A postponed election in Nigeria puts safety of women and girls in the spotlight

Nigerians recently learned that presidential elections will be postponed – ostensibly to give authorities more time to fight Boko Haram, the militant Islamic extremist group with ties to ISIS and Al Qaeda. With the delay heightening already intense levels of fear and instability, concern is mounting for the safety of Nigeria’s women and girls, who are increasingly becoming targets—and tools—of violence.

“I really fear for this country in the sense that I think that Boko Haram will escalate the violence – and women and girls are instruments in this battle. They’ve been used to set off bombs, they’ve been kidnapped, they’ve been raped,” says Dr. Udy Okon, Executive Director of the Youth Alive Foundation, a youth-focused not-for-profit organization focused on youth empowerment and advocacy, especially for girls and young women. “I think Boko Haram now knows that when they attack women and girls, they get attention. They get the world to notice.”

In recent months, Boko Haram has reportedly engaged in widespread rape and used girls as young as 10 as suicide bombers.

“What does a 10-year-old girl know about throwing a bomb somewhere? She doesn’t even know whose side she’s on,” says Dr. Christiana Okechukwu, president and CEO of the Inwelle Study and Resource Centre in Enugu, Nigeria, a Global Fund for Women grantee focused on girls’ education and using access to technology to empower girls. Okechukwu says it is “scary” that girls are being manipulated in these ways and that the increased violence in the country means that “girls’ vulnerability is heightened.”

Boko Haram has also increased attacks, including a brutal and deadly massacre on Jan. 12, where terrorists invaded the town of Baga, launching grenades, pursuing residents on motorcycles before shooting them down, and burning people in their homes. Many of the estimated 2,000 victims in Baga were women, children, and the elderly who “could not run fast enough” from the assailants. Some survivors report that the women who remain in Baga are being raped by Boko Haram soldiers.

“Boko Haram has been deliberate and opportunistic in their attacks against women’s freedom. Women and girls have remained vulnerable and exposed,” said Saudatu Mahdi, Secretary General of WRAPA which empowers women and is mobilizing women to vote in this election. “They are either left behind by fleeing family heads or deliberately taken away as spoils of the attacks of the insurgents.”

In response to the uptick in attacks, earlier this month authorities announced that the election, originally planned for February 14, would be postponed six weeks to March 28, in order to give the military time to make polls safer for voters. However, many Nigerians voice doubts that this is the real reason for the delay, with some speculating that incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan wants more time to campaign.

“People are not happy about it – they feel that the reasons given are not the real reasons,” says Okon. “If we’ve been trying to do something about Boko Haram for so long, what’s going to be different in six weeks?”

Boko Haram’s attacks will certainly affect Nigerian’s ability to vote: about 1.5 million people have been displaced by the violence, many of whom will not be able to vote. In large parts of the country’s northeast, violence by Boko Haram may impede polling.  

Beyond Boko Haram, the election is feared to bring additional acts of violence. The previous election in 2011 resulted in unprecedented violence, with more than 800 people killed as long-standing ethnic and religious tensions, including tensions between Muslim extremist groups like Boko Haram, came to a head.

“People have concerns that this postponement might actually increase violence – the tension is higher now,” Okon adds. “We’re trying to amplify the message [to young people] to abstain from violence; we really don’t want the country to descend into chaos.”

Activists say that no matter the outcome of the election, the government must place a greater emphasis on the security of women and girls, especially as they are increasingly being targeted by Boko Haram. Although last year’s #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign calling for the release of 273 schoolgirls kidnapped from their classroom by the militants briefly shone a spotlight on the issue, most of the schoolgirls are still being held in captivity, and many Nigerians feel the government has not done enough to rescue the girls.

“The abduction of the Chibok girls really put the matter of security of lives of women in very sharp focus for everyone in the country so that the whole issue of security has become – whether out rightly acknowledged or not – an election issue,” said Oby Ezekwesili, who co-founded the Bring Back Our Girls movement in Nigeria to demand government action for the kidnapped schoolgirls. “The [newly elected officials] are going to have to hit the ground running trying to prove to Nigerians that the security of all citizens – especially women – matters to them.”

As in many countries, in Nigeria, women’s rights groups and movements serve as an early warning system about pressing issues with respect to women’s and girls’ human rights. “Women’s groups in Nigeria were reporting on increased kidnappings and the need to invest more in safety and security for women and girls more than a year before kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Chibok,” says Jane Sloane, Global Fund for Women’s Vice President of Programs.

Dr. Okechukwu emphasized the need to bridge ethnic divides once and for all in order to drive the country forward. “More people must forget about personal interests and come together for the sake of girls and women,” says Okechukwu, who added that the elected leader must be poised to bring people together at this critical time. She said that Nigerians voting need to ask themselves, “Who is going to make Nigeria the great country it should be?”