‘”IS Widows” and “Boko Haram Wives”: Overlooked Abuses in Iraq and Nigeria’

About the author(s):

Katharine Fortin is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University where she teaches IHL and IHRL. Before joining Utrecht University, she worked at the ICTY, ICC and Norton Rose Fulbright. She is the author of The Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2017) which won the 2018 Lieber Prize. She has written widely about the framework of law that applies to armed groups in non-international armed conflicts and is one of the editors of the Armed Groups and International Law blog.

This post ‘“ISIS Widows” and “Boko Haram Wives”: Overlooked Abuses in Iraq and Nigeria’ by Lauren Aarons and Nicolette Waldman was first posted on Just Security on 23 August 2018. I am cross posting it here with the kind permission of Just Security and the authors, because I suspect it will be of interest to many readers. The post highlights the authors’ fascinating research into women with alleged or suspected ties to IS and Boko Haram. The full research findings are published in reports by Amnesty International here and here.


International news media and research institutes have brought important attention to the hundreds of foreign women (primarily Western) and their children who have been rounded up in territory recaptured from the self-styled Islamic State (IS). Reports have outlined the complex legal issues involved and convictions of women in grossly unfair trials. The situation for these women has been grim: In May of this year, for example, the Guardian reported that 40 foreign women had been sentenced to death in a Baghdad court after 10-minute hearings for crimes including membership of IS.

At the same time, little attention has been brought to the situation of local women with alleged or suspected ties to IS or to longer-standing groups such as Boko Haram. Our investigations in Iraq and Nigeria, including almost 400 in-depth interviews across the two countries, have found that authorities and armed militia members working with the governments have branded thousands of displaced Iraqi and Nigerian women as affiliated with IS or Boko Haram, respectively, and subjected them to mistreatment and abuse as a result.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled or were forced from their homes during military operations against IS in Iraq, carried out between 2014 and 2017, and against Boko Haram in Nigeria, which intensified in 2015 and continue until now. While thousands of men and boys have been detained and forcibly disappeared in both countries, the abuse of women and girls perceived to be tied to the armed groups has primarily occurred in places where they have sought refuge, including camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). (Hundreds of women and girls also were arbitrarily rounded up and held in military detention facilities in Nigeria, though most of them have been released).

Women who were forced from their homes in the violence often have been confined in camps because of perceived IS or Boko Haram ties. In one camp in Iraq used exclusively for families perceived to be affiliated with IS, security forces have prohibited them from leaving the camp, creating a situation of de facto detention. In Nigeria, residents of certain remote camps holding families alleged to be sympathetic with Boko Haram have likewise faced severe movement restrictions, even as hundreds of people starved to death inside. Where living in camps alongside other displaced people, women with suspected affiliations often have faced tighter movement restrictions than neighbors and discrimination in accessing humanitarian distributions, basic services, and opportunities to earn a livelihood.

In determining who is an alleged affiliate, the net of accusation and suspicion has been cast wide. In both Iraq and Nigeria, ties have often been presumed just because the family fled a stronghold of the armed group late in the hostilities; security officials demand to know why they hadn’t fled earlier. These suspicions arose despite the fact that many civilians were trapped in areas controlled by IS and Boko Haram and risked execution if they fled.

`Deeply Flawed’ Security Screenings

The risk of a woman being branded an affiliate was heightened if one of her family members was detained by the authorities, even though “security screenings” of people fleeing these areas in Iraq and Nigeria were deeply flawed and the number of men and boys who were arbitrarily detained and then forcibly disappeared had reached into the thousands. As a result, many of the women accused or treated with suspicion turned out to have no connections with the armed groups at all.

Indeed, a number of the women we met who experienced abuse for their alleged affiliations appeared to be victims of the armed group who had suffered greatly under their control. In Nigeria in particular, where tens of thousands of women have been viewed with suspicion, several showed us scars of punishment inflicted by Boko Haram, and told us they had been desperate to escape. Others told us that they had been abducted and forcibly married to members.

Confined in the camps, women told us they have been specifically targeted for rape to punish and humiliate them for their alleged affiliations. For example, 20-year-old “Dana” in Iraq told us: “Because they consider me the same as an IS fighter, they will rape me and return me back [to my tent]. They want to show everyone what they can do to me – to take away my honor.” In Nigeria, women suspected of possible Boko Haram ties also told us they were easy targets for rape because if they complained, soldiers, militia members, and camp officials would dismiss them as “Boko Haram wives” and subject them to further reprisals.

The confinement and discrimination these women face also renders them at increased risk of sexual exploitation, even compared to other displaced women. Many told us they have been pressured and coerced to have “special relationships” with or to be the “girlfriends” of men in positions of authority in the camps, to access basic goods needed for survival. The enforced disappearance of their surviving adult male relatives exacerbated their material and physical vulnerability. In some contexts, the sexual relations occurred in such coercive circumstances as to have amounted to rape.

Beatings as the Price of Water

Women also reported being beaten and harassed at distribution points, with taunts and accusations of being connected to IS or Boko Haram. In Nigeria, 35-year-old Fatima told us, “It was very terrible treatment by [the] army and militia in the camp. When you go to fetch water, before they open the gate, you see them beating people … If you talk or complain, they will say we are wives of Boko Haram. We don’t have any rights.” Another woman showed us her scarred legs and told us that beatings were the price for water.

The nature of the taunts and abuse faced by women perceived to have IS or Boko Haram ties highlights another complexity in who the authorities are branding as affiliates. While we must avoid stereotypical assumptions that women affiliated with IS or Boko Haram have been tricked or forced to join by their husbands, or had domestic roles where they wielded no power, the reality is complex: Displaced women are in fact being demonized purely on the basis that they had or may have had marital or other family relations with IS or Boko Haram suspects, without any attempt to distinguish whether they themselves had actually committed unlawful acts or even had any form of personal commitment to the armed group. When they were questioned by the authorities in both Iraq and Nigeria, for example, women in these situations often were interrogated about their husband’s ties to the armed group, not their own.

Certainly, Iraqi and Nigerian women who committed crimes under international law should be brought to justice in trials that meet international human rights standards. But the ongoing mass “trials” in Iraq and Nigeria of alleged IS and Boko Haram suspects by those countries’ national authorities are gravely flawed and will not deliver justice to victims. At the same time, regardless of their level of affiliation, if any, to IS or Boko Haram, the abuse of women with perceived affiliations in IDP camps is a violation of their rights that must be addressed.

In April, we called on the Iraqi authorities to end the collective punishment of families with perceived ties to IS, and in May, we called on the Nigerian authorities to investigate and address the ill-treatment and abuse of women who had fled from areas under Boko Haram control. The Iraqi authorities announced soon after the report’s release that they would look into the situation of IS families in camps for displaced people; but since April, it is not clear what measures, if any, have been taken to address the concerns. In Nigeria, while our findings were dismissed by the military and the presidency, the Senate has established an ad-hoc committee to investigate further.

The outcomes of these efforts will be crucial. To avoid future cycles of mistreatment, marginalization, and extremism, the governments of both countries, with requisite pressure and assistance from international organizations, must uphold the rights of all citizens by delivering genuine justice rather than abuse that could spur resentment and a new round of violence.

About the Author(s)

Lauren Aarons

Lauren Aarons is a Legal Adviser at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. Follow her on Twitter (@LaurenAarons1)

Nicolette Waldman

Middle East Researcher for Amnesty International, Former Harvard Law Fellow at Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Lead Author and Researcher of the Report “The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict.” Follow her on Twitter (@Nicolette_AI)



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