The number of children fleeing the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria doubled in the past year to about 800,000, with women and girls targets of abduction for sexual abuse by the militants, according to a United Nations Children’s Fund report.
Boko Haram’s six-year campaign to impose Islamic law in Nigeria has forced more than 1.5 million people from their homes, according to Unicef. The number of displaced includes 1.2 million inside Nigeria, with about 200,000 crossing into neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger, stretching social services, health care and other facilities in host communities.
“Countless numbers of children, women and men have been abducted, abused and forcibly recruited, and women and girls have been targeted for particularly horrific abuse, including sexual enslavement,” Unicef said. “Children have also become weapons, made to fight alongside armed groups and at times used as human bombs.”
Unicef released its report a day before the one-year anniversary of Boko Haram’s abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok, which provoked an international outcry. The majority of the students are still missing.
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has boasted in videos posted on YouTube that the young women converted to Islam and were married off to his fighters.
“The abduction of more than 200 girls in Chibok is only one of endless tragedies being replicated on an epic scale across Nigeria and the region,” said Manuel Fontaine, Unicef’s regional director for West and Central Africa.
This year, Nigerian forces with assistance from troops from Chad and Niger, have recaptured territory from Boko Haram. The renewed push against the militants delayed national elections by six weeks. Until the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped, Nigerian authorities underestimated the extent of Boko Haram’s incursion, Mike Omeri, a government spokesman said last month.
President-Elect Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler who defeated President Goodluck Jonathan in the vote last month, paving the way for the first peaceful democratic transfer of power since independence from the U.K in 1960, has pledged to crush the Boko Haram rebellion.
Unicef said it has received only 15 percent of the $25.6 million it needs for humanitarian assistance in Nigeria for 2015.
“Insecurity and lack of funding are constraining Unicef’s ability to reach affected children,” according to the report. “After peaceful elections, and as Nigeria enters the next phase of its history, it is crucial that the new authorities place the safety of children at the heart of the national agenda.”