Today is the International Day of the Girl, an annual event declared by the UN to flag the challenges facing girls around the world and promote their right to education, legal rights, safety and more, in even the toughest circumstances. Gender-based violence is one of the biggest barriers to equality around the world and one of feminism's most pressing challenges. Yet the stories and experiences of girls and women affected are so often overlooked.
The global media sat up and took notice when Hollywood celebrities and Michelle Obama used the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag to raise awareness of a group of Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by terror group Boko Haram. The girls were eventually released, but after that, we heard little more about the survivors and what they went through.
Now, a new short film series from Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (the first woman ever to win the award, for The Hurt Locker) is bringing the plight of young girls who were abducted by Boko Haram back into the public consciousness. The nine films, made in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) as part of a new campaign, I Am Not A Weapon, see survivors recount their experiences in their own words.
The aim is to raise awareness and support for victims of gender-based violence around the world. Boko Haram is four times more likely to deploy girl bombers than boys, according to a new report by the charity CARE, and the group has deployed more female bombers than any other terrorist group in history.
Deliberate attempts were taken by Bigelow to conceal some of the girls' faces for safety and security reasons, as survivors are often ostracised in their communities when they attempt to reintegrate after abduction, according to the IRC.
Many of the girls featured were strapped with explosives and turned into weapons of war by Boko Haram (hence the name of the campaign, I Am Not A Weapon). One of the girls (above), Amina, was made to conceal an explosive beneath her hijab and ordered to attack a mosque she knew, before she found the courage to defy commands and remove the device.
"It was on a Tuesday that Boko Haram insurgents invaded. When they came to my house they made an attempt to take me away. My brother objected. They hit him hard and he fell down. They took me to the bush to rape me. The moment one of them sleeps with a girl, five or six more want to sleep with her also. I didn't like that. I refused to cooperate, so they didn't let me move around freely."
Since I refused to sleep with them, they said I should go do something rewarding. The next day, Boko Haram tied a bomb on me around my stomach.
Then one day, Amina was ordered to embark on a suicide mission. "Since I refused to sleep with them, they said I should go do something rewarding. According to them, I would definitely be rewarded by heaven. The next day, Boko Haram tied a bomb on me around my stomach."
She continues: "They gave me a remote control and told me where to press when it was time to attack." They took her through the bush to the outskirts of Bama (a town in northeast Nigeria) where she was told to go to a mosque she knew and detonate the bomb during Friday prayers.
"I got into the mosque and I was checking to see if I could find someone I knew, that I could confide in. I noticed my uncle, who was happy to see me." Amina told him everything and what she had been ordered to do. "My uncle was so afraid. I told him, I think this is nothing until I press the remote, so don't worry." Her uncle then contacted security agents, who took her to a safe place to remove the device.
"When I close my eyes at night, there are two things that I really want to forget. First, the day that I was abducted, separated forcefully from my parents and taken to the bush. Secondly, the day they tied the bomb on me and sent me on a suicide mission, telling me that I would die in an oasis." In the future, Amina says she hopes to "go to school and read", to start a family and eventually become a journalist.
Another of the girls to share her story is Hajja (above), who was also abducted and strapped with a bomb but bravely sounded the alarm when she reached the town she was meant to attack. "Boko Haram came to my hometown in the middle of the night. They took over the entire town. They were going from house to house, searching, abducting," she says.
"They gathered all of us and took us into the bush where I have never been. They fed us and housed us, but when I refused to be married, they got very angry. One day, one of the insurgents said he would like to marry me to the leader of Boko Haram. Their marriage is not the kind of marriage I know. They will come and sleep with you, but tomorrow you will see your husband with about five or six other ladies – claiming they are all his wives."
The terror group barred the girls from talking among themselves. When Hajja, along with three other girls, refused to marry Boko Haram insurgents, she was given the job of suicide bomber and told to carry a bomb to the city of Maiduguri and detonate it in a busy marketplace.
"They showed me what to press so that it would explode, and they told me the moment I succeeded in doing that, I will go straight to heaven on the day of judgement. I did not believe them. I know very well that if I go and detonate the bomb, I and many others will die. There is no way that God will reward me with heaven. I do not believe that."
The bomb was "heavy" and placed beneath her dress before she was driven to the town by motorcycle, which is when she decided not to detonate it. "When I was walking with the bomb tied around my body, I was afraid the device would go off. My heart was skipping because I felt I was going to die at any moment."
At the entrance, policemen asked Hajja to expose the bomb so she called for help and was surprised and grateful for the support that came from outside of her tribe. "Before my abduction, I was selective about the people I would greet. I was more concerned with people who speak the same language as me and I was close only to Muslims," she says.
"But I realised the majority of the people who assisted me were not of my tribe, a good number were not even of my religion. I now feel very free."
In making these films, Bigelow wanted to foreground a series of experiences that too often don't receive the international attention they deserve. "Every day, young girls in conflict settings are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and too many of their stories go untold," Bigelow told Refinery29. "Yet these stories are often full of hope and triumph, and they reveal the tenacity and resilience of girls in the face of adversity."
She hopes that shining a light on their stories will "show other young girls that they too have the power to overcome any hurdle," and urge the international community to push for greater action against gender-based violence. "We want to inspire a global movement to protect and empower young girls around the world, as they are the future."
While the escape of the girls featured in her films is cause for celebration, the situation in northeast Nigeria remains grave for women and girls, as Feargal O’Connell, Nigeria country director for the International Rescue Committee, told Refinery29. "They are subjected to brutal, sexual and gender-based violence as a result of this conflict. They are forced to marry the combatants or even turned into weapons of war, strapped with explosives and sent off to kill innocent civilians."
Nicole Benham, senior technical director for violence prevention and response at the International Rescue Committee, said that while international movements like #MeToo have "brought much-needed awareness to the pervasive issue of violence against women," more needs to be done to ensure the most vulnerable women, in fragile settings like conflicts, are part of the global conversation.
She described gender-based violence (GBV) as "a crisis within crisis" because it proliferates in these contexts. "With the number of violent conflicts growing over the past decade, we can’t waste any time in the fight against GBV," she continued, adding that international pressure to prioritise solutions can be hugely influential.
Gender inequality is at the heart of violence against women and girls, added Benham, and efforts to tackle it are critical if all women and girls around the world are to achieve their full potential.