Cameroon must act to protect its children from Boko Haram

Boko Haram in Cameroon
In 2015, Boko Haram released images taken at a training camp for child soldiers in Nigeria (Photo: Al-Urwa Al-Wuthqa Media). Image link and article link.

During my time this summer as an intern at The Advocates for Human Rights, I’ve encountered many horror stories of human rights violations around the world. Yet none has shaken me more than the terrorist group Boko Haram’s new war tactic: kidnapping children and deploying them as suicide bombers.

Since its uprising against the Nigerian government in 2009, the militant Islamic group with allegiance to ISIS has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced nearly 2.3 million people. According to the Global Terrorism Index, it is the world’s deadliest terrorist group over ISIS. Much of the world, however, learned of Boko Haram only after its abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls in 2014. Most of the girls remain missing to this day.

The latest development in Boko Haram’s violence that has spread beyond Nigeria’s borders is the harrowing use of children in suicide attacks, and the country with the highest incidence is Cameroon. According to UNICEF, 21 suicide attacks involving children took place in Cameroon between January 2014 and February 2016, while there were 17 in Nigeria and two in Chad.

As with children taken by Boko Haram elsewhere, those captured in Cameroon are forced to serve as not only suicide bombers, but also combatants on the front line, human shields, and guards – collectively known as “child soldiers.”

What have Cameroonian authorities done in response to Boko Haram’s increasing exploitation of their children as tools of war?

Cameroon joined a multinational task force to fight against Boko Haram and continues to conduct offensive military operations, but the protection of child soldiers embroiled in the conflict has not been a priority of the government. In its periodic report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, ― a body of experts monitoring implementation of the human rights treaty specific to children ― Cameroon does not make a single reference to child soldiers nor Boko Haram’s use of children in its aggression.

Furthermore, the government does not offer organized support to former child soldiers. As Cameroonian forces have recaptured territories held by Boko Haram, some abductees have been found and released. According to UNICEF, however, many are not even welcomed home and instead viewed with deep suspicion because of the fear that they were radicalized in captivity. In particular, girls who were forcibly married to their captors and became pregnant as a result of rape face marginalization and discrimination due to social and cultural norms related to sexual violence. Accused of being Boko Haram wives, they are rejected by relatives and community members.

In the face of egregious abuses committed against Cameroonian children by Boko Haram and the mistreatment persisted by society, the government has been silent for far too long and must take action to better protect its youth from the effects of armed conflict. Instead of penalizing children associated with Boko Haram as was the case in the mass arrest and detainment of Quranic school students in 2014, the government ought to treat them as victims in need of protection.

In July, The Advocates and our Cameroonian partner Centre pour la promotion du droit (Center for the Promotion of Law or CEPROD) submitted a joint report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Child, identifying specific measures that the Cameroon government should enact.

First, the government should harmonize its national legislation with international standards that prohibit the recruitment of children by non-state armed groups such as Boko Haram. Cameroon has ratified both the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the accompanying Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Under these treaties, Cameroon has the duty to enact measures to prevent the recruitment of children by armed groups, including the adoption of necessary legal measures. At present, however, Cameroon does not have any law that addresses the use of children by armed groups. Domestic provisions criminalizing this practice must be in place in order to prosecute perpetrators and stop offenses from occurring in the first place.

Second, the Cameroonian government should develop a comprehensive system of demobilization, recovery, and reintegration for children previously under the influence of armed groups. For the fraction of child soldiers who are rescued or able to escape from Boko Haram, life after captivity is supposed to be better. Yet these children are abandoned by their own families and left wholly vulnerable from their torturous experiences under Boko Haram. It is the State’s responsibility to ensure that they are safely moved to rehabilitative centers and to assist them in their physical and psychological recovery as well as their reintegration into society.

Recruiting children to participate in hostilities is a blatant human rights violation under international law. Yet a State’s failure to protect its children from such recruitment is also a violation of its human rights obligation. The Cameroonian government must act now to safeguard the rights of its children.

By: Nayeon Kim, a rising senior at Yale University studying political science and psychology.  She was a 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program  through the Bulldogs on the Lakes program.  

Additional reading:

Joint submission from The Advocates and CEPROD to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on Issues Relating to Children in Conflict with the Law and Protection & Care of Children Affected by Armed Conflict (July 2016)

Raising My Voice to #BringBackOurGirls

 

Jennifer Prestholdt's son at the Mother's Day march to #BringBackOurGirls
Jennifer Prestholdt’s son at the Mother’s Day march to #BringBackOurGirls

On Mother’s Day, I spoke at a local march and rally to show support for the nearly 300 school girls abducted a month ago in Nigeria. Here’s what I said:

Bring Back Our Girls Twin Cities March
May 11, 2014

“Thanks to organizers and to all of you for being here.

“I’m here as a lawyer and deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights, a non-profit based in Minneapolis that works on human rights issues around the world.

“But I’m also here as a mother. My kids Simon and Eliza are here today as well to stand in honor of the nearly 300 girls abducted simply because they were pursuing their human right to education. I think that’s pretty much the best Mother’s Day gift they could give me.

“There are a lot of things that we don’t know about the situation in Nigeria. We don’t know where the girls are or what is happening to them. We don’t even know the exact number abducted and we only know a few of their names. We can only imagine the agony their families are going through.

“But the tragedy of the nearly 300 girls in Chibok shines a spotlight on the systemic human rights abuses against faced by women and girls worldwide.

“And there are many things we do know about violations of the rights of girls and women:

  • “We know that girls around the world lack equal access to basic education (in the NE region of Nigeria where these girls lived, girl enrollment is the lowest in the country –  only 22%). In part, they were targeted because they were seeking an education that would change their lives.
  • “Educating girls, we know, is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality. It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development
  • “We know that girls and women are not valued equally as boys and men in many parts of the world. The Nigerian government’s lack of action both before and after certainly makes it seem that these girls were not deemed worthy of protection.
  • “We know that when these girls are found and hopefully rescued, they will need support in the form of psychosocial and health care. Women’s access to health care is woefully limited.
  • “We know that 1 in 3 girls under age 18 are still being forced into marriage too early. By some estimates, that’s about 14 million girls a year. Too many girls still endure harmful traditional cultural practices such as FGM.
  • “We know that girls and women suffer the most in times of conflict. What these girls have experienced is likely a war crime. Trafficking remains a huge problem around the world and in our own community.
  • “We know that 1 in 3 of the world’s women experience violence, including domestic violence (The Advocates for Human Rights works on domestic violence legal reform around the world);

“And we know that these are all things that have to change.

“We need to do more to push our governments to make this change a priority. We can’t stop with just these 276 girls.

#BringBackOurGirls' Mother's Day march, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota
#BringBackOurGirls’ Mother’s Day march, held in Minneapolis, Minnesota

“Now these are human rights abuses that may seem intractable. It may seem like you are powerless to make a difference. But you can:

  • “Continue to educate yourself about girls and women’s rights. Here in the Twin Cities, there are many opportunities. Through The Advocates for Human Rights alone, you can attend the free St. Paul Public Library Women’s Rights Film series, learn more about the issues on www.StopVAW.org, or participate in our Human Rights Book Club.
  • “Support the NGOs that work on issues you care about. No amount is too small – a little money really does go a long way in this area.
  • “Write to our members of Congress and the President to encourage support for women’s rights as a critical part of our US foreign policy.
  • “For those of you with young people in your lives, teach them about the world around them so that they will grow up to continue the fight to ensure that every child, wherever he or she lives in the world, has the chance to live in safety and dignity and to achieve their greatest human potential.

“For those of you doubting whether sharing this story on social media really makes a difference, I’d like to share a message I got on my blog from a woman named Winnie in Nigeria:

“‘we here in nigeria are so angry and feel very helpless, the government and opposition leaders have politicized this, while our daughters are still in captivity. the government officials do not want to listen to ‘ordinary’ people. and word  has it that the Nigerian press have been ordered to kill the story (as the have killed other stories in the past).  pls this is a passionate plea to the international community to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.’

Jennifer Prestholdt speaking at the Mother’s Day March to #BringBackOurGirls

“Here in the Twin Cities and all around the world, we are working to keep this story alive until our girls are returned home safely.

“And after our girls come home, I hope we can keep working together for a future where all girls around the world can go to school in safety and grow up to reach their full human potential.”

By: Jennifer Prestholdt is the deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights and the director of the organization’s International Justice Program. She has a B.A. in political science from Yale and a M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she studied international human rights law and international refugee policy. She graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1996.

Ms. Prestholdt has worked on refugee and asylum issues for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. She has also interned for the Reebok Human Rights Program and the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination Against and Protection of Minorities. Prior to becoming Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, she practiced asylum law for five years as the director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program. As The Advocates’ deputy director, she assists in fundraising for and directing organizational operations. Ms. Prestholdt also supervises the development and administration of International Justice programming. She has also taught International Human Rights Law as an adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.

 

Take Notice: Nigeria Abductions Are Not an Anomaly

Photo: Twitter.WomenGirlsLead
Photo: Twitter.WomenGirlsLead

Like many other people, I am outraged by the April 14 abduction of hundreds of young girls from their school in northeastern Nigeria by the insurgent group Boko Haram. The group attacked again on May 6, kidnapping eight more girls–this time from their homes–to prevent them from attending school. While we do not know exactly where the girls were taken or how they are being treated, it is likely that many of them will be raped and sold into sexual slavery. Some of the girls are as young as 12, and as a mother I can only imagine the nightmare the girls and their parents must be living.

I join the calls to the Nigerian government, the Obama administration, and other world leaders demanding that they do what needs to be done to free the girls and bring those responsible to justice. But bringing the girls home is only the first step in answering the contorted message the kidnappings were designed to send: that women are property and girls should not be educated.

The Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, who has spoken out against the kidnappings, reportedly asserted at a conference in March that the Boko Haram insurgency is an “anomaly” in the socio-religious environment of Nigeria, where Christians and Muslims live in harmony with each other and with people of other faiths. I do not dispute that position and sincerely hope that he is right. But while extremist organizations such as Boko Haram may be anomalous in Nigerian society, the assault on girls’ education globally is not.

We live in a world where, for some girls, simply learning to read is a courageous and life-threatening act of defiance.In March 2013, a principal in Karachi, Pakistan was killed when grenades were hurled into his school, which specialized in enrolling girls. A teacher in a different part of Pakistan was gunned down in front of the all-girls school where she had taught only a week earlier. In the spring and summer of 2013, over 400 girls in Afghanistan fell ill from suspected gas poisonings in at least half a dozen schools. The assassination attempt against Malala Yousafzai for promoting girls’ education in Pakistan is well-known.

The net enrollment rate in 2008 for girls in secondary school in Nigeria was just 22%. In northern Nigeria, where the kidnappings occurred, only 3% of girls finish secondary school and more than 50% are married by the age of 16.  The situation in Nigeria is sadly representative of a wider pattern. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Gender Gap Report, girls in Pakistan had a secondary school enrollment rate of 29%, as compared to 40% for boys. Rates are even lower in Chad, where only 5% of girls received a secondary education, as compared to 16% of boys. Nor is the problem endemic only to countries with a majority Muslim population. In Nepal, school enrollment rates for boys are 14 percentage points higher than for girls. These statistics reflect a cultural undercurrent that creates powerful disincentives for girls to educate themselves, ensuring that women remain powerless, objectified, and vulnerable to forced marriages and sexual slavery.

I do not mean to suggest that we have it all figured out here in the United States. Sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses are on the rise, femicides are seventh in line as causes of early death among females in the United States, and our most recent census report confirmed that—despite decades of working for equality—women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. But I know that I am lucky. I am a shareholder in a successful law firm that not only supports me, but has been lauded as one of the best in the nation for women attorneys. I have been successful, first and foremost, because I was born into a family that never questioned whether I would go to college; it was simply assumed.

But is it possible to change cultural norms in other countries? And even if we could, what place is it of ours? To answer the second question, we are no longer isolated on this planet. The diminution of women everywhere affects all of us, by preventing economic growth, destabilizing societies and even planting the seeds that allow terrorism to flourish. Education is a fundamental human right that belongs to everyone, boys and girls, everywhere. It is everyone’s responsibility to address harmful cultural practices that result in human rights violations. We can and should work towards universal education in all parts of the world.

NepalPics 292-c
Student of The Advocates for Human Rights’ Sankhu-Palubari Community School, near Kathmandu, Nepal

The notion that there is nothing we can really do is wrong. Since the fall of the Taliban, the enrollment of girls in primary school in Afghanistan has risen from virtually none to approximately 37%.

I know from personal experience that norms against educating girls can be changed. In 1999, the Advocates for Human Rights founded a school in a village in Nepal where education rates for children were extremely low. The school’s basic admission criteria were that the students must be low income, and the student body must be 50% girls. Parents of these children, when interviewed, expressed sincere doubts about the value of education for their children—especially the girls. Over time these views have changed dramatically. When I visited the school in 2011, the parents  no longer questioned why they should educate their children. Instead, they demanded that The Advocates expand the school to include more grades. Many of the girls who have graduated from our school are now studying at the University. It’s only a drop in the global bucket, but it’s a start.

By: Dulce Foster, attorney with Fredrikson and Byron, is a long-time volunteer and supporter of the Advocates for Human Rights. She has provided immeasurable leadership for the organization’s Nepal School Project and for the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Project.

In her legal practice with Fredrikson and Byron, Foster defends, investigates, and advises clients in criminal and civil matters involving financial fraud, healthcare fraud, corruption, FCPA, trade secrets theft, illegal immigration, False Claims Act and other regulatory concerns.

Nightmare for Nigeria’s School Girls

Girls in school in Nigeria Image: Naija247News
Girls in school in Nigeria
Image: Naija247News

On the night of April 14, dozens of armed men showed up at the dormitory of the Government Girls Secondary school in Chibok in northeastern Nigeria.  Dressed in Nigerian military uniforms, they told the girls that they were there to take them to safety and herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles.  At first, the girls believed them. But when the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting, “Allahu Akbar,”  they realized that the men were militants from Boko Haram and that they were in serious danger.

Forty-three girls managed to escape by running away or jumping out of the trucks. But as many as 234 school girls between the ages of 12 and 17 were kidnapped, disappearing into the night without a trace. Two weeks later, their parents still have no idea where they are. And yesterday, village elders from Chibok told reporters that they had received information that the abducted girls were taken across the borders to Chad and Cameroon and sold as brides to Islamist militants for 2,000 naira (about $12). While unconfirmed, these reports are a chilling reminder of the threat of sexual violence faced by women and girls in conflict zones. 

The girls who were abducted were targeted simply because they were exercising their right to go to school, out of the ordinary for a girl in Nigeria. Access to basic education for girls has remained low, particularly in the northern region which has the  lowest girl child enrollment in Nigeria —in 2008 the net enrollment rate for girls into secondary school was only 22 percent.  The girls (who were both Christian and Muslim) at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok must each have been determined to get an education in spite of tremendous odds.  The fact that these girls were also risking violence to be in school illustrates how important the right to education was to each of them.

How could this happen? And why?
Boko Haram is a violent insurgent group that has killed thousands of people since 2009, purportedly in an attempt to establish an Islamist state in northern Nigeria. Although the Nigerian government has issued a state of emergency in three northern states, attacks on villages in northern Nigeria have displaced more than 470,000 people—mostly women and children, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Since early 2014, Boko Haram’s attacks have been increasingly violent, targeting remote villages, markets, hospitals, and schools.  Boko Haramis responsible for at least 1500 deaths so far in 2014.

Boko Haram also has a history of taking hostages as “slaves.” In May 2013, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Sheku released a video saying that Boko Haram had taken women and children, including teenage girls, as hostages as part of its latest campaign. These hostages would be treated as “slaves,” he said.  This has raised concern among the family members of those abducted that “Boko Haram is adhering to the ancient Islamic belief that women captured during war are slaves with whom their ‘masters’ can have sex.  Regardless of alleged rationale, enslavement, imprisonment, forced labor, rape and sexual slavery are all serious violations of international law.  They are defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as crimes against humanity.

The group has repeatedly attacked schools in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”  in the Hausa language. Boko Haram has set schools on fire and detonated bombs at university campus churches. In early February, armed gunmen abducted 20 female students at Goverment Girls Science College in the village of Konduga. On February 24, 2014, members of Boko Haram attacked and killed more than 40 male students at Federal Government College in Buni Yadi village and abducted an unknown number of female students. After these attacks, many schools in northeastern Nigeria were closed. The school where the abductions took place was closed as well, but local education officials decided to briefly reopen the Chibok school to allow the girls to take their exams.  

The mass kidnapping  in April was unprecedented and shocking. Even more shocking – after more than two weeks, the Nigerian government has done very little to find and rescue the girls.

The lack of government response has provoked outrage in Nigeria. On Wednesday, several hundred participated in a “million-woman protest march” in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital to demand that more resources be put toward finding and securing the kidnapped girls. The protesters in Nigeria are joined on Twitter with a growing movement under the hashtags #BringBackOurGirls, #BringBackOurDaughters and #234Girls.

One man, whose daughter was abducted along with his two nieces, said his wife has hardly slept since the attack. She lies awake at night “thinking about our daughter”.  As the mother of a young school girl myself, I feel deeply for her. The continuing tragedy of these young Nigerian school girls is every parent’s worst nightmare.

It’s time for world to wake up to the escalating violence in Nigeria, as well as the Nigerian government’s lack of response.

By: Jennifer Prestholdt, deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights and the organization’s director of the International Justice Program. Ms. Prestholdt has a B.A. in political science from Yale and a M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, where she studied international human rights law and international refugee policy. She graduated cum laude from the University of Minnesota Law School.

Prestholdt has worked on refugee and asylum issues for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland and the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination Against and Protection of Minorities. Prior to becoming deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights, Prestholdt practiced asylum law for five years as the organization’s  director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program. She has also taught International Human Rights Law as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School.