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International Crisis Group Report Examines Women And Boko Haram


When Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 girls in Nigeria a couple of years ago, it started a global movement - Bring Back Our Girls. It turns out this incident represents only a sliver of the damage that Boko Haram has done to women and girls in West Africa.

A report out this week from the International Crisis Group looks at women and the Boko Haram insurgency. It finds that while many women and girls have become victims, women also fight on both sides of the conflict.

Comfort Ero is Africa program director for the International Crisis Group, and she joins us now from London. Thanks for being here.

COMFORT ERO: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: How does this one incident that so many people are familiar with - the abduction of the Chibok girls - fit into the larger pattern of Boko Haram turning women into victims?

ERO: So the Chibok girls have become the symbol of the Boko Haram crisis, but there are countless untold stories, countless unknown kidnappings. And significantly, it's been very difficult to detail every single incident, and our report is part of that effort to provide more information as to the fate of various communities in the insurgency.

SHAPIRO: And your report says that in many cases, women are abducted sort of as punishment for villages or families that have defied or fought Boko Haram.

ERO: Yes, that's right. In the initial start of the insurgency, Boko Haram specifically targeted Christian communities. But as we saw the pushback against Boko Haram, we saw Boko Haram also expand the focus of its targeting going just beyond one specific religious community and targeting everybody in various communities as well.

SHAPIRO: And in addition to the victimization of these countless women, your report talks about women joining the fight voluntarily, some of them on the side of Boko Haram and some of them on the other side. Why would women choose to participate in this conflict?

ERO: Some of them saw the gains, sometimes economically, of having an association with the fighters. Some of them first became members of religious communities. Some of them later became insurgents. Many became targets of violence. Some were fighting within the group or against the group.

So you had a lot - a number of women joining the local vigilante forces to counter Boko Haram. And many also took up activism and relief and reconciliation work to deal with women that were eventually freed from the insurgency.

SHAPIRO: I can imagine why women would join the fight against Boko Haram if Boko Haram is devastating their communities. Why would women volunteer to join this extremist group itself?

ERO: Because there was also a certain degree of appeal. Some women saw the opportunity to study the Quran, to learn Arabic. Some of them saw the economic advantages around marriage because the teaching of Mohammed Yusuf emphasized that the dowry of women after marriage did not necessarily go to the family but also went to the individual bride as well.

SHAPIRO: Mohammed Yusuf we should say was the founder of Boko Haram.

ERO: That's right.

SHAPIRO: When you look specifically at the roles of women fighters as opposed to the men, what are the women doing in this conflict?

ERO: It varies. What we found is that some of the women were involved or used as recruiters themselves. Some of them became spies. Some of them were forcefully or willingly became suicide bombers.

And throughout the course of our research, just distinguishing between the blurred lines of the various activities that we saw women performed just shed light on understanding that it wasn't a simple story of capture-abduction kidnapping.

SHAPIRO: There does seem to be some progress in the fight against Boko Haram. The group holds less land than it did a couple of years ago. Fatality numbers are down. Just this week, the president of Nigeria said Boko Haram fighters are surrendering in huge numbers in neighboring Chad just across Nigeria's border. Are you hopeful?

ERO: I think there certainly has been a lot of pushback largely because the regional effort that was seen by President Buhari and the Lake Chad Basin countries. But Boko Haram remains agile, remains very resilient. And although it's been on the defensive, we have seen significant multiple conducting of suicide bombings. And they still remain capable and agile and very mobile.

SHAPIRO: Comfort Ero, Africa program director for the International Crisis Group, thank you for joining us.

ERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.