Thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced in the Lake Chad Basin region, the result of a relentless and ongoing campaign of violence by Boko Haram insurgents. With the disaster threatening to undermine decades of development, heads of state, leaders of United Nations agencies and civil society chiefs gathered at UN Headquarters today to address the urgent needs of women and young people, and to forge partnerships for building resilience among terrorized communities.
The event, chaired by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, underlined the scale of a vast and deteriorating humanitarian crisis. “Adolescents, women and children are fighting a daily struggle,” said Dr. Osotimehin.
The impacts of the insurgency reach from Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon to Chad, Benin and beyond. “Two-and-a-half million people – including 1.5 million children – have been displaced since May 2013,” said Kyung-wha Kang of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “This is Africa’s fastest growing displacement crisis.”
“I thought I could escape. But I was wrong.”
“More than 2,000 girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since 2011,” UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Fatoumata Ndiaye told attendees at the event.
Hafsat Lai, 26, was among those captured. “When gunmen came to my village, killing everyone in sight, I thought I could escape. But I was wrong,” Ms. Lai recounted, not long ago, at a UNFPA-supported safe space in Nigeria.
Ms. Lai was abducted with her 2-year-old son, Ismail, in Nigeria’s Borno State. It was the last time she saw her two other sons, Bawa, 8, and Mohammed, 6.
“When the shooting stopped, we were all led like animals into the forest. I saw babies die and watched in pain as children were asked to bury them. In Sambisa Forest, I was asked to renounce my religion or be treated as a slave. I refused, and I was flogged daily.”
The abuses she described are common among survivors of captivity. Many have been raped, forced to marry their captors, and to give birth without medical assistance.
Sexual violence is a deliberate “tactic of terrorism, integral to their strategy of domination and self-perpetuation,” Zainab Hawa Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, told the leaders at today’s event. “Boko Haram has institutionalized the brutalization of women and girls, destroying their communities, and waging war on their physical, sexual and reproductive autonomy and rights.”
It is a crisis UNFPA and partners are working to address. “Many of women and girls among the displaced are pregnant. Some have tested positive for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections,” Dr. Osotimehin noted. “This raises serious concerns for the sexual and reproductive health of a whole generation of women and girls who have endured sexual violence in the hands of their captors.”
It is not only people on the front lines who are affected. Huge displaced populations are being hosted by communities already grappling with hunger and poverty. The unrest has caused widespread school closures and disrupted trade.
“About one third of our population is people who have to be helped because of Boko Haram,” said Aichatou Boulama, Niger’s minister of foreign affairs.
The crisis contributes to “high mortality rates, low life expectancy, poor access to employment, poor access to education, and poor access to sexual and reproductive health, knowledge and services,” explained Dr. Osotimehin.
Interventions are needed across the board, said former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo. “We cannot talk of education and leave out health. We cannot talk of education and health and leave out employment.”
Ensuring women, young people have a future
Solutions must involve those worst affected – women and youth – the attendees underlined.
“We have to get women involved in seeking solutions to the problems of security, governance and development. They have to be empowered, they have to become resilient,” said Mariam Mahamat Nour, the Chadian Minister of Planning and International Cooperation.
“Over 60 per cent of populations in the affected countries are below the age of 25, and over 40 per cent are below the age of 14,” Dr. Osotimehin said. These youth represent a source of enormous potential for the region.
With growing numbers of people entering into working age, the affected countries could experience a boost in economic productivity – known as a demographic dividend – but only if youth see the right investments and opportunities, despite the persistent turmoil.
“We are dealing with a large population of young people who are susceptible to the influences