The Lost Girls

Why women are the "spoils of war" in Nigeria and around the world -- and nobody cares.

Over the last week or so, multiple stories in the news have been asking why the media is ignoring the kidnapping of more than 200 girls (some reports say as many as 276) by Boko Haram, an extremist anti-Western group in Nigeria. Yet there have been literally hundreds of Facebook posts, thousands of tweets, and dozens of stories in the media about what is going on. It took a week or two -- longer than it should have, yes, considering the horror of what has been perpetrated -- but in the end, this case has gotten more attention than any single case of girls abducted in armed conflict in recent memory, possibly ever. People are paying attention.

As that becomes evident, all the outcry over "why aren't we paying attention" starts to look like it's part of a deeper public distress: Why have we not paid attention in the past when thousands of girls -- and boys -- have been abducted in armed conflict? Why aren't we paying attention, right now, to the girls caught in human trafficking webs or sold into early marriages or held in captivity as "wives" by armed groups? Why are we only now outraged? And will this outrage sustain itself as situations like this one unendingly arise? Will any amount of anger lead to any concrete solution?

What happened to these girls isn't new, sadly. Instances of the trafficking of children in places of conflict are myriad and worldwide. But as I delved into what I thought would be a story about the larger issue of the abduction and selling of girls, I realized that first I had to clarify what this story is actually about.

On April 14, an extremist group whose name roughly translates as "Western education is forbidden" abducted the Nigerian girls from a high school in the northeastern town of Chibok. The convoy disappeared quickly into the forest, and ever since rumors have trickled out of the country about their fate. There are reports that the girls have been sold into marriage or sexual slavery for "as little as" $12 (as if their being sold for a higher price would somehow improve the situation).

Boko Haram is trying to wrest control of northern Nigeria back from what it sees as "false Muslims." The International Crisis Group estimates that the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group has killed more than 4,000 people in Nigeria since it began its insurgency four years ago; it perpetrated seven attacks on schools in 2013, according to Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch says the militants have previously utilized children as weapons.

The kidnapping of so many schoolgirls at once, however, has upped the ante. Boko Haram has chosen a group -- girls -- that is historically vulnerable, yet whose members carry precious undertones about the purity of most societies. And with that designation as the bearers of purity, girls become a group that is little more than a symbol. In reality, these girls are human beings who are marginalized, exploited, and ignored globally. Girls are the low-hanging fruit of the biblically proportioned anger at Eve.

To view this as a simple case of trafficking (or modern-day slavery, as it is often called) is to overlook a larger point: Crimes against women and girls are not only commonplace, but they go ignored, unprosecuted, and unreported by the international media every single day, especially when they occur in the global South.

Beyond the difficulty of figuring out how to categorize this case, there is a cultural limit on how far we are willing to go in discussing something this harrowing, says media activist and writer Soraya Chemaly. "Things like sexualized violence against women and girls seems to be always just the wallpaper," says Chemaly. "It's just there, and people expect it to be there, and we manage that through a whole series of euphemisms in conversations and the media." News stories have been referring to what happened to the kidnapped Nigerian girls as "child marriage," Chemaly says, an expression that "waters down what's happening and makes it palatable to people when it's really unpalatable."

But understanding what is going on is crucial to putting an end to it, says Akila Radhakrishnan, legal director at the Global Justice Center: "The failure to comprehend the specific experiences of girls impedes accountability, reparations, and rehabilitation efforts." The Lubanga case at the International Criminal Court, for instance, which focused on accountability for the use of child soldiers, failed to include any form of sexualized violence in the charges or the sentencing. "Of the 129 victims who participated in the trial, 30 reported being subject to or witnessing sexualized violence. For those girls, sexualized violence was a part of how they experienced the conflict," Radhakrishnan says. But the decision not to include consideration of this crime in the final verdict, notes Radhakrishnan, "renders justice meaningless for these survivors."

In trying to classify what has happened to the Nigerian girls, I spoke to Cristina Finch, head of Amnesty International USA's women's human rights program.

"Is this sort of what people are normally discussing when they're discussing the problem of worldwide trafficking? Not exactly," says Finch. What has happened here, she explains, is more about how women are used repeatedly and historically as a tool of war.

Boko Haram is sneering at a world that has shown time and again that girls are expendable and easily weaponized. It is targeting society's most defenseless and fetishized. This act in essence is not dissimilar to how the Syrian government has used women as targets of punishment in that war, allegedly perpetrating rape on women and girls in front of their husbands or sending videotapes of rape to families as a means of humiliating them. Both are showing they can take what "belongs" to other men and use them as they please.

Tobore Ovuorie, a Nigerian journalist who has investigated human trafficking in the country, told me that she sees the kidnapping as a Rubik's cube of child marriage, spoils of war, trafficking, and sexual exploitation. The girls kidnapped from the school in Nigeria "would be sold to sex slavery, working on plantations or other forms of labor, and they will be resold over and over again when their masters feel they have outlived their value," she says. But, she adds, the girls were abducted under the guise of "war."

Undoubtedly this is a bold move by Boko Haram in Nigeria's ongoing conflict, meant to cement its power in a country that tries to ignore the terrorist group or wish it away, says Adotei Akwei, Amnesty's managing director of government relations, who is closely following the case. Some of the girls are "being sold as rewards," Akwei says, while others will be given to fighters as prizes. Such rewards are given in conflicts all over the world, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I have met girls who had been kidnapped by various militias and held as sexual slaves for months. The rest of the Nigerian schoolgirls, Akwei says, are likely being sold for cash to raise funds for the cause. The kidnappings make Boko Haram more apparently vicious and formidable, he notes. "Armed groups tend to compete with each other about how badly they can intimidate a population."

In that estimation, it would seem, Boko Haram is winning.

* * *

Understanding what has happened to the Nigerian girls and how to rescue them means beginning to face what has happened to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of girls over years in global armed conflict. Here's a short list of just a few situations in the last 10 years in which girls and boys have been taken by militias and used as sex slaves, "married," or trafficked and sold:

In Egypt, two teenaged cousins were kidnapped and then sold in 2011 as part of ongoing strife between Coptic Christians and Muslims at the time. In Darfur this March, pro-government militiamen kidnapped four young women in the southern Hijer region and then raped them in front of local villagers, according to a local radio station. Al-Shabab, a militant group in Somalia, has been engaged in a "free-for-all of armed men preying upon women and girls displaced by Somalia's famine," the New York Times reported in 2011. The newspaper cites victims, aid workers, and United Nations officials as saying that the group was "seizing women and girls as spoils of war, gang-raping and abusing them as part of its reign of terror in southern Somalia."

Perhaps the most famous example of a militia using girls as spoils of war is that of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, which kidnapped nearly 600 girls and boys to be used as sex slaves between 2008 and 2011, according to the United Nations. UNICEF estimated that 12,000 children were abducted by the LRA between 2002 and 2004 alone and were forced to fight, work, or be used for sex. Colombia's armed conflict, while nearing its official end, continues to take the lives of young girls in forcible recruitments by militias.* UNICEF reported in 2011 that more than 31,000 children were rescued from militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo or escaped from them in the previous seven years. And there is just no counting for the hundreds and hundreds of girls abducted and trafficked as spoils of Mexico's drug war.

Maybe it is the sudden scale of the number of girls kidnapped at once in Nigeria that has made us pay attention. Maybe it is the mystery about their true fate. But maybe a laundry list like the one above will clarify that the scale has always been there, just cloaked in the media behind flashier (male) war stories about bombs, guns, and murder.

* * *

Right now, the world is scrambling, finally, to help the Nigerian girls. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on May 3 that the United States "will do everything possible to support the Nigerian government to return these young women to their homes and to hold the perpetrators to justice." The Nigerian government, reports say, has set up a "committee" headed by a senior Army general to advise how to secure the release of the girls.

But was there something that could have been done before the kidnapping that would have prevented this?

Hindsight is 20/20, but not a single member of Boko Haram has been prosecuted for any of its crimes, according to rights groups I spoke with. The impunity for sexualized violence and crimes against women and girls, along with the general disregard for their lives -- especially those of girls and women in the developing world -- tacitly says that all of this is allowed to continue.

"Whether you call it 'child brides' or 'sex trafficking,' these are issues that are not considered to be serious topics like things such as global security," says Chemaly. "These are things that should be concerning on their own merit."

Violence against women is the proverbial canary in the coal mine, says Finch. Countries that have high levels of such violence are much more likely to move into a larger conflict, she notes, citing work by Valerie Hudson, a professor of political science at Texas A&M University. It might then be prudent to focus on prosecuting crimes against women and girls in order to ensure a more peaceful world.

As with so many crimes, impunity is the key to stopping them. But with the kidnapping of these Nigerian girls in particular, so is elevating the way we value 51 percent of humanity.

"You're always going to have an outlier like Boko Haram," says Akwei, "but if there is a higher bar on opposing violence against women and girls or assuming women are trophies or prizes of war and not even thinking about it, then we're going to see more and more of this kind of thing."

Maybe, right now, our eyes have begun to open. Maybe.

*Correction, May 16, 2014: The armed conflict in Colombia is nearing its official end, but a peace agreement has not yet been signed. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that the conflict is officially over. (Return to reading.)


Democracy Lab

How Putin Is Reinventing Warfare

Though some deride Russia for backward thinking, Putin's strategy in Ukraine betrays a nuanced understanding of 21st century geopolitics.

The Kremlin, according to Barack Obama, is stuck in the "old ways," trapped in Cold War or even 19th century mindsets. But look closer at the Kremlin's actions during the crisis in Ukraine and you begin to see a very 21st century mentality, manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning global media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances. Could it be that the West is the one caught up in the "old ways," while the Kremlin is the geopolitical avant-garde, informed by a dark, subversive reading of globalization?

The Kremlin's approach might be called "non-linear war," a term used in a short story written by one of Putin's closest political advisors, Vladislav Surkov, which was published under his pseudonym, Nathan Dubovitsky, just a few days before the annexation of Crimea. Surkov is credited with inventing the system of "managed democracy" that has dominated Russia in the 21st century, and his new portfolio focuses on foreign policy. This time, he sets his new story in a dystopian future, after the "fifth world war."

Surkov writes: "It was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for just two sides to fight. Two countries, two blocks of allies. Now four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. All against all."

This is a world where the old geo-political paradigms no longer hold. As the Kremlin faces down the West, it is indeed gambling that old alliances like the EU and NATO mean less in the 21st century than the new commercial ties it has established with nominally "Western" companies, such as BP, Exxon, Mercedes, and BASF. Meanwhile, many Western countries welcome corrupt financial flows from the post-Soviet space; it is part of their economic models, and not one many want disturbed. So far, the Kremlin's gamble seems to be paying off, with financial considerations helping to curb sanctions. Part of the rationale for fast-tracking Russia's inclusion into the global economy was that interconnection would be a check on aggression. But the Kremlin has figured out that this can be flipped: Interconnection also means that Russia can get away with aggression.

"A few provinces would join one side," Surkov continues, "a few others a different one. One town or generation or gender would join yet another. Then they could switch sides, sometimes mid-battle. Their aims were quite different. Most understood the war to be part of a process. Not necessarily its most important part."

We can see a similar thinking informing the Kremlin as it toys with Eastern Ukraine, using indirect intervention through local gangs, with a thorough understanding of the interests of such local power brokers such as Donetsk billionaire Rinat Akhmetov (Ukraine's richest man) or Mikhail Dobkin, the former head of the Kharkiv Regional Administration and now presidential candidate. Though these local magnates make occasional public pronouncements supporting Ukraine's territorial integrity, their previous support of Yanukovych makes them wary of the new government in Kiev. Just the right degree of separatism could help guarantee their security while ensuring that their vast financial global interests are not harmed. "Think global, act local" is a favorite cliché of corporations -- it could almost be the Kremlin's motto in the Donbass.

And the Kremlin's "non-linear" sensibility is evident as it manipulates Western media and policy discourse. If in the 20th century the Kremlin could only lobby through Soviet sympathizers on the left, it now uses a contradictory kaleidoscope of messages to build alliances with quite different groups. European right-nationalists such as Hungary's Jobbik or France's Front National are seduced by the anti-EU message; the far-left are brought in by tales of fighting U.S. hegemony; U.S. religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin's stance against homosexuality. The result is an array of voices, all working away at Western audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support. Influencers often appear in Western media and policy circles without reference to their Kremlin connections: whether it's PR company Ketchum placing pro-Kremlin op-eds in the Huffington Post; anti-Maidan articles by British historian John Laughland in the Spectator that make no mention of how the think tank he was director of was set up in association with Kremlin-allied figures; or media appearances by influential German political consultant Alexander Rahr that fail to note his paid position as an advisor for the German energy company Wintershall, a partner of Gazprom, Moscow's massive natural gas company (Rahr denies a conflict of interest).

Combatting non-linear war requires non-linear measures. International networks of anti-corruption NGOs could help squeeze corrupt flows from Russia. At the moment, this sector is underdeveloped, underfunded, and poorly internationally coordinated: In the U.K., for example, NGOs such as Global Witness or Tax Justice rarely engage with Russian counterparts. Anti-corruption NGOs need to have the backing to put painful pressure on corrupt networks on a daily basis, naming and shaming corrupt networks and pressuring western governments to shut them down and enact their own money laundering laws. This would squeeze the Kremlin's model even in the absence of further sanctions, ultimately playing a role as important as human rights organizations did in the 70s and 80s, when groups like Amnesty and the Helsinki Committee helped change the Cold War by supporting dissidents in the Communist block and shaming their governments.

Meanwhile capacity building is needed for both Ukraine and the West to deal with Kremlin disinformation and to formally track the role of Kremlin-connected influencers. So far, this work is happening ad-hoc as intrepid journalists reveal Kremlin lobbyists and triple-check leaks. To be effective, this work needs to be institutionalized, whether in think tanks or via public broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe, so every sound bite from a Kremlin-funded "expert" is properly contextualized, every Kremlin meme deconstructed, and every British peer on Russian state company boards held accountable for their connections. And this needs to happen in both Western countries and Russia's "near abroad," where the Kremlin projects its non-linear influence through a variety of institutions, from the Orthodox Church, to entertainment television and business groups. Georgia, Moldova, and Latvia are particularly vulnerable, and their security services need to be prepared for the sort of indirect intervention we are seeing in eastern Ukraine.

But aside from such concrete measures, it's also important to appreciate that the Kremlin is throwing down the gauntlet to the Western-inspired vision of globalization, to the kitsch "global village" vision on the covers of World Bank annual reports and in Microsoft advertisements. It is better to understand the Kremlin's view of globalization as a kind of "corporate raiding" -- namely, the ultra-violent, post-Soviet version of corporate takeovers. "Raiding" involves buying a minority share in a company, and then using any means at your disposal (false arrests, mafia threats, kidnapping, disinformation, blackmail) to acquire control. Russian elites sometimes refer to the country as a "minority shareholder in globalization," which, given Russia's experience with capitalism, implies it is the world's great "corporate raider." Non-linear war is the means through which a geo-political raider can leverage his relative weakness. And this vision appeals to a very broad constituency across the world, to those full of resentment for the West and infused by the sense that the "global village" model is a priori rigged. For all the talk of Russia's isolation, the BRIC economies have actually been subdued in their criticism of the annexation of Crimea, with the Kremlin thanking both China and India for being understanding.

Perhaps, despite what Obama says, there is a battle of ideas going on. Not between communism and capitalism, or even conservatives and progressives, but between competing visions of globalization, between the "global village" -- which feels at once nice, naff, and unreal -- and "non-linear war." It is naïve to assume the West will win with this new battle with the same formula it used in the Cold War. Back then, the West united free market economics, popular culture, and democratic politics into one package: Parliaments, investment banks, and pop music fused to defeat the politburo, planned economics, and social realism. But the new Russia (and the new China) has torn that formula apart: Russian popular culture is Westernised, and people drive BMWs, play the stock market, and listen to Taylor Swift all while cheering anti-Western rhetoric and celebrating American downfall.

"The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock," said Surkov when he was one of the first Russian officials to be put on the U.S. sanctions list as "punishment" for Russia's actions in Crimea. "I don't need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."

We live in a truly non-linear age. And the future might just belong to the raiders.