In February 2013, there were reports about Boko Haram recruiting women for intelligence gathering and also as couriers for the movement of arms in Nigeria’s northeastern region. Barely a month earlier, a woman described as being in her 20s and suspected to be a Boko Haram member was caught in an attempt to detonate explosives following the Jummah prayers observed by Muslims at the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA) complex, Abuja. It is no new phenomenon that women are capable in the commission of violent extremism and attacks. In fact, as Lindsey O’ Rourke points out, the number of female suicide attackers has risen globally from eight during the 1980s to well over one hundred since the year 2000. Although very little has occurred in regard to terrorist or suicide attacks instigated by women in Nigeria, the instance involving the arrest of the alleged female suicide bomber conveys worrying signals. While this commentary acknowledges these concerns, it presents a case for how women at the grassroots and policy-making levels of Nigerian society can advance the cause for a more robust counter-terrorism strategy. Severe levels of deprivation in northern Nigeria have been cited as one of the leading drivers of the rise of Boko Haram. The measure of relative poverty in Nigeria is most apparent in the northern region with women being the most affected. For instance, in regard to a vital indicator such as education of the girl-child, while the southeast and southwest zones both have enrolment levels of 85%, the northeast and northwest have rates of 20% and 25% respectively.
Severe levels of deprivation among women in the northern region are also reflected in other sectors such as health, social protection, human security and professional empowerment. Alongside poverty levels in the north, women have also been affected by Boko Haram's rise by losing brothers, sons and husbands – often the breadwinners in families. While these challenges collectively undermine women, they also contribute to the socioeconomic conditions that render the northern region conducive for violent extremism and terrorism.
In the area of human rights and political participation, women are also not recognised. In February 2013, over a hundred women protested on the streets of Maiduguri after which they gathered at the popular Ramat Square in Borno State. They are the sisters, mothers and wives of alleged Boko Haram militants that were detained for undue periods by state authorities. What appeared to be a peaceful and purposeful assemblage of women was dispersed by the firing of shots in the air by the Joint Task Force (JTF) of the Nigerian government.
The demonstration by the women coincided with a meeting convened by the Department of Civil-Military Relations. This was a meeting supposedly organised to accommodate the perspectives of representatives and stakeholders from traditional, religious and youth circles in Borno State. More significantly, it was a meeting where the articulation of various viewpoints would form the basis of a road-map for the containment of terrorism and restoration of peace in Borno. As diverse as the array of entities were, members of women’s groups were reportedly excluded.
A key lesson which the Nigerian leadership needs to fully appreciate is that within any societal setting, women are powerful agents of peace processes and conflict resolution. The relegation of this fact was reflected by the JTF's response to the protest; an unfortunate approach which did not recognise the need to integrate the views and participation of protesting women in roundtable discussions. In a slightly different context, the same attitude is reflected at higher levels of leadership. This can be perceived in the way a proposal by former legislator Senator Folashade Bent to allow women play a constructive role in mediation between Boko Haram and the government has not been recognised.
The political and socio-cultural settings in Nigeria (and Africa) are spheres where potential capitalisation by women can exert positive influence on conflict prevention and counter-terrorism narratives. However, this must entail the inclusion of women’s concerns in all policies of the Nigerian government that address issues of peace and security in the northern region. Grassroots development projects and the protection of women’s rights are matters that must be considered in the formulation process of counter-terrorism policies. These are two areas where women are especially undermined in Nigeria. The ease with which extremism takes root among the illiterate and economically vulnerable masses in northern Nigeria is indicative of the complex connection between underdevelopment, (gender) marginalisation and terrorism. Therefore, intensified focus on educational and professional enhancement for young girls and women is necessary for cultivating an environment where violent radicalisation is curtailed. It would be recalled that investigations following the arrest of the female suicide bomber in Abuja revealed her inability to communicate in English. This is in addition to the fact that her journey from Kano State to Abuja to execute the attack was actually her first travel exposure to the country’s capital city. While policies should encourage greater promotion of women’s participation in security-related fora, they should also create open spaces for dialogue that involve women. The pathway to building trust between the government’s JTF and local communities must be predicated on the guarantee of the rights of individual women and women’s groups. This will enable them to engage as equal stakeholders in town meetings where security issues are discussed.
Entry points for women to channel efforts into the wider counter-terrorism discourse are illustrated by programmes of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) partnerships, as well as initiatives such as the Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE). Therefore, the ways by which counter-terrorism activities include and affect women in Nigeria require serious reassessment by scholars and policy-makers alike. Women especially at the grassroots—where the majority of Boko Haram members are recruited—should not only be incorporated as participants in decision making processes, but also be included as beneficiaries of counter-terrorism laws. This inclusion will serve as yet another test case for the application of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 1325, 1820, 1888, 1889 and 1960 which collectively seek to address the multi-dimensional challenges that confront women in diverse conflict-affected situations. The extent to which the Resolutions influence development, community participation and human rights initiatives in northern states such as Borno will also be placed in focus. If the transformation agenda of President Goodluck Jonathan succeeds in reflecting the application of the various UNSCRs in the lives of Nigerian women, it will contribute to the mitigation of systemic factors underlying violent extremism in the country.