Extremist sect, Boko Haram, and local vigilante groups trying to stop them in northeast Nigeria, have subjected boys and girls to forced recruitment and detention, a report released Thursday by a rights group, the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, states.
The group, which protects the rights of children during armed conflict, said the warring factions in the crisis have attacked schools, carried out abductions, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.
The gravity and scale of the violations warrant urgent action from the Nigerian Government, United Nations, and other child protection actors, the report noted.
The 64-page report, “Who Will Care for Us? Grave Violations against Children in North-eastern Nigeria,” detailed violations by some parties to the conflict since December 2012 and provided recommendations on how to better protect children.
“While the abduction of over 200 girls in Chibok, Borno State, has shed some light on how children are affected by the conflict in the northeast, most abuses are still poorly documented, understood, and addressed by key actors,” said Janine Morna, researcher at Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict.
Of particular concern, the report noted, was the forced recruitment of children for spying and assistance during armed attacks by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, commonly known as Boko Haram, and the Civilian Joint Task Force (Civilian JTF), a self-defense militia formed in mid-2013 in Borno State.
“Children as young as 13 are being recruited by both sides of the conflict and have nowhere to turn,” said Ms. Morna.
Moreover, Nigerian security forces who encounter child soldiers in Boko Haram’s ranks often detain these children in unofficial military detention facilities known for the mistreatment of detainees, according to the report, instead of protecting and rehabilitating them, in accordance with international standards.
“The government of Nigeria should denounce the recruitment of children by all armed groups, take immediate steps to release child soldiers in their custody, and develop procedures to transfer child soldiers to civilian actors,” Ms. Morna said.
Watchlist also researched attacks on schools in the region which, according to its survey, has resulted in the death, injury, or abduction of at least 414 students, teachers, or other civilians on school premises between January 2012 and July 2014.
“Continuous attacks on schools have devastated education in the region, creating a climate of fear for students and teachers, and leading to school closures from as early as April 2013. Relevant actors must bolster school security through programs like the Safe Schools Initiative,” said Ms. Morna.
Watchlist also documented abductions of boys and girls by Boko Haram, including Christian girls who were forced to convert to Islam and coerced into marrying members of the group, along with other female abductees.
Boko Haram abducted these girls and young women from schools and markets, and during raids on villages in areas across Borno State since at least December 2012. Some members of the group raped girls and young women in the camps. None of the girls and women who escaped, and were interviewed by Watchlist, had access to counselling and other health services.
“The humanitarian response to violations against children has been slow, fragmented, and unable to meet the fast-growing needs of those affected by the conflict,” said Ms. Morna.
In some of the selected accounts from the reports, a 13-year-old boy interviewed by Watchlist described the attack on his school, Federal Government College Buni Yadi, in Yobe State.
“We were sleeping in the hostel. We heard the gun shots. I woke up from sleeping … ten boys were in the room … I went out of the room … I was running … I was feeling afraid… I had gotten out of the room and I was shot at in the leg …,” the unnamed boy, interviewed last April, said
“The person pointed a gun at me… I fell down… I was hit with two bullets on my left foot … I pretended like I died… because if I didn’t pretend they would shoot me again … it felt like 30 minutes … When the people were not at the place I woke up. I woke up and entered the room again. The [other students] that didn’t die… I said if they are able to run, let us run.”
Another victim, a 16-year-old girl, narrated how she was abducted with five of her peers from her school in Borno State.
“I found myself in an Imam’s house. I don’t really remember how I got there… The men said [to us], ‘You are the real strong Christians. We want you to become Muslims. We will give you men to marry and if you refuse, we will kill you.’ The five other girls accepted. I said, ‘rather kill me,” the girl said.
Another young woman, an 18year-old, said that after suspected Boko Haram insurgents abducted her, she was almost raped.
“They [Boko Haram] gave us an axe to dig a hole to ease ourselves. In the night I wanted to ease myself. I was trying to ease myself and as I was in the process … [he approached] and I started screaming. He abused me. He slipped away. He tried to penetrate, but when people came, he didn’t enter,” she said.
A youth from Borno State told Watchlist that they were forced to join the Civilian JTF.
“When I returned, they [members of the Civilian JTF] suspected me of being part of Boko Haram,” the young man said during an interview in April. “Three of us were tied up. Someone came as a witness and said I was not part of Boko Haram. Then I was released. After they released me I went home. I went to the market and bought a machete and stick to be part of the [Civilian] JTF… If you refuse [to join], you are killed.”
Few international actors currently engage in the northeast, leaving the government and local groups, with limited capacity, to support survivors.
“The Nigerian Government, United Nations, and non-governmental agencies must take urgent steps to recruit experts with experience operating in a conflict situation and scale up programming to support some of Nigeria’s most vulnerable and marginalized children,” said Ms. Morna.