When the 276 Chibok girls were abducted in Nigeria in 2014, the world took notice. Rage, disgust, and terror permeated social media feeds; prayers and statements of hope were posted to those same media channels; with a single photo and a hashtag, Michelle Obama started the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Perhaps it was that such an enormous group of young girls were kidnapped that this incidence was given the world stage, but ultimately it was nothing out of the ordinary in northeast Nigeria, where violence regularly instigated by military Islamist group Boko Haram is the order of the day.
For the group, which forbids any political or social activity associated with Western society, brutality is a way of life born out a history of violence in Nigeria, specifically against women. In the conflict zone in the northeast especially women are victims of domestic and intimate partner violence, which are both widely tolerated in Nigerian culture. In fact, two-thirds of women believe that violence should be tolerated to help keep the family together. “You’re socialized into this through the modeling in the home,” explains Hilary Matfess, a 25-year-old Boko Haram expert.
Don’t let Matfess’s age fool you: What started off as a way to offset the cost of grad school has turned into a fiery passion for the research analyst and freelance journalist. First hired in 2014 by her advisor, Peter Lewis, the director of the African Studies department at Johns Hopkins, to track all of the non-criminal lethal violent events in Nigeria since the transition to democracy in 1999, she went on to conduct fieldwork in Tanzania, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. Fascinated by both Boko Haram’s similarities with other Nigerian insurgencies as well as its distinction from other regional threats, the structural violence against women and its relation to the the country’s vulnerability to insurgency is the focus of her research.
Matfess’s work played a pivotal role in Futures Without Violence’s new report, “Linking Security of Women and Security of States,” which was released in May. It highlights that areas exhibiting violent extremism against women are at a higher risk for instability. Where systemic gender-based violence is used as part of a group’s strategy for expansion and control, “the overall level of violence against women is a better predictor of a state peacefulness, compliance with international treaty obligations, and relations with neighboring countries than indicators measuring the level of democracy, level of wealth, and civilizational identity of the state.”
Studies have also shown that violence against women in the home plays a key role in the shaping of young minds, teaching young boys how to treat their future wives and priming girls to expect attacks from their partners. “Extreme subservience of women and girls and the acquiescence of violence against them deeply affect not only the victim, but also those forced to witness and perpetrate such acts,” says Matfess in the report. “Children who are deeply traumatized by exposure to violence become more vulnerable to perpetuating violence. As long as these attitudes are held, women are not safe.”
“These groups are appealing to the community,” says Alexandra Arriaga, partner at consulting firm Strategy for Humanity and consultant to Futures Without Violence. While thousands of women have forcibly been abducted by Boko Haram and thousands of others are fleeing to internally displaced person (IDP) camps, Matfess says there is also a contingent of women who see joining the militant group as the best way to advance their status.
“Painting people who join these groups as inherently evil — it misunderstands what has to motivate someone to join a group whose objective it to overthrow the order,” says Matfess. “You have to be so phenomenally underserved by that order to motivate you to join.” She points out that though Michelle Obama’s #BringBackOurGirls campaign was well-intentioned, a high-ranking government official friend of Matfess’s asks what exactly would we be bringing the girls back to? “Boko Haram took the girls from a life of forced marriage and domestic servitude into a life of forced marriage and domestic servitude.”
According to Matfess, marrying well is frequently the only outlet for female ambition for many women in northeast Nigeria, who often lack access to education or career development opportunities. Of the women who willingly joined Boko Haram that Matfess has spoken with say that they did so because it was one of the only places they could receive, what they believed to be, a high-quality education. “So there is obviously this human ambition and drive, but ambition’s like water: It flows through the channels it can reach,” says Matfess.
In the northeast, the epicenter of the Boko Haram crisis, female literacy rates are low while rates of female violence soar. In Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, where people have the best access to education, female literacy only clocks in at about 9 percent. In a country where early childhood marriage is practiced, the opportunity for women to receive an education is curtailed even more. A Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report recently found that every year of education increases a woman’s earning potential about 10 percent. If women are getting married as early as 14 — or earlier — that greatly reduces their opportunities to learn even more, not to mention poses severe health risks for those who have children when they are practically babies themselves.
One would think that the IDP camps are the safest places in these areas of conflict, but gender-based violence and survival sex is rampant and educational opportunities are borderline nonexistent. With no space completely safe for Nigerian women, Matfess says it’s their resilience that makes these women so inspiring — and the situation that much more heart wrenching. She spoke of one woman who, when she heard that Boko Haram was coming to her village, put her mother in a wheelbarrow and fled. Another woman, pregnant and hiding in the forest with her children and husband who had been shot in the leg, left her family to get to an informal settlement to give birth so that she wouldn’t be alone in the woods with her wounded husband.
When there is no space that is completely safe for women, joining Boko Haram can seem appealing as they are not only given access to education, but, when married, are also paid the bride price their fathers would have received. If gender-based violence is to continue, in their eyes, receiving education and money is a way they can empower themselves. “A lot of these women don’t have what we consider to be ‘productive’ channels,” Matfess adds. “Their ability to engage in education is extremely curtailed, their ability to participate in the labor market is borderline nonexistent.”
For the women abducted into Boko Haram who are lucky enough to be freed, many emerge pregnant. Matfess explains that the way that the global gag rule — Trump’s reinstated ban on the U.S. funding of abortions overseas — is being implemented now applies to all public health funding and applies to 15 times more funding than it did under the previous administration. “Which means that women the world over — and currently we are experiencing one of the greatest periods of humanitarian crises that we’ve seen since World War II — will be negatively impacted by this and they will survive these conflicts only to die as a result of inadequate health care, inadequate support for pregnant women, and just an unwillingness of the global community to recognize that the health of women is critical to the security of women and is central to the stability of states.”
“We’re not trying to solve the whole problem and reverse the country tomorrow,” adds Arriaga. With a number of low-cost, community-based initiatives that engage children— which the report highlights is an important prevention tactic to start to shift the framework of long-held gender-based beliefs — Arriaga reiterates that engaging children in activities and conversations that get them to question their roles has been proven to show results.
“When I brief or talk to people about my work, it often comes to, Well how do we stop Boko Haram?” Matfess says. “And it’s these initiatives that are just unbelievably affordable. Pennies per girl per year. Many of these programs are per participant, because you have to engage both men and women, that can shift social norms away from the acceptance and the practice of violence against women, violence against children, and it sets communities on an entirely different course.
“At present I don’t see programming underway so that, in a post-conflict era, women in northeastern Nigeria will live a more secure, stable, prosperous, empowering life,” says Matfess. Women’s issues are being marginalized, even though the demographic reality is 50 percent female, and yet women are still only an afterthought. “The reservoir of ambition is there and the models and opportunities of productive engagement are not. That’s something that we need to prioritize in the post-conflict situation, but also now in IDP camps, giving women opportunities to organize communally, to advocate for themselves, for better treatment, and develop the types of skills and requirements necessary to help rebuild the northeast in the aftermath of this conflict.”
If you would like to donate to programs in Nigeria to help women and children become free from violence, send your support to UNICEF and the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women. To provide support for elevating violence against women in policy and programs globally, Matfess and Arriaga recommend sending donations to Futures Without Violence and WomenStats.
Top photo: Fulani girl in IDP camp in Mubi
Photos courtesy the author
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Jessica Mahler is a freelance writer, yoga instructor, Reiki Master, and all-around magic maker currently based in Washington, DC. A New Age personality with a vintage heart, her work has appeared in publications such as Vogue, Men's Journal, and Shape. She loves to write about fashion, feminism, yoga, and vegan food, and is a firm believer in love, coffee, and unicorns. Follow her on Instagram @live_your_light on her blog, Downward Facing Blog.