The Lost Girls

Why women are the "spoils of war" in Nigeria and around the world -- and nobody cares.


Over the last week or so, multiple stories in the news have been asking why the media is ignoring the kidnapping of more than 200 girls (some reports say as many as 276) by Boko Haram, an extremist anti-Western group in Nigeria. Yet there have been literally hundreds of Facebook posts, thousands of tweets, and dozens of stories in the media about what is going on. It took a week or two — longer than it should have, yes, considering the horror of what has been perpetrated — but in the end, this case has gotten more attention than any single case of girls abducted in armed conflict in recent memory, possibly ever. People are paying attention.

As that becomes evident, all the outcry over "why aren’t we paying attention" starts to look like it’s part of a deeper public distress: Why have we not paid attention in the past when thousands of girls — and boys — have been abducted in armed conflict? Why aren’t we paying attention, right now, to the girls caught in human trafficking webs or sold into early marriages or held in captivity as "wives" by armed groups? Why are we only now outraged? And will this outrage sustain itself as situations like this one unendingly arise? Will any amount of anger lead to any concrete solution?

What happened to these girls isn’t new, sadly. Instances of the trafficking of children in places of conflict are myriad and worldwide. But as I delved into what I thought would be a story about the larger issue of the abduction and selling of girls, I realized that first I had to clarify what this story is actually about.

On April 14, an extremist group whose name roughly translates as "Western education is forbidden" abducted the Nigerian girls from a high school in the northeastern town of Chibok. The convoy disappeared quickly into the forest, and ever since rumors have trickled out of the country about their fate. There are reports that the girls have been sold into marriage or sexual slavery for "as little as" $12 (as if their being sold for a higher price would somehow improve the situation).

Boko Haram is trying to wrest control of northern Nigeria back from what it sees as "false Muslims." The International Crisis Group estimates that the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group has killed more than 4,000 people in Nigeria since it began its insurgency four years ago; it perpetrated seven attacks on schools in 2013, according to Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch says the militants have previously utilized children as weapons.

The kidnapping of so many schoolgirls at once, however, has upped the ante. Boko Haram has chosen a group — girls — that is historically vulnerable, yet whose members carry precious undertones about the purity of most societies. And with that designation as the bearers of purity, girls become a group that is little more than a symbol. In reality, these girls are human beings who are marginalized, exploited, and ignored globally. Girls are the low-hanging fruit of the biblically proportioned anger at Eve.

To view this as a simple case of trafficking (or modern-day slavery, as it is often called) is to overlook a larger point: Crimes against women and girls are not only commonplace, but they go ignored, unprosecuted, and unreported by the international media every single day, especially when they occur in the global South.

Beyond the difficulty of figuring out how to categorize this case, there is a cultural limit on how far we are willing to go in discussing something this harrowing, says media activist and writer Soraya Chemaly. "Things like sexualized violence against women and girls seems to be always just the wallpaper," says Chemaly. "It’s just there, and people expect it to be there, and we manage that through a whole series of euphemisms in conversations and the media." News stories have been referring to what happened to the kidnapped Nigerian girls as "child marriage," Chemaly says, an expression that "waters down what’s happening and makes it palatable to people when it’s really unpalatable."

But understanding what is going on is crucial to putting an end to it, says Akila Radhakrishnan, legal director at the Global Justice Center: "The failure to comprehend the specific experiences of girls impedes accountability, reparations, and rehabilitation efforts." The Lubanga case at the International Criminal Court, for instance, which focused on accountability for the use of child soldiers, failed to include any form of sexualized violence in the charges or the sentencing. "Of the 129 victims who participated in the trial, 30 reported being subject to or witnessing sexualized violence. For those girls, sexualized violence was a part of how they experienced the conflict," Radhakrishnan says. But the decision not to include consideration of this crime in the final verdict, notes Radhakrishnan, "renders justice meaningless for these survivors."

In trying to classify what has happened to the Nigerian girls, I spoke to Cristina Finch, head of Amnesty International USA’s women’s human rights program.

"Is this sort of what people are normally discussing when they’re discussing the problem of worldwide trafficking? Not exactly," says Finch. What has happened here, she explains, is more about how women are used repeatedly and historically as a tool of war.

Boko Haram is sneering at a world that has shown time and again that girls are expendable and easily weaponized. It is targeting society’s most defenseless and fetishized. This act in essence is not dissimilar to how the Syrian government has used women as targets of punishment in that war, allegedly perpetrating rape on women and girls in front of their husbands or sending videotapes of rape to families as a means of humiliating them. Both are showing they can take what "belongs" to other men and use them as they please.

Tobore Ovuorie, a Nigerian journalist who has investigated human trafficking in the country, told me that she sees the kidnapping as a Rubik’s cube of child marriage, spoils of war, trafficking, and sexual exploitation. The girls kidnapped from the school in Nigeria "would be sold to sex slavery, working on plantations or other forms of labor, and they will be resold over and over again when their masters feel they have outlived their value," she says. But, she adds, the girls were abducted under the guise of "war."

Undoubtedly this is a bold move by Boko Haram in Nigeria’s ongoing conflict
, meant to cement its power in a country that tries to ignore the terrorist group or wish it away, says Adotei Akwei, Amnesty’s managing director of government relations, who is closely following the case. Some of the girls are "being sold as rewards," Akwei says, while others will be given to fighters as prizes. Such rewards are given in conflicts all over the world, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I have met girls who had been kidnapped by various militias and held as sexual slaves for months. The rest of the Nigerian schoolgirls, Akwei says, are likely being sold for cash to raise funds for the cause. The kidnappings make Boko Haram more apparently vicious and formidable, he notes. "Armed groups tend to compete with each other about how badly they can intimidate a population."

In that estimation, it would seem, Boko Haram is winning.

* * *

Understanding what has happened to the Nigerian girls and how to rescue them means beginning to face what has happened to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of girls over years in global armed conflict. Here’s a short list of just a few situations in the last 10 years in which girls and boys have been taken by militias and used as sex slaves, "married," or trafficked and sold:

In Egypt, two teenaged cousins were kidnapped and then sold in 2011 as part of ongoing strife between Coptic Christians and Muslims at the time. In Darfur this March, pro-government militiamen kidnapped four young women in the southern Hijer region and then raped them in front of local villagers, according to a local radio station. Al-Shabab, a militant group in Somalia, has been engaged in a "free-for-all of armed men preying upon women and girls displaced by Somalia’s famine," the New York Times reported in 2011. The newspaper cites victims, aid workers, and United Nations officials as saying that the group was "seizing women and girls as spoils of war, gang-raping and abusing them as part of its reign of terror in southern Somalia."

Perhaps the most famous example of a militia using girls as spoils of war is that of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, which kidnapped nearly 600 girls and boys to be used as sex slaves between 2008 and 2011, according to the United Nations. UNICEF estimated that 12,000 children were abducted by the LRA between 2002 and 2004 alone and were forced to fight, work, or be used for sex. Colombia’s armed conflict, while nearing its official end, continues to take the lives of young girls in forcible recruitments by militias.* UNICEF reported in 2011 that more than 31,000 children were rescued from militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or escaped from them in the previous seven years. And there is just no counting for the hundreds and hundreds of girls abducted and trafficked as spoils of Mexico’s drug war.

Maybe it is the sudden scale of the number of girls kidnapped at once in Nigeria that has made us pay attention. Maybe it is the mystery about their true fate. But maybe a laundry list like the one above will clarify that the scale has always been there, just cloaked in the media behind flashier (male) war stories about bombs, guns, and murder.

* * *

Right now, the world is scrambling, finally, to help the Nigerian girls. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on May 3 that the United States "will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and to hold the perpetrators to justice." The Nigerian government, reports say, has set up a "committee" headed by a senior Army general to advise how to secure the release of the girls.

But was there something that could have been done before the kidnapping that would have prevented this?

Hindsight is 20/20, but not a single member of Boko Haram has been prosecuted for any of its crimes, according to rights groups I spoke with. The impunity for sexualized violence and crimes against women and girls, along with the general disregard for their lives — especially those of girls and women in the developing world — tacitly says that all of this is allowed to continue.

"Whether you call it ‘child brides’ or ‘sex trafficking,’ these are issues that are not considered to be serious topics like things such as global security," says Chemaly. "These are things that should be concerning on their own merit."

Violence against women is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, says Finch. Countries that have high levels of such violence are much more likely to move into a larger conflict, she notes, citing work by Valerie Hudson, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University. It might then be prudent to focus on prosecuting crimes against women and girls in order to ensure a more peaceful world.

As with so many crimes, impunity is the key to stopping them. But with the kidnapping of these Nigerian girls in particular, so is elevating the way we value 51 percent of humanity.

"You’re always going to have an outlier like Boko Haram," says Akwei, "but if there is a higher bar on opposing violence against women and girls or assuming women are trophies or prizes of war and not even thinking about it, then we’re going to see more and more of this kind of thing."

Maybe, right now, our eyes have begun to open. Maybe.

*Correction, May 16, 2014: The armed conflict in Colombia is nearing its official end, but a peace agreement has not yet been signed. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that the conflict is officially over. (Return to reading.)

Lauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York. Twitter: @wolfe321

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