Boko Haram’s rise and insurgency have dramatically changed the lives of thousands of women and girls, often casting them voluntarily or by force into new roles outside the domestic sphere. Some joined to escape their social conditions; others were abducted and enslaved. Seven years of war have caused gender-specific suffering. While men have disproportionally been killed, women are an overwhelming majority among the estimated 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the North East. As former wives, slaves or fighters, many bear the stigma of association with the insurgents and are barred from reintroduction into their communities, in part because the lines between militant, sympathiser and forced accomplice are blurred. Although Boko Haram faces strong pushback, it remains capable of launching attacks and conducting multiple suicide bombings. Understanding how women experience the conflict, not only as victims but also as actors, needs to directly inform policies and programs to tackle the roots of the insurgency and strategies for curbing it, as well as facilitate women’s contribution to lasting peace.

Since its emergence in 2002, Boko Haram has paid particular attention to women in rhetoric and actions, partly because of the intense debate surrounding their role in society in the North East. Among other revivalist Islamic movements, the sect called for tighter restrictions on them in some areas of life but also promoted their access to Islamic education and offered financial empowerment. With patriarchy, poverty, corruption, early marriage and illiteracy long thwarting their life chances, some women saw an opportunity in Boko Haram to advance their freedoms or reduce their hardship. Many valued the religious and moral anchoring.

Thereafter, Boko Haram began to abduct women and girls for both political and pragmatic ends, including to protest the arrest of female members and relatives of some leaders. The seizure of more than 200 schoolgirls near Chibok in 2014 was a much publicised spike in a wider trend. The group took Christian and later Muslim females to hurt communities that opposed it, as a politically symbolic imposition of its will and as assets. By awarding “wives” to fighters, it attracted male recruits and incentivised combatants. Because women were not considered a threat, female followers and forced conscripts could initially circulate in government-controlled areas more easily, as spies, messengers, recruiters and smugglers. For the same reason, from mid-2014, Boko Haram turned to female suicide bombers. Increasingly pressed for manpower, it also trained women to fight.

As vigilante militia members, including with the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF), hundreds of women help security forces, particularly to frisk females at checkpoints, gather information and identify suspects, and also sometimes to fight Boko Haram. Others work in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and women’s associations or care privately for war victims. In some cases, the war has opened opportunities for women’s activism, illustrated by the establishment of several new women-led NGOs in Maiduguri and the Nigerian involvement in the Bring Back Our Girls international campaign.

Boko Haram attacks, the military’s persecution of suspects and its strategy of emptying contested areas have forced over a million women and girls to flee homes. Some suspected supporters are in detention. Hundreds of thousands of females are in government camps where food is scarce and healthcare dismal; in unofficial camps, the situation can be even worse. Separated from husbands and sons conscripted or killed by Boko Haram or arrested by security forces, many women are now fully responsible for their families’ protection and economic wellbeing.

Harsh treatment of IDPs in camps and detention centres could undermine military gains. If corruption in aid delivery and abuses persist, communities may harbour grievances that could lead them to reject state authority. Meanwhile, the stigma carried by women and girls known or suspected to have been Boko Haram members risks leaving them and their children isolated and alienated, generating new frustration and resistance of the kind that gave rise to Boko Haram.

How gender dynamics play a part in fuelling the Boko Haram insurgency should be a clear warning that women’s integration into decision-making processes at all levels is critical to a durable peace. Countering the sect and rebuilding a peaceful society in the North East requires the government and its international partners to tackle gender discrimination, better protect women and girls affected by the violence and support women’s economic and social reintegration, as well as enhance their role in building sustainable peace. In the short term, reunification of families should be a priority. In the longer term, improvements and gender balance in accessing education, in both state schools and upgraded Quranic schools, is vital.