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Why does Boko Haram kidnap girls in Nigeria?

A week ago, Islamic militants known as Boko Haram abducted more than 200 girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria. Dozens were able to escape into the night and return home, but many more remain captured.

“It’s alarming that more than a week after these girls were abducted, there are not any concrete steps to get them back,” said Human Rights Watch’s Nigeria researcher Mausi Segun, who is based in the capital Abuja. Women and girls have been kidnapped before by Boko Haram, she said, but not as large a number.

The girls’ parents have tried searching the Sambisa forest near the school, where Boko Haram has camps and is believed to have taken the girls, ages 16-18, but they had to turn back because it was unfamiliar terrain and too dangerous.

The governor of Borno state, where the school is located, has offered a $300,000 reward for information leading to the girls’ release.

The Nigerian military, which is in charge of security in that part of northeastern Nigeria, has said the methods it normally would use for a military incursion is not the same way it would treat a civil uprising.

Humanitarian organizations such as Human Rights Watch have said it would be “unacceptable” to battle the extremists through purely military means since they are living among civilians, said Segun. “The damage and harm to civilians would be totally unacceptable.”

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Boko Haram’s attacks this year and said that the United States was providing Nigeria with counterterrorism assistance.

Boko Haram insurgents have been trying for at least five years to turn Nigeria into a strict Islamic state. Lately, they have stepped up attacks on communities, most recently by burning a school and bombing a bus station in addition to the abductions.

Prior to the latest and largest school abduction, Human Rights Watch documented the kidnapping of women and young girls from the streets of Maiduguri in November. Boko Haram fighters “would brazenly pick up the girl of their choice and throw a bit of money at the parents and declare that they had taken the girl as a wife,” said Segun, who was part of the research team.

Initially, the abductions were believed to be retaliation for the government’s security forces arresting the wives of suspected members of Boko Haram. And they were temporary: the women and girls returned home after a few months or years.

But the attacks have since evolved and grown in numbers, said Segun. Boko Haram fighters are on the move now and can’t take their wives with them. “So they are using these women and girls to take the places of their wives for domestic chores or sexual services.”

As the violence continued, Nigeria’s GDP was recalculated this month and determined to be the largest in Africa. But the World Bank still lists the oil-rich nation as having one of the poorest populations in the world.

The previous recalculation was 20 years ago, before the telecommunications industry soared and before the advent of the multi-million-dollar “Nollywood” entertainment scene, said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

Even with money flowing into the country, Nigeria still struggles with development and corruption — and the inability to protect its civilians, Pham said. Although Boko Haram’s call for strict Sharia law isn’t shared by the majority of Nigerians, its message that the government is corrupt and isn’t helping its citizens “resonates somewhat” with the population, he added.

We’ll have more on Boko Haram and the Nigerian government’s response on Tuesday’s PBS NewsHour.

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