Women fleeing Boko Haram abused by forces meant to protect them, report finds

The Nigerian president has ordered police and state leaders to investigate claims that government officials and soldiers raped refugees fleeing the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.

President Muhammadu Buhari called the allegations, detailed in a Human Rights Watch report released Monday, “distressing” and said they would “not be taken lightly.”

“We will protect the lives and well-being of these most vulnerable of Nigeria’s citizens. And we will ensure they return safely to their homes,” Buhari tweeted.

The Human Rights Watch report documented stories from 43 women and girls in seven Nigerian camps who said they were were raped or sexually exploited by the guards and officials assigned to protect them.

The camps are a result of the 7-year insurgency by Boko Haram’s Islamist campaign, killing 15,000 and displacing over 2 million in Nigeria, Reuters reported.

Men in the refugee camps exploited the shortage of supplies and food in the camps to demand sexual favors of the many widowed, orphaned and unaccompanied women, the report read.

They also controlled the gates, inhibiting women’s movement in and out of the camps.

Human Rights Watch said its representatives met with Nigeria’s minister of women affairs in September to discuss their concerns. The nonprofit group said the minister promised to investigate the allegations but never did so.

The Human Rights report indicated 39 women and girls were coerced into having sex through the promise of marriage or supplies, and four females were drugged and raped. Some became pregnant, leading to stigmatization in their communities and exacerbating starvation and a sense of desperation. Eight of the women said Boko Haram fighters forced them into marriage while being held captive.

“It is bad enough that these women and girls are not getting much-needed support for the horrific trauma they suffered at the hands of Boko Haram,” said Mausi Segun of Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “It is disgraceful and outrageous that people who should protect these women and girls are attacking and abusing them,” she wrote.

One 16-year-old girl recalled being drugged and raped by a man who was supposed to distribute aid in her camp.

“The man ran away from the camp when he heard I delivered a baby six months ago,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I just feel sorry for the baby because I have no food or love to give him. I think he might die.”

A recent poll, independent of the Human Rights Watch’s report, found 7 percent of internally displaced persons in three northeastern Nigerian states have experienced abuse. Of those, 66 percent said the abuse was perpetrated by camp officials.

The Rapid Protection Assessment Report, published in May, showed sexual exploitation and abuse was a major issue in almost all 13 camps near or in the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri.

Chaloka Beyani, U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights for IDPs, has also expressed concern about the government’s “tendency to downplay the problem of sexual violence and abuse.”

For months, aid workers have told camp managers of the Emergency Management Agency about incidents of abuse. But, the agency has denied the reports, AP reported.

PHOTOS: Nigerian mothers face new nightmare in wake of Boko Haram