“I Will Never Go Back to School”: The Impact of Attacks on Education for Nigerian Women and Girls - Summary



The Government of Nigeria has been embroiled since 2009 in an armed conflict with the Islamist insurgency group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad, popularly known as Boko Haram. Boko Haram has committed serious acts of violence. It has killed an estimated 20,000 and displaced over 2.2 million in the wider Lake Chad region.

Thousands of girls and young women have been abducted, including from their schools. Boko Haram has also abducted boys and men and forced many to become fighters. Many have never returned from captivity. Those who have returned report suffering abuse. Although the security situation has gradually improved since the peak of the conflict in 2013-15, Boko Haram continues to carry out attacks causing serious loss of life, including increasingly by using child and female suicide bombers. The group reportedly caused 967 fatalities in 2017, a six percent increase over the previous year.

A key component of Boko Haram’s ideology is hostility toward secular education, and it has gained notoriety for its repeated attacks on schools and universities, as well as teachers, administrators, and students, wreaking havoc on an already fragile education system. Boko Haram has killed an estimated 2,295 teachers, and over 19,000 teachers have been displaced by the conflict. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that more than 1,400 schools have been destroyed, damaged, or looted primarily in the northeast, and more than 600,000 children have lost access to education.

In addition to attacking education generally, Boko Haram has targeted female students. What is more, the impact of attacks on education on women and girls is often different from that on boys and men. For these reasons, this paper is examining the specific impact on females. Boko Haram gained international notoriety in 2014, when it abducted 276 girls from their school in the town of Chibok. Four years later, more than 100 of the “Chibok girls” remain in captivity. Chibok is, unfortunately, only one such case. GCPEA estimates that approximately 600 women and girls have been abducted from their schools. Some of these women and girls reported that Boko Haram had forced them to convert to Islam and subjected them to forced “marriage,” and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Others reported being held in prison-like conditions, where they were repeatedly raped. Some ultimately became pregnant as a result of rape. Some victims, especially those who refused to convert to Islam or “marry” a fighter, also reported being forced to work long hours for the wives and families of insurgents and being threatened and beaten when they were too exhausted to continue. Some girls and women were forced to participate in or aid Boko Haram attacks.

It also appears that Boko Haram has used abducted girls as suicide bombers. The United Nations (UN) reported that during 2017, “115 children – 38 boys and 77 girls – had been used as human bombs. That number was six times higher than in 2016.”

Although difficult to verify, those knowledgeable about the Boko Haram insurgency and Nigeria’s counterterrorism efforts believe that many of its child suicide bombers were abducted.

Although the security situation has improved significantly since the peak of the conflict, and the government has repeatedly claimed that it has defeated Boko Haram, the group continues to carry out attacks, including attacks on schools and abductions. As this report was being drafted, Boko Haram abducted 111 girls from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi (Yobe state) on February 19, 2018, an attack reminiscent of the 2014 Chibok abductions. According to eyewitnesses interviewed by GCPEA, five girls were crushed to death during the abduction and transport to Boko Haram’s camp and were buried in a shallow grave along the way. Boko Haram returned all but one of the remaining Dapchi girls about a month later, on March 21, 2018, reportedly after negotiations with the Nigerian government. Girls who survived the abduction reported that one girl – Leah Sharibu – was not returned because she had refused to convert to Islam and Boko Haram was targeting non-Muslim girls.

In addition to the abuses committed against female students and teachers as an immediate result of an attack on schools and/or while held in captivity, the suffering and impact does not end once they are rescued or escape. Instead, girls and young women continue to experience a wide range of harmful repercussions long after the immediate attack. Attacks on education create a ripple effect, setting in motion a range of negative impacts such as loss of education, early marriage, early pregnancy, and stigma associated with sexual violence and children born from rape, all of which can dramatically affect female students’ futures. These harms often exacerbate and are exacerbated by pre-existing forms of gender discrimination and harmful practices that negatively affect girls and women.

Boko Haram’s targeted attacks on schools and the abduction of school girls, has been harmful for female students’ access to education. Many of the female students interviewed by GCPEA reported that they had been forced to suspend their education after their school was attacked or permanently dropped out of school because of the attacks. Poverty has been the single greatest obstacle to education in northeastern Nigeria, and parents’ ability to pay for school expenses has been further impeded by the conflict. In addition to economic factors, many female students interviewed by GCPEA reported that they and/or their parents had been too afraid for them to return to school. Many schools were also closed for significant periods due to insecurity, or because the school had been destroyed or seriously damaged during the attacks.

At the peak of the conflict, Boko Haram also used schools for various military purposes, including to hold and execute captives, and as barracks for insurgents. This further contributed to parents’ and students’ fears about the safety of sending their children, and especially their daughters, back to school after the insurgents had departed.

Nigerian government forces and pro-government militia have also used schools for military purposes. As of May 2017, a UN agency reported that Nigerian government forces were using 17 schools for military purposes. While the government stated that the presence of security forces near schools was for the protection of the schools and students, the presence of armed forces in or near a school can make it a target of retaliatory attacks, increasing the risks to children and teachers, as well as the likelihood that education will be disrupted. The presence of such forces also increases the risk of sexual violence against female students and teachers.

While this report documents numerous abuses that female students and teachers have suffered during an attack on their schools and/or as a direct consequence of such an attack, there are also numerous risks for teenage girls who are not in school, including early marriage, early pregnancy, and lost opportunities for personal autonomy, employment, and economic independence. While these risks are not limited to girls who have survived attacks on education, girls who attended school prior to an attack are more vulnerable to such risks than they were before the attack.

Many survivors also report suffering mental and physical health problems because of the abuses they have suffered. Some described continuing to endure bleeding and other serious gynecological problems as a result of rape. Many of the students, as well as some of the teachers, described recurring nightmares, anxiety, being easily frightened, an inability to focus, and other signs commonly associated with trauma. Their traumatic experiences often have an impact on their ability to pursue their education and may also impede their ability to move on with their lives in other important ways.

Already before the conflict began, Nigeria had one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world with an estimated 62 percent of girls in northeastern Nigeria being married before their 18th birthday and 23.5 percent before their 15th birthday. Although there is little concrete data on changes in the prevalence of early marriage due to the conflict, representatives of both national and international NGOs, as well as academics, interviewed by GCPEA believe that there is a clear trend of increased early marriage. As noted above, the tendency to marry girls at an early age is further exacerbated by attacks on schools that may result in parents taking their daughters out of school or girls themselves refusing to continue with their education due to safety concerns. GCPEA’s interviews with young women and teachers underscored that being out of school, even for relatively short periods, increases the risk of early marriage for girls. Once married, girls often find it difficult to continue with their education, including due to household responsibilities or opposition from their husbands. Early pregnancy is a further impediment to continuing to attend school, as well as increasing the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), exposure to HIV, and a host of pregnancy-related complications.

As noted above, while attacks on education and military use of education institutions have had a devastating effect on all students and teachers in northeastern Nigeria, girls and women have often experienced different kinds of abuse, and the abuses committed against them may have different long-term consequences. This case study focuses on abuses most typically committed against female students in the context of attacks on education in Nigeria. This research is part of a multi-country study on the impact of attacks on education on women and girls 10 The focus is not intended to suggest that girls and women suffer more than boys and men when schools are attacked. This research is intended to contribute to a better understanding of the long-term implications for girls and women and ultimately to inform better strategies for protecting girls and women, preventing abuse, and mitigating harm.

In a context such as Nigeria, in which a significant focus of the conflict is targeted at schools and the formal (government) education system, there is often little difference in Boko Haram’s apparent motivation for abducting girls from a school campus and the abduction of school-age girls from their village. Regardless of where the abduction takes place, girls and young women are often asked whether they go to school, are identified or singled out because of their school uniform and/ or school age and are lectured on the evils of western education. What is more, the impact on girls and young women of such abductions is often similar, because as one girl stated, “They made it clear to all us girls that we should stay at home and get married or face the wrath of Boko Haram.”

This report prioritizes cases of female students who experienced violations in the context of an attack on a school structure, or on the way to or from school. However, some interviews are included with victims of attacks that took place outside the context of a school campus if there appeared to be a link to the victim’s status as a student.

The Nigerian government endorsed the Safe School Declaration in May 2015. The Nigerian government with the support of international donors and humanitarian organizations, as well as national and international NGOs, has also developed a number of initiatives and measures to rebuild schools and provide improved security for schools. It is unclear, however, how many schools have benefited from these measures to date. The Dapchi abduction is a grave reminder that girls and women remain vulnerable to attack in Nigerian schools. It also underscores that Nigerian security forces continue to struggle to provide adequate protection for schools in the northeast and to prevent the abduction of female students