Last month marked the three-year anniversary of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 girls from a government school in Borno State in northern Nigeria. The Islamic fundamentalists recently released 82 of those girls who have been missing since April 2014, allegedly after the Nigerian government released five of its fighters from prison. There are 113 girls still living among the fighters who haven’t been returned to their families.
What major news outlets haven’t shown is why rebels take “bush wives” at all. The coverage has tended to portray the kidnapping as a purely political act. However, for my M.A. thesis I researched the role of both female child soldiers and bush wives in West African civil wars. (For a book review I wrote, click here.) I found that kidnapping of girls goes beyond just the political.
The civil wars of the 1990s in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast saw unprecedented use of child soldiers. While the boys were often trained as fighters, girls fulfilled various support roles. They cooked and cleaned at rebel camps. They acted as porters for goods in and out of camps. They engaged in espionage at times. Some researchers pointed out how the girls helped meet the emotional needs of fighters, many barely adults themselves.
They also had children with the fighters, which entrenched a cycle of dependence on their captors. They had little chance of fleeing the camps with a child on their back, or did not want to endanger their child’s well-being (one Chibok girl allegedly chose to stay with her husband and child in Boko Haram). After three years, we now know that many of those girls kidnapped by Boko Haram have also had “bush babies” (the African term).
The humanitarian community now has the chance to apply lessons from the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs of the 1990s to the Nigerian situation. Then, kidnapped girls were often given a cursory physical evaluation upon their release or cessation of hostilities, with little follow-up care for their children and absolutely no therapeutic care for their mental health. A significant obstacle for girls of the 1990s was also reintegration back into their home communities. After having conceived children with the enemy, families and neighbors were often hesitant or unwilling to welcome girls home. The International Committee of the Red Cross, a leader in helping care for the Chibok girls, must tend to the social and psychological after-care of today’s Nigerian girls in a way that was overlooked twenty years ago in other West African countries.
However, the situation for the returning Chibok girls is more complex than “us versus them” like in previous conflicts. Most people of Borno state come from a more cohesive ethnic group, the Hausas, and share the religion of Islam. The lines between the rebels and villagers may not be as clear as in West Africa. Also, the international attention on the Chibok case may lend families in their home communities a greater sense of sympathy for the girls’ plight. This sense of sympathy will be much needed in the coming years as they rebuild their lives.
Below is an excerpt from part of a talk I gave on women’s role in Nigerian protests against oil extraction. Oil activities are blamed for environmental destruction, police violence, corruption, and lack of economic growth.
One of my research findings on Niger Delta oil politics was what I termed “positional arbitrage.” This means that local chiefs and male elites used their positions to help incite protests against oil companies and the government at times, as they were well positioned to gain from women’s demonstrations.
The talk also covers some other details about the oil reform movement in the region.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, marriage of minors is still a prevalent problem, particularly among young girls from impoverished families. In Nigeria, the practice is far more common in the Muslim North, where some areas practice Sharia law that allows for child marriage. “The Nigerian government made child marriage illegal in 2003, but according to campaigners from Girls Not Brides, 17% of girls in the country are still married before the age of 15. In the Muslim-dominated northwest, 48% of girls are married by the age of 15 and 78% are married by the time they hit 18.”
This is obviously a challenge for development, as girls who marry young are unlikely to finish schooling or stay within the protective proximity of their parents. There are countless health problems associated with childbearing at a young age, common among child brides. It threatens both the health and human rights of young girls.
For this reason, it was lauded news that “Malawi banned child marriage last week through new legislation that increases the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, representing a major victory for girls in a country that has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world.” Malawi could function as a model nation in Africa for reforming the ways marriage and girls’s rights are approached.
Although not about Nigerian politics, a travel story I wrote was published in Somewhere, Sometime. My chapter is about navigating the complex social terrain of “Area Boys,” or unemployed young men who try to make money in unconventional ways in Lagos. I came across a group on a day off from field research, and it was one of the greatest learning experiences I have had in Nigeria.
Link: A Dash in Lagos
This is an excellent post by a friend that touches upon the lack of women in leadership as a whole, whether it be in the U.S. or Nigeria. I would add that because men have historically held positions of political power, they enjoy the “incumbent advantage,” which is well studied in the U.S. Those (male) politicans currently in office enjoy a more expansive socio-professional network, a potential ability to time elections in their favor, and greater name recognition (regardless of performance). Additionally, incumbents also have easier access to campaign funds and state resources that can be used to bolster their own campaigns, if even indirectly. These dynamics would make for an uphill battle in changing the gender ratios of government seats.
How would the incumbent advantage take form in African politics?
Sociologists and economists try to explain why the people choose such poor leaders. They argue it’s due to the appeal of the narcissist, or because we’re really not self-aware, or because leaders have always been men and men are just deficient at important leadership qualities. While these all contribute, I think evolution offers the most intriguing insights.
First, let me give these other views a fair hearing.
Groups do tend to choose people who rate high on the narcissist scale, in part because those people are the most aggressive self-promoters, and contend that they are the most qualified of all, a prediction that more competent leaders would be unable to refute. Narcissists to seek leadership positions because they are obsessed with having power. Yet in a variety of studies, narcissistic leaders do no better or worse than any one else as leaders. That helps explain our…
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The focus on the cultural dynamics of resistance paved the way for analyses of social movements in the global south and for a focus on mobilization and gender specifically. In a study of the former, Clifford Bob asked what inspires powerful transnational networks to spring up around particular movements. He aimed to demonstrate that hard calculations of costs and benefits in the competitive marketplace for recognition and aid appear to outweigh sympathy and emotion in determining which of the world’s myriad of oppressed groups profit from globalization (Bob 2005). The book underscores the elements of competition over cooperation, interest over principle, and strategic and structural advantage over the justice of a group’s cause. Paradoxically though, his “global civil society approach” notes the emergence of principled forces arrayed against various injustices. These principled forces play a large part in the story of transnational advocacy networks (TANs).
In their grounded theory study, Keck and Sikkink concentrated on these TANs, groups often omitted from traditional social movement research, that have proliferated across the globe. In some ways their narrative is rationalist in nature. TANs use techniques such as information politics and leverage politics. They engage in creative use of strategic information and are employed by NGOs in sophisticated political strategies for their campaigns. On the other hand, they also employ culturally symbolic politics and accountability politics. They all have principled ideas at their core as well as the belief that individuals can make a difference. TANS often advocate for purely moral causes that are not their own and causes in which they, at least initially, don’t have much of a stake. Furthermore, the authors point out that the biggest challenge to the environmental movement is lack of a “face of victimhood” while the greatest strength of gender-based violence movements is that there is an instinctive, transcultural repugnance of “practices that result in bodily harm to vulnerable individuals” (Keck & Sikkink 1998, 195). In other words, activists attract outside participants and supporters partly by globalizing their rhetoric to make it seem as sweeping as possible rather than particular and contingent (Jasper 1997, 292). So, although Keck and Sikkink cited rationalist scholars such as Tilly and Tarrow, their account is largely cultural.
Fully embedded in the cultural camp, Sally Merry has emphasized the “translation” necessary for gender violence activists navigating both international law and their local communities in the developing world. NGO workers must frame their issues in a manner acceptable to global north donors at world conferences, legal hearings, briefings, and UN meetings, all while speaking in the lingua franca of international human rights, English. Additionally however, activists must then “translate” those same global human rights laws into local social movements and rights awareness through cultural transformation and mother tongue communication (Merry 2006).
Along with the research on social movements outside the West, gender has come to the fore as an important dimension of social movements studies. Espoused by Bahati Kuumba, Susan Staggenborg, and Verta Taylor, this lens assumes that gender is a basic organizing principle in human society and that gender roles, relations, and inequalities impact social processes in complex ways. The power, resource, and status differentials between women and men in broader social structures like economies and political systems, as well as in individual lives, must be taken account at each stage of the social movement analysis. Furthermore, it assumes that gender interacts with other systems of stratification, such as race, ethnicity and sexuality, which mediate the institutional context, organizations, and collective identities and strategies of movements (Taylor 1999, 26). Social movement outcomes can be both liberating and subordinating for women at the same time. Gender hierarchy is so persistent that, even in movements that purport to be gender-inclusive, the mobilization, leadership patterns strategies, ideologies, and even the outcomes of social movements are gendered (Taylor 1999, 9). Sites of resistance can also be sites of exclusion, such as when many women were left out of anti-apartheid struggles (Meth 2010).
To this end, there is now increased emphasis not only on the role women in social movements, but also of non-Western women as well. Ifi Amadiume shifts the discussion of social movements from the usual gender-neutral state-civil society paradigm (alá Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject) to the concept of women’s anti-power, anti-state movements. In other words, these are political struggles which are not out to wrest power from anyone, but simply to defend and maintain their autonomy. African women’s movements have been a perfect example of these anti-power efforts, struggling against domination and violation without seeking to take power or resources from others. Women have struggled to defend their autonomous organizations, as well their structures or systems of self-rule since the colonial era and continue to do so today (Amadiume in Mamdani & Wamba-dia-Wamba 1995, 35-60).
Women’s unique forms of mobilizations have only recently been the subject of increased study. Overall, the rationalist explanations for resistance strategies that focus on structure and opportunity ignore the largely female ways of mobilizing that include grassroots networking and organizing people (Christiansen-Ruffman 1995). The dominant literature has gendered the political as “male,” emphasizing the importance of top-down speech-making over organizational bridging, that latter of which is more common in women’s activism (Robnett 1997). When women are political in their own ways it is viewed by academics and laypeople alike as “working for their communities” and not using conscious political tactics. Tarrow argues that politics of order (non-violent sit-ins) and disorder (roadblocks) are women-friendly while politics of violence are male and this has been overlooked (Kuumba 2001).
Four scholars claim that regardless of how women choose to mobilize, their best chance for organization always comes after a conflict. Conflicts are politically empowering to women because women do not have as many male incumbents to contend with since many of those men have fallen to violence. Conflict also offers women an opportunity to mobilize on one side of the struggle and thus empowers them, and women are not willing to give this up just because the conflict has ended. Moreover, in post-conflict environments, Western international donations go up and with those the pressure to include women in politics increases as well. Their last explanation is long recognized in the work on post-WWII gender dynamics: women take up men’s business roles in conflict and want to protect those business interests during peace as well (Tripp, Casimiro, Kwesiga, Mungwa 2009).
For an excellent perspective on The Women’s Colloquium in Liberia, the only African country with a female head of state, please see:
When is it not in women’s best interest to embrace the motherhood frame to propel forward female protests? The problem with this essentialism in resistance is that it may compromise an ideological tenant for a pragmatic one. By definition, essentializing must simplify the experiences and forms of knowledge of participants in resistance, and thus inevitably omit those that are outliers. It is tempting to suspend a commitment to including individual needs if it means substantively furthering a cause beneficial to the subaltern group as a whole; it may serve as a means to an end. Tangible gains for social movements through the use of strategic essentialism may not outweigh the ideological costs of its use.
It can be problematic for a social movement to use this maternal identity as the basis for political authority, as it excludes those who are not mothers and confines participants to the mothering role. As Tripp, Casimiro, Kwesiga, and Mungwa (2009) describe it, “their roles may limit them to [only] that of mother. It also associates women’s participation with what many consider a natural role rather than agency and choice. It may prevent women from entering into politics on an equal basis with men if the focus is on their roles as mothers”. Additionally, such a tendency simplifies the variation in women’s lives.
In the Delta context, for example, the role of chiefs’ wives in resistance is very different from that of non-elite female farmers. Elite wives must navigate a different social terrain, in which their husbands may be using them to influence the actions of women in the community or, conversely, in which they may be able to exercise an unusual amount of autonomy. The princess of * told me, “My grandfather was founder of * [so] no, I cannot really go to protest, but I can tie my wrapper and turn it upside down to protest when I want in my house”. Farmers, on the other hand, may act with more freedom since they are not royalty or, conversely, their positions may mean they don’t have the resources or social capital to behave as autonomously as an elite woman. So, not only must one eschew gender essentialism and cultural essentialism but also socioeconomic or any other essentialism that discounts the variations in the ways that women experience society based on their economic, educational, or marital status.
One of the disadvantages of mothering as a frame can be found in a paradox: being mothers can justify women’s presence but, once they are engaged, then it constricts their actions within the movement. As an illustration, a majority of the two dozen female protesters I spoke with at Occupy Nigeria reported that their husband or a male organizer had directed them to come. None of them had made their own signs or banners. They all said that they would not return to protest for another day. They didn’t take up the bullhorn as often, nor did they chant very loudly, and they marched together in back of the procession behind the men. If women were not choosing to protest on their own, or were not exercising autonomy during protest, then it presents a paradox: Motherhood is their justification for public engagement, yet that same gender construct constrains their independent participation within that space of engagement. So, in all, the maternal frame offers the contradiction of empowering women to demonstrate while also possibly limiting their chance for success.
Women across sub-Saharan Africa, not just the Niger Delta, have used the motherhood trope in both formal and informal mobilizations, engaging in what Molyneux (1985) has termed “combative motherhood” to justify and frame their resistance. Formerly apolitical mamas from rural Kenya marched through Nairobi and then disrobed to demand the release of their sons from political imprisonment, acting on principles of care and justice and strategically employed motherhood. Ivorian women marched through Abidjan to speak out against the violence of the Gbagbo regime and, later, to force peace talks in order to end the civil war there in 2011. Aya Virginie Toure, the leader of the “One Thousand Women March” in 2011, remarked that they were just marching as their mothers had done when their fathers had been imprisoned under colonial rule, and that mothers make the best last resort in resistance (Bannister, 2011). In Nigeria, Maryam Babangida’s Better Life for Rural Women and Maryam Abacha’s Family Economic Advancement Program placed women within the role of wife and mother, thus arguing that government policies aimed at helping women should focus on their ability to financially provide for their families. In the Niger Delta protests, women’s main grievance was that companies had not offered enough employment to the women’s sons. During my observations of protests, women also regularly chanted that they couldn’t afford to provide “chop,” i.e. food, to their children and that their babies were sick because of environmental damage.
This essentialization of female identity (see previous post) can be a benefit for protesting women in that it draws upon the one ability that men can never have—bearing children. Discursive exploitation of motherhood can give women an edge as they attempt to enter male-dominated political space. It can reify their collective identity as they attempt to come together in resistance and can help bridge cross-ethnic or cross-religious boundaries. It can place a burden on power holders to respect protesting women enough to listen. For example, Congolese women convened inattentive male negotiators to see a play depicting the suffering the civil war had caused the country’s children, “humbling” the men into returning to the negotiating table. Essentialization of motherhood may also be embraced because it appears to be an indigenous frame of resistance in a way that the contemporary human rights paradigm, often viewed as Western, is not.
Additionally, embracing this gender construct protects female protesters from the repressive violence that men experience. The maternal frame adopted by groups demanding information on the disappearances of loved ones in El Salvador, Argentina, and Guatemala protected them from the extreme violent repression that was prevalent against dissidents in those countries in the 1970s and 1980s. Likewise, the Federation of South African Women used their motherhood as a shield from violence during their work with the anti-pass campaigns of the 1950s.
Nigerian women have voiced the belief that soldiers are less likely to fire upon or use violence against women, especially mamas. An interviewee said that in the Niger Delta, “Army and police will start beating and shooting people. It is only the women that they will not do that to, but the men they will beat and some will die”. They have demonstrated that by bringing children to sit-ins, holding green leaves, wearing their wrappers upside-down, and baring their breasts, they use their motherhood as both a conduit for their demonstrations and as a shield through which they may protect themselves from violence. This protection then extends to men who are engaged in gender-mixed demonstrations, which is a significant reason that elite men in the Niger Delta have encouraged women’s participation in resistance. Celestine Akpobari, a local NGO Director, described how, during Saro-Wiwa’s movement, “[FOWA] women began to stay at the front of demonstrations because of the belief that the military wouldn’t shoot women” (2/9/2012).
Although the motherhood identity may seem to empower women towards greater political engagement, it can also be a constricting force as well, as described in Gender Essentialism (Part III).