“It is like a fish pond. All the women are fishes and the men are sprinkling food. If they start to sprinkle food, all the fish will come up to them.”
I am with women and men who, forced to flee their homes due to the conflict with Boko Haram, have made their way to camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Maiduguri in Borno State in North-East Nigeria. We are talking about what is happening in the camps when one of the women makes this analogy.
In the camps, after all they have experienced and seen, one would hope they are safe and protected. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Our discussion changes; now we are talking about sexual exploitation and abuse. It has taken significant time for them to open up to my colleagues and me—simply to admit this is happening. There is a powerful culture of silence in Nigeria that always surrounds violence against women and girls.
There were the initial denials: We are Kanuri women and these things don’t happen, they said. But, over time, the talk shifted to a frank discussion detailing the painful reality. They spoke of men with power abusing their positions to take advantage of vulnerable women and girls in camps. We tell them that under international law, IDPs have a right to food and freedom of movement. They respond that in the camps these rights are often conditional on women trading sex or money with the men in charge.
Sadly, I have heard these stories before. In the three years I have been working with women’s rights activists in Nigeria to build peace and promote human rights, I have learnt of many cases of women and girls who were abused and exploited in camps. This is not surprising given the power imbalance between women and men. Women are tasked with providing food for the family, but the food given to IDPs is not enough to last until the next food distribution. Women and girls often want to leave the camps to collect firewood to cook the rice they are given. They try to sell part of what they receive to buy other types of food or to beg for money and food outside. This makes women particularly vulnerable to those willing to exploit their needs.
The sexual exploitation and abuse occurring in Maiduguri IDP camps came to prominence in late October due to the publication of a report by Human Rights Watch. The report documented sexual abuse, including the rape and exploitation of 43 women and girls living in seven IDP camps.
I learnt of women and girls denied food because they refused the sexual advances of the men responsible for its distribution. I learnt of soldiers allowing their “girlfriends” to leave the camp but others having a more difficult time.
When people try to speak out to complain about not getting enough to eat or that it is not right that women and girls get more if they trade sex for this, they are either refused food the next time or threatened with expulsion from the camp.
The sexual exploitation and abuse occurring in Maiduguri IDP camps came to prominence in late October due to the publication of a report by Human Rights Watch. The report documented sexual abuse, including the rape and exploitation of 43 women and girls living in seven IDP camps. Some of them were drugged and raped, while others were promised marriage (which never happened). Others were offered material and financial assistance in exchange for sex. Women forced to accept these terms then suffered discrimination, abuse and stigma from others in the camps, as did the children born from these exploitive encounters. Their abusers were members of security forces, vigilante groups, camp leaders and camp officials. President Muhammadu Buhari, who said he was worried and shocked by these findings, directed the Inspector General of Police to investigate them.
In the weeks after the report was released, I received many telephone calls and emails from human rights activists asking me if this was true. People wished to know whether there was abuse in the camps on the scale that was revealed. In fact, what was documented is just the tip of the iceberg.
Although the responsibility to act lies primarily with the Nigerian government, everyone working in the North-East needs to make sure their own staff are not engaged in this abuse of power, provide avenues for women and girls to come forward, and act to put blame where it belongs—with the men…
Indeed, sexual exploitation and abuse is committed not by “just” a few bad men; it is rather a systemic failure, one endemic to IDP camps. And it happens not only in Nigeria, but in all cases of violent conflict and displacement. It is the result of patriarchal gender relations; a predictable result of men having even more power over women than they usually have. And far too many women feel helpless to do anything about it. “They are more powerful than us so we don’t have a choice,” a woman talking about police officers impregnating girls in her camp told us. “We just have to accept what they do to us.”
Given the severity of the problem, women’s rights activists around the world working for humanitarian organisations have pushed for humanitarian responses to recognise that sexual exploitation and abuse will happen and plan accordingly to prevent and respond, rather than wait for cases to emerge then act. Indeed, the Protection Sector Working Group (of which my organisation, the Center for Civilians in Conflict [CIVIC], is a member) is planning to train national and international agencies on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse, and setting up mechanisms so people can receive services and report cases for investigation. However, there is a long way to go before Nigerian national agencies, international and national NGOs, and UN agencies properly mainstream sexual exploitation and abuse into their work.
As many of us engaged in this work know, waiting until women and girls have been abused is much too late. The presidential order for an investigation is a promising sign of the government taking what is happening seriously. However, we are still waiting for its findings to be made public and action to be taken to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse, punish perpetrators and ensure services for the women and girls concerned.
Although the responsibility to act lies primarily with the Nigerian government, everyone working in the North-East needs to make sure their own staff are not engaged in this abuse of power, provide avenues for women and girls to come forward, and act to put blame where it belongs—with the men, rather than the women and girls. We have been unable to protect members of these communities when they were being attacked, killed and injured in the conflict in North-East Nigeria. We should act now to ensure that they do not continue to suffer in places of supposed refuge.
By Chitra Nagarajan, the Senior Adviser for the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) in Nigeria, who lives and works in Maiduguri.