HomeCover StoriesSex for Protection: Travails of Women, Girls in Banditry-torn North West

Sex for Protection: Travails of Women, Girls in Banditry-torn North West


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By Idris Mohammed

Women and girls under the shade of a tree in Tsabre Village, Sokoto. Photograph: Idris Mohammed.

In the remote villages of Sokoto State, Northwest Nigeria, where the government has failed to end decade-long violence, women and girls have become the unseen victims of rape and other sexual assaults by the local terrorists known as bandits.

The consequences? Unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Local sources  Isa and Sabon Birni LGAs told a reporter  they barely sleep at night, fearing the invasion of the armed group. Their victims [the women and young girls], have had to endure trauma amid discriminatory stigmatisation as they have no access to healthcare services. Those carrying the unwanted pregnancy end up in dangerous health complications during childbirth.

Displaced Women from Communities of Faskari in Katsina state. The photo used to illustrate how they are directly affected by the violence. Photographer: Idris Mohammed

“Bandits now enter any house in Tsabre village, barely 25 kilometres from the local government headquarters in Isa, rape women, and kidnap anyone, and the security here is doing little to stop them,” Adamu Mudi, a local resident said.

Fifty-three-year-old Fadimatu corroborated him.

“No one has the right to stop them from doing whatever they want; they are very powerful,” she told our reporter.

Fadimatu was sitting in her hamlet, situated beside a huge mango tree that offered shade in the community’s market square.

As she spoke, her middle-aged son, Habibu, who has been walking with a stick since a gun wound in his left leg, dragged himself beneath the mango tree where his mother was sitting.

He listened, then looked at me with a defeated expression and said, “Our daughters have lost their pride, and we can’t blame them. The group has authority over any girl or woman they find appealing.”


Young girls and other women have given themselves in exchange for security and protection against bandit violence against their families and their community at large.

According to an elderly man in Zangon Malam village, the cases are not being reported to the authorities because of fear of the unknown.

“It’s a well-known issue in most of our communities that are under bandit control,” he said.

The local administration is concerned about Isa villages, where women are volunteering themselves to prevent being killed or abducted.

The local government is located approximately 224 kilometres from the main city of Sokoto.

It is normally a lonely road, unoccupied due to the threat of armed groups operating at any time, day or night. Although a few vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, hauling firewood, visibly ply the route.

Isa is bordered by Sabon-Birni in Sokoto and Shinkafi in Zamfara states, Goronyo and Rabah in Sokoto to the west and north, respectively, and the Niger Republic. Its proximity to the Kagara forest, a famed hideaway for terrorist groups, and its border location with Niger State are factors contributing to regional insecurity.


Aisha, is a name that trembles on the lips of many in the community. At 21, her life was forever altered when the bandits came to her doorstep. She hid her 13-year-old sister, but they pointed a gun at her forehead, forcing her into a nightmare she cannot erase. Tears streaming down her cheeks, Aisha now implores the world to hear their plight, for they live in perpetual uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.

“It seems no one is interested in our life, we are living in uncertainty, anxiety, and fear,” she decried. “The groups killed some of their victims who resisted  their demands for sexual pleasure.”

Adama Haliru, a 53-year-old mother from  Sabon Birni lost her two daughters to the same trend of sexual assault. Not just her daughters, she was also widowed. The terrorists also killed her husband who was killed in the attack in August 2021 trying to defend his family.

“They killed my husband in our presence while attempting to protect us from their abuse,” she narrated.

Thirty-eight years old Maryam, had it worse. She was raped several times,  even in the presence of her family. Maryam recounts the horrors of being forced into the nearby forest, where she was subjected to unspeakable acts.

She speaks of the heart-wrenching sight of minors being violated and the agonizing choice between cooperating or facing abduction, torture, or unattainable.

“One of the painful moment was the way they have been  raping minors and kill those who refuse to accept their offer,” she said.


Deserted and lonely road to Sabon-birni. Photograph – Idris Mohammed

The terror has left these communities shattered. With authorities seemingly absent, bandits now roam freely, terrorising homes at will. Women no longer feel safe within their own walls. Families are torn apart, and a dark cloud of hopelessness looms large.

“People no longer sleep with their eyes closed, and the media isn’t reporting stories from these communities because no one wants to risk his life to come to this terrain,” said a traditional leader who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

A large number of women  have relocated entirely from the affected communities to several places where they may survive. But the government has so far not taken significant steps in tracking the displaced and catering for their general well-being.

Amina Muazu from Garin Dan Idi  village fled to Sokoto state capital in the early days of September this year after a bandit killed her husband.

“He was in his own farmland when the group attacked the village in the morning around 11am,” she recalled.

Amina had to flee to the safer area to escape the sexual abuse of the group. “Three of them came to my room one night and forced me to sleep with them in the presence of my children.” It was a nightmare for Amina to be able to sleep with her eyes closed knowing that the bandits would be there to rape her anytime they come to the house.


In the shadows of this crisis, the hidden epidemic of sexual violence persists. Data from the Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Sokoto reveals alarming numbers, with cases involving 103 girls and women documented in just the first six months of 2023.

Dr. Auwal, who is heading the Centre in Sokoto, said  these numbers likely represent only a fraction of the suffering, as many cases remain unreported.

“There are many unreported cases of sexual assault in the armed conflict communities of Sokoto state, majority of the victims remained untreated. The lack of awareness and support from the communities around the state is also contributing to the problem,” Dr. Auwal told a reporter .

He added that the  shame and stigma associated with abuse and the preoccupation with preserving individual and family dignity, as well as the marriage prospects of abused girls and young women, prevents victims from reporting to the police.

Rashidat A K of Women Amplifiers in Sokoto state lamented that the number of women and girls who have been sexually abused in the past have been living with sexually transmitted diseases and are now suffering from severe diseases.

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“We had a case of a teenager who was sexually abused by a bandit and got impregnated in the process,” she said. The victim was seven months pregnant when she wanted to abort the baby because of the health condition.


The silence surrounding sexual violence in the bandits’ control communities of northwest region makes it difficult to investigate and prosecute rapes in an environment of violent conflict. This has led to an increase in the number of unwanted pregnancies.

Rabi’atu Lawal, a 53-year-old woman, in Gebe said,“the younger ones are getting unwanted pregnancies, many of them are inexperienced and have no idea how to cope with the situation.”

She sat hopelessly in front of a large mango tree that offered shade in the community’s market square.

As she spoke, her middle-aged son, Habibu, who has been walking with a stick since a gun wound in his left leg, dragged himself beneath the mango tree where his mother was sitting.

He listened, then looked at me with a defeated expression and said, “Our daughters have lost their pride, and we can’t blame them.” The group has authority over any girl or woman they find appealing.”

Another woman told a reporter that during the attack in August at Gatawa village, bandits shot people who were running away, then came to her house and sexually assaulted her.

She said, “The men entered my room. I asked what they wanted. They took my money  and belongings. Then they fell on me.”

A few weeks after the incident, the woman found out that she had been infected with a sexually transmitted disease and became pregnant.

“I aborted it because I can’t bear a bandit child who may later be a challenge to society,” she said.


In the heart of Sokoto’s state capital lies the Ramin Kura IDP camp, a symbol of both resilience and despair. Crowded and under-resourced, it is a refuge for women and children who have fled the horrors of their communities. Here, they face a new set of challenges—shelter, food, healthcare, education, and employment—all in short supply.

Hauwa Aminu, a middle-aged lady, describes her daily struggles—being forced to venture out to beg for basic necessities like food and clothing. Their vulnerability makes them susceptible to further abuse.

“We are facing sexual abuse-related issues here due the fact that many of us have to go out and beg for food and clothes. ”


Data obtained from Centre for Civilians in Conflict revealed that 187 cases of Conflict-related Sexual Violence (CRSV) were recorded between 2021 and March 2023.

Fifty-two out of these cases were recorded in the northwestern states of Zamfara, Katsina and Sokoto.

Although CRSV is not yet specifically recognised as a distinct offence under Nigerian law, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The agency, however, partnered with Wayamo Foundation and the United Nations Team of Experts of the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict, to conduct two capacity building workshops for Nigerian investigators and prosecutors on the investigation and prosecution of international crimes, with a special focus on conflict-related sexual violence, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), reports.

It added that the project aims to broaden the collective understanding of acts that amount to CRSV, such as sexual slavery, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, that fall outside more commonly acknowledged forms of sexual violence in Nigeria, such as rape and sexual harassment, captured by the Criminal Code, Penal Code and Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act. The project also seeks to emphasize the gravity and distinctiveness of CRSV, as a form of sexual violence not committed in isolation, but in the context of widespread armed violence, including by terrorist groups.

The absence of national legislation on CRSV poses a challenge for Nigeria in meeting its international legal obligations to investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, the United Nations, describing conflict-related sexual violence, says it refers to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced abortion, enforced sterilisation, forced marriage, and any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity perpetrated against women, men, girls, or boys that is directly or indirectly linked to a conflict.

It notes that such incidents have led to unwanted pregnancies, forced abortions, and STDs, among others.


Rashida Tanko from Sabon-Birni paints a bleak picture of her former life, where she lost her husband and three sons to the conflict. With no relatives left and a profound distrust of the Nigerian government’s ability to ensure safety, she has given up on returning to her community. The danger is too great, and the fear is too consuming.

“No one will force me to go back to that community because the place is very dangerous. I have honestly given up on Nigerian security,” she said.


In response to our findings, the Sokoto State director of women at the ministry of women affairs, Hajia Habiba Ahmad, said the cases are there, but the uncertainty about the safety of their team is making it difficult to access the affected communities.

“The targeted communities have been facing sexual assault-related issues for years, but the major problem is insecurity that hindering access to our services,” she explained. “Our surveillance team is not allow to travel to any restricted area in the state”

According to her, the ministry has existing structures at the frontline local government areas in the state but the insecurity is still a concern for them to function properly in the areas. Habiba lamented the high number of women who were infected with sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies as a result of banditry conflict in the affected communities.

“The cases are often more than before, even this week alone, we received six cases of self referral from communities in Sabon Birni,” she said, adding the majority of survivors are teenagers between 14 to 17.

“We have received reports of young girls being sexually abused and infected with diseases like Hepatitis, HIV and other infectious diseases,” said Habiba.

She explained that Maryam Abacha hospital is the ministry’s main hospital used to provide medical assistance to the victims and survivors of such incidents.

“We have been offering free medical treatment to the victims including those with unwanted pregnancies”

Umar Isah, head of humanitarian and disaster risk management at the ministry of humanitarian services, lamented that the ministry lacks the capacity to handle the cases of SGVB in the affected communities including the IDPs.

He further noted that the ministry is working with the ministry of women affairs and non-governmental organisations to find ways of preventing sexual abuse of IDPs in the state.

“We have well established systems of prevention and treatment for women who are sexually assaulted by bandits,” he said,  claiming the ministry has established a “Remain Home” meant for teenage survivors who are allowed to remain for some days depending on the result from the hospital or other medical facilities in the state.

“We are providing them with food items, a small amount of money for transport and a women ‘s kit for their needs,” he claimed.

He added that his department also provides mental and psychological counselling through a partnership with other agencies.

This report was completed with the support from the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development and the Open Society Foundations.

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