Foreign Affairs

Our Forgotten Girls: Undermining Female Security with Overmilitarization

Where were you in April of 2014?

I would turn 14 years old in a month (yes, I’ll shamefully admit to being a Gen Z-er). I was as excited as any prepubescent eighth grade girl would be. I sat in my room wondering who I would invite, what my cake would look like, and, most importantly, what I would wear. Duh. In a matter of hours, I would decide to beg my mother to cook her Nigerian Jollof rice, make a playlist of all my favorite Afrobeats songs, and invite my church friends. It was going to be the best 14th birthday known to womankind. In a rush to invite my friends via Instagram, I saw the news that 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from a secondary school in Chibok by the militant group Boko Haram. That was the first time I was able to truly understand what it meant to identify with a victim in age, ethnicity, and appearance.

Many of you know this as the worldwide uproar and famous campaign, #BringBackOurGirls. Celebrities, high officials, and organizations held up signs with the trending hashtag as well as contributing fervent commentary on the importance of female education. Despite its laudable intentions, the hashtag failed to acknowledge and address the root causes of female insecurity within West Africa, specifically Nigeria. The U.S. supported Nigeria with aerial surveillance, intelligence, and troops to find the missing girls. Yet six years later, about half of those girls are still missing.

The issue with this response was its failure to recognize that this incident was not merely a terrorist attack, but a sprout grown from the root of female insecurity in Northern Nigeria. However, the U.S. and other Global North nations (France, U.K., U.S. etc.) have a history of military intervention in the Global South in times such as these. Scholars explain that the evolution of military intervention has its beginnings in imperialist/colonialist interests with the extraction of raw materials (like rubber in the Belgian Congo) to self-defensive intervention. This is the form of intervention we now visibly see in the media with the War on Terror. Self-defensive intervention emphasizes that the U.S. must intervene in states that pose a national security threat. Eventually, this ideology became intertwined with international development blueprints in Africa, thereby producing a phenomenon known as securitization.

So, what exactly is securitization?

This concept of securitization or militarization (I will use the two interchangeably) is used in African states because they are seen to be “breeding grounds” for conflict and terrorism. What militarization strategies tend to look like are Global North states such as the U.S selling arms, training and sending troops, or advising foreign armies. While seemingly innocent on the forefront, securitization manipulates subjects into believing that militarization and military aid are the best methods to ensure peace. Conflict is the “big red flag” that pushes developing states into poverty. And if the Global North wants to protect these states from poverty, they should send their troops and military hardware. The logic of such development is grounded in fear, risks, and security, pushing solutions for poverty, like humanitarian aid (which also has its flaws), away.

Securitization also creates economic advantages for conflict. An example of this would be AFRICOM (United States Africa Command), whose goals are to secure resources such as oil, respond to terrorism after 9/11 in developing states, and counter growing Chinese involvement in Africa. These goals are motivated by political and economic interests, not the protection and stability of the African continent, even though it purports to do that. In this case, moral and political motivations became interwoven. Once again, this falls in line with the colonial and imperial forms of militarization which were solely meant for the extraction of resources in Africa.

Scholars and NGOs have argued these tactics are harmful to human rights and encourage illicit activities. For example, scholars argue that militarization encourages illicit arms trading that increases the flow of arms back to militant groups like Boko Haram, which only generates more conflict and other human rights violations. Additionally, Nigeria’s military has committed serious human rights violations that have been swept under the rug. These factors make it a struggle for the Nigerian military to properly combat Boko Haram.

Okay, so, back to the girls.

These tactics do not fully address the underlying issues of female safety in Nigeria. Boko Haram’s kidnapping is only the fruit of the serious discrimination and “othering” of women in Nigeria. In the northern states of Nigeria, which are predominantly Muslim, it is commonly thought that girls are ready for marriage as soon as they enter puberty. These traditional beliefs prevent girls from receiving an education. In this discrimination, we see where Boko Haram’s traditional roots take place, and it’s the widespread hypermasculinity that leads to gender violence.

Now, the question stands, how do we properly address female insecurity due to terrorism in Northern Nigeria?

We go to the root of the problem.

Girl Child Concerns (GCC) is a Nigerian NGO dedicated to improving the lives of girls through educational opportunities. What especially attracted me to Girl Child Concerns was their goal to provide holistic intervention that meets the needs of girls in humanitarian settings. To accomplish this, GCC provides a plethora of interventions or programs such as the Female Scholarship Scheme, Give Back Project, Legislative Education Campaign, Youth Development & Mentoring, etc. All of these initiatives are aimed at the goals of empowering young girls through educational opportunities whether that’s the provision of funding, mentoring, training and community engagements. They are drawn to breaking the social stigmas against girls in Northern Nigeria, especially those affected by Boko Haram.

GCC also addresses the issues of the reproductive/maternal health of women. GCC aims to train women as Village Health Workers in their communities. Currently, they have about 246 women in Northern Nigeria as workers. In reference back to their goals, they also educate women on their reproductive and human rights. They aim to share information through education-based enrichment programs for vulnerable girls and young mothers. However, GCC also works with community leaders such as the local government, religious leaders, etc.

I thought it was empowering how they targeted not just government actors but also religious leaders and other influential members of society.

GCC challenges securitization as a form of development because it targets the root issues of gender inequality and violence against women. Foreign intervention’s goals lie in the dismantling of Boko Haram and terror threats; however, this is insufficient because it’s a downstream solution to an upstream problem. Female insecurity in Northern Nigeria has long been an issue since before the rise of Boko Haram and other extremist groups. GCC believes that improving outcomes for women simply requires educating families and communities on the importance of education. 

I believe the key to liberating Africa starts at the grassroots level, in local communities and  civil society. African states have been choked with strict modernization and militarization development strategies, breeding ethnic conflict, poverty, hunger, and fear. In this process, the African woman has been forgotten. Her security and stability have been compromised by faulty international development strategies. We need to encourage local organizations that help girls in vulnerable positions rather than blindly supporting missions that harm women, women and girls who bleed and breathe like me, like you, like us.

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