That women have links to Boko Haram in Nigeria is well known. Exactly what part they play though is often unclear or misunderstood. Women are often viewed as victims or accessories of the group, and not perpetrators, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research shows.
Women play many different roles in violent extremist groups, and they have many reasons for joining and leaving them. Understanding these roles and reasons is critical in shaping processes to reintegrate women back into society, and in giving women incentives to leave Boko Haram.
Women support violent extremist groups like Boko Haram, including on the battlefield. They often serve as housewives, but some receive combat training and learn how to handle explosive devices, and dismantle, clean, assemble and shoot rifles. Others work in both front line combat and combat support roles, including willing or forced deployment as suicide bombers.
Abduction, marriage and detention are key pathways for women into Boko Haram. The group uses different strategies including brainwashing, cajoling and drugging to transform women who join, especially those who don’t do so willingly, from victims into active members.
Boko Haram forces people under its control to attend Quranic classes and sermons that aim to indoctrinate and brainwash recruits by justifying violence against ‘unbelievers’. A failure to participate can be punishable by death, with new recruits forced to watch the punishment to deter similar behaviour.
Women have volunteered as suicide bombers to escape a miserable existence with Boko Haram
Boko Haram members who serve as village leaders reportedly put their wives in charge of abducted women. The wives teach abductees the Quran and the importance of supporting the group in its jihad. They also identify women who have potential for deeper engagement, such as spying on possible deserters and undertaking suicide missions.
Despite their indoctrination and seeming acceptance of Boko Haram, many women leave the group because of deteriorating living conditions, the death of their spouse, forced and abusive marriages, restrictions, disillusionment and the fear of being killed during military operations.
Some take risks by fleeing in the middle of the night, when male fighters go out on raids or when it is raining, and some are released or arrested by security forces during military operations. Women have been known to volunteer as suicide bombers to escape a miserable existence. Some remove their suicide vests and escape, and some go ahead with the mission and kill themselves.
For those who involuntarily disengage from Boko Haram after being arrested, questions remain about their denunciation of the group’s ideology and strategies, especially as some return to the group. This necessitates tailor-made rehabilitation for women who have been associated with Boko Haram.
Some who have been reintegrated back into society still show affinity to Boko Haram, and a willingness to reunite with spouses who are still members. Others continue communicating with their husbands in the group. Some women return to Boko Haram after going through rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, highlighting the importance of adapting post-Boko Haram processing to specific life histories.
Women interviewed by ISS said they were simply told to forget about their experiences
Several types of programmes for former Boko Haram members are ongoing in Nigeria. The most prominent of these is the male-focused deradicalisation, rehabilitation and reintegration (DRR) programme run by the Nigerian military through Operation Safe Corridor. Current processes for female ex-associates of Boko Haram are not as clear. Many women released by the military said they didn’t participate in rehabilitation and reintegration programmes at the Borno State-run Bulumkutu Rehabilitation Centre for women and children.
Only a few of the more than 20 female former Boko Haram members interviewed by the ISS had gone through the Bulumkutu centre after their release from military detention. The rest were released directly to communities or camps for internally displaced people.
While officials claim psychosocial support is provided to these women at the Bulumkutu centre, ISS interviewees who had attended the centre said they were simply told to forget about their experiences, ignore or report stigmatisation, and live peacefully within the community.
The women said priority was given to quick reintegration through vocational training, including in soap-making and small-scale trading. Post-training support such as start-up credit or loans was limited. Forgetting their experiences with Boko Haram can be difficult, and programmes such as these should rather include ways of helping them cope with these experiences.
Reintegration is time-consuming and doesn’t begin and end on the steps of rehabilitation centres
Stakeholders involved in DDR programmes in Nigeria shouldn’t lose sight of the diverse roles women play in Boko Haram. This will help identify their needs once they leave the group and enable the crafting of targeted interventions. Religious scholars and clerics can play vital roles in countering Boko Haram’s indoctrination. This would reduce the risk of sending women – especially those who still hold onto beliefs espoused by Boko Haram – back into communities.
Reintegration is time-consuming and doesn’t begin and end at the doorsteps of rehabilitation centres. Currently women associated with Boko Haram don’t spend more than three months at the Bulumkutu centre, with some saying they spent less than one month there. Their male counterparts spend a minimum of six months in the Operation Safe Corridor programme.
Cases need to be monitored and evaluated, and follow-ups are required. Rehabilitation, reintegration and reconciliation processes should be shaped by the views of the community to reduce stigmatisation and rejection when female former Boko Haram associates return. Vocational training, which is critical to socio-economic reintegration, should also be tailor-made and adapted to economies under pressure from conflict and climate change.
Written by Malik Samuel, Researcher, ISS Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin.