidnapping – and indeed to the wider insurgency – highlighted much that is wrong with security and governance in Nigeria. The reaction of former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration ranged from initial indifference and denial to later incompetence and deception. Crippled by corruption and mismanagement, the government failed or was unable to respond promptly or effectively to the incident. Military authorities falsely reported that the girls had been rescued, then later claimed they knew where they were being held but lacked the capacity to carry out a rescue operation without endangering their lives.

Pressured by public protests in Nigeria and abroad, Jonathan belatedly established a presidential fact-finding committee, headed by retired military intelligence chief Brigadier General Ibrahim Sabo. The Sabo committee determined that 57 girls had escaped while 219 were still in captivity, but its report has never been made public.

In October 2014, the Jonathan government claimed that following negotiations and a ceasefire agreement, the girls would be released in a matter of days. That turned out to be a scam by people pretending to represent Boko Haram, who duped the government and made off with a substantial sum of money. Thereafter, apart from a brief push in counter-insurgency efforts – perceived more as an attempt to win votes in the 2015 general elections than genuine concern for the insurgency’s victims – little else was done to rescue the girls until Jonathan left office in May 2015.

The government has not offered any update on its efforts to rescue the Chibok girls.

Unlike his predecessor, President Buhari offered early hope. While campaigning, he had pledged to do everything possible to rescue the girls. A few months after inauguration, the new government indicated it was exploring negotiations with Boko Haram for the girls’ release. But despite driving the insurgents from many of their strongholds, the government has not offered any update on its efforts to rescue the Chibok girls, leading many to conclude that they have tailed off. By January 2016, Buhari was chiding the missing girls’ parents for not showing sufficient appreciation for the sacrifices made by the government and the armed forces. He promised to order a fresh investigation, but three months later, nothing more has been heard and not a single girl has been rescued.

While the attention of much of the country – and indeed the world – has largely moved on, concern for the girls has been kept alive by the small but persistent “Bring Back Our Girls” movement, based in Abuja with branches in Lagos, Ibadan, Osogbo and elsewhere in Nigeria and overseas.

Defying official reactions which range from hostility and intimidation to denigration and indifference, since May 2014 the group has met daily in Abuja and weekly in Lagos, Osogbo and Ibadan to stage “sit-outs”: hour-long meetings in an open place to review recent developments relating to the missing girls and their families, to reaffirm support and solidarity, and sometimes to issue a statement.

As the Chibok girls enter the third year of their long and unspeakable misery, we urge the Nigerian government to redouble efforts to end their plight.

The movement has conducted marches to the presidency and the National Assembly, engaged with foreign diplomats and development agencies, and relentlessly worked the mass and social media, pressing for continued efforts to rescue, or at least account for, the missing girls. In its passionate and tenacious advocacy, the group also draws attention to all the children harmed, orphaned, displaced or traumatised by the insurgency. Fundamentally, it demands the government must honour its most basic obligations to protect, and be accountable to, its citizens.

As the Chibok girls enter the third year of their long and unspeakable misery, we urge the Nigerian government to redouble efforts to end their plight.

First, President Buhari should order publication of the Sabo committee’s report. As its work was intended, among other objectives, “to mobilise citizens’ support for a rescue strategy”, the first step of that mobilisation must be to let citizens know what the committee found. How did this tragedy happen? How did the state fail so abysmally in its responsibility to protect? With no suggestion that the report’s publication will undermine national security, Nigerians have a right to know, particularly in a democracy with laws that urge proactive disclosure of public information.

Secondly, as military forces close in on Boko Haram’s remaining enclaves, capture a growing number of its fighters and liberate captives, interrogation of these people could yield crucial information on the kidnapped girls. But it has also become glaringly obvious that Nigeria needs to implement effective procedures for debriefing former fighters and captives, as well as effectively collating and disseminating available intelligence.

The Chibok girls are only a tiny percentage of the thousands of children and women abducted by the insurgents.

The Chibok girls are only a tiny percentage of the thousands of children and women abducted by the insurgents. The scale of the toll has only become apparent as more and more of their captives are liberated by the advancing troops. Nigeria urgently needs detailed documentation of all those seized over the years – indeed, of all missing persons – and government must accept that it has a responsibility to account for them.

The currently haphazard approach to the rehabilitation of rescued captives has left most of them psychologically, socially and culturally vulnerable. Humanitarian programs for those affected by the insurgency must make special provision for the children who have been held captive by the insurgents, offering psychological healing and social rehabilitation for their often unspoken inner pain.

Together with the international community, President Buhari must renew his commitment to the standard – freeing the Chibok girls – that he himself set for claiming to have defeated Boko Haram. Failure to do so could harm his credibility, as it did his predecessor, and leave a permanent burden on the international community’s conscience. The Chibok girls must be found – and freed.


Senior Adviser, Nigeria
Ayo Obe
Vice Chair of Crisis Group's Board

Another deeply gendered war is being waged in Ukraine

Originally published in Aljazeera

Countries with ‘feminist’ foreign policies need a sharper gender framework for addressing Ukraine’s predicament.

Even before the Russian military fired its first strikes in its assault on Ukraine, there were signs that this conflict, like all wars, would upend the peacetime relations and identities of men, women, and people of all genders and inflict suffering on them in very particular ways.

Writing about World War II, the Russian author Svetlana Alexievich reflected that, “Women’s war has its own colours, its own smells, its own lighting, and its own range of feelings. Its own words. There are no heroes and incredible feats, there are simply people who are busy doing inhumanly human things.”

Last week, the image of a wounded and pregnant Ukrainian woman curled on a stretcher appeared on the front page of nearly every British newspaper, and Western leaders, as well as the Ukrainian president, mentioned the horrors facing women and children in every address calling for unity. But the Western supporters of Ukraine, especially the US, NATO, and the European Union, who have insisted for more than two decades now that women’s security shapes their approach to dealing with war, have done little to show that gender will be their framework, or even a framework, for addressing Ukraine’s predicament.

We already see this war cementing old gender roles and inflicting terrible harm on people of all genders in the process. The forced universal conscription of men in Ukraine and Ukraine’s breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk are resurrecting binaries of men as defender-warriors and women as fragile and needing protection. At the same time, the dozens of Ukrainian women signing up to fight, and the narrative imagery of these gun-strapped blonde soldiers skittering across social media, makes it hard to talk about gender and this war in conventional ways.

Ukraine is contending with the tensions of a masculine narrative playing out in border policy and the narrative of brave Ukrainian female warriors rising to repel the advancing enemy. Grimmest of all is the imagery of mobilised children. Recently a picture of a little girl with a lollipop in her mouth perched on a window with a weapon circulated online. What might prove most challenging for a traditional gender-sensitive approach to this war is the emerging and dominant glorification of the militarisation of an entire society.

Despite universal forced conscription, many men do not wish to fight. Men trying to leave the country have been shamed by crowds for not wanting to stay. Trans women who are identified as men in their paperwork have been stopped at the border and prevented from leaving.

We know from other contexts where there seemed no alternative but to mobilise men of fighting age that it often causes further problems down the line. In Nigeria, too, communities saw little option but for young and middle-aged men (and some women too) to join fighter groups to defend themselves from the attacks of Boko Haram. Protecting the family and community was integral to what it meant to be a good man so men and even adolescent boys faced significant pressure – from their friends and others in their communities, from the state, and from themselves – to join such groups. This development blurred the line between fighter and civilian and meant all people living in these locations were seen as fair targets.

In conflicts where similar dynamics are at play, we see little time in the urgency of battle to train these civilian men and women (and others) who mobilise. Any training provided tends to focus on arms handling skills rather than vital concepts of how to wage war in ways compatible with human rights, international humanitarian law, and civilian protection standards. Not surprisingly, levels of human rights abuses, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are higher in conflicts where civilians are mobilised in this way. Indeed, new Ukrainian laws make it legal for anyone to kill invaders. Yet, discussions around military support to Ukraine so far have failed to sufficiently centre the need to mitigate civilian harm during the course of operations.

The response to date not only disregards the potential dangers of forced conscription for men and boys, but it also does not fully consider the risks it creates for women and girls. It is possible that Russia’s floundering war may yet be slowed by compromise, but it appears that for the foreseeable weeks, women will be left to navigate ways to safety, and tasked with their own wellbeing as well as that of their children and the elders they have with them, without the customary support of their partners. Because women without men are seen as more vulnerable, they are more likely to be preyed upon. The strain of finding shelter and food, access to healthcare and education will be acute, and even worse for those with disabilities. Yet, there is insufficient attention paid to these intersectional and gendered vulnerabilities with people with disabilities saying they have been left to fend for themselves. Nor to the 100,000 to 200,000 children segregated from society in Ukraine’s orphanages and at risk of violence, abuse, neglect, sex trafficking and forced labour.

Gender also seems missing from the discussion on non-military responses. The unexpected Western unity and quick sledgehammer of sanctions brought down on Russia by Ukraine’s allies may initially be felt most acutely by the well-off and internationally-oriented middle class, but over time, as the economy tanks, those who are already most marginalised and vulnerable will be hurt the most. We know from the most punishing sanctions regimes of recent memory, imposed on Iran and Venezuela, that these measures erode women’s labour force participation and leadership in key sectors, sap feminist activism, and boost securo-patriarchy, as skittish governments double down on masculine propaganda. The international reverberations of the sanctions – the rise in gas prices, and the grain shortages that are already ensuing from a break in Russian and Ukrainian supplies – will also be felt by the most vulnerable people worldwide, including the disproportionate numbers of women, people with disabilities, and children already facing hunger and poverty.

The conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions aggravated domestic violence against women and led to significant sexual violence perpetrated by members of military forces.

And we know that during times of both conflict and economic uncertainty, levels of gender-based violence increase. How the conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions aggravated domestic violence against women and led to significant sexual violence perpetrated by members of military forces is already well-documented. The journeys across borders and into the homes of strangers undertaken by the more than two million Ukrainians who have fled so far (mostly women and children) leave them vulnerable to human traffickers and sexual exploitation. Women selling sex may be at risk of violence by soldiers and further human rights abuses. Not even when the fighting stops will there be a respite. Other conflicts show that gender-based violence rises during fighting and can increase even more when the bullets stop and men suffering from war trauma return home, to find women have been forced to take on decision-making roles during their absence.

Indeed, Russia’s security anxieties and the revival of NATO have reconfigured the Cold War. But before that, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s optics of bare-chested horse riding and emphasis on his physical manly prowess signalled he saw his country’s path as militant-minded, if not actually yet militant, and showed how militarism is linked with this very particular notion of masculinity.

Russian disinformation campaigns have tried to lodge the idea that entrance into NATO will require the acceptance of Western gender relations and the excising of traditional values. This clash of gender norms and associated masculinities finds the greatest resonance in the conflict bros, the foreign legion called for by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and endorsed by Liz Truss, UK Foreign Secretary. Missing from this picture – whether it be the all-male Cabinet shared in Zelenskyy’s Telegram videos or the Biden-Putin-Zelenskyy triad – are women with feminist perspectives. They are largely marginalised in real decision-making at both national and global levels in this conflict despite feminists in Russia and elsewhere mobilising against war.

The last two weeks have highlighted how quickly countries resort to old ways of acting in times of crisis. In the middle of a global pandemic and climate crisis, resources that proved difficult to find for provision of decent basic services and reshaping economic systems in more (climate-) just ways have been quickly mobilised for defence expenditure. To widespread applause, Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, announced the immediate establishment of a fund of €100bn to boost military strength and a sustained increase in defence spending over the coming years. Sweden, Denmark and Poland also agreed to bolster military expenditure.

Is this arms spending race, action that seems certain to hurt gender equality, and world of militarised masculinities really the future we want? Alternatives seem impossible to imagine right now. In the midst of crisis, the drumbeat to war is overwhelming. Time to think, analyse, and reflect before acting seems like a luxury for another time. Yet, we have been here so many times before and it is vital to react differently.

Countries like Canada, France, Spain, Finland and Sweden say they have a feminist foreign policy. Yet, mentions of the deeply gendered harms inflicted by this war and how to better protect people of all genders, have been few and far between in the responses of nations who say they are committed to gender equality and women’s rights thus far, eclipsed by a focus on boosting arms deliveries and economic sanctions. These states should not only aim to apply these policies to the Global South battlefields where they usually administer their Women, Peace and Security agenda. They need to translate to being more prepared, vocal, and mitigating gendered harms during an unfolding war in Europe itself.


Project Director, Gender and Conflict
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Chitra Nagarajan
Activist, writer, and researcher working on conflict, gender, human rights, and peace-building