Peace Science Digest

Gendered Security Harms in Nigeria’s Counterinsurgency Response

Citation: Pearson, C., & Nagarajan, C. (2020). Gendered security harms: State policy and the counterinsurgency against Boko Haram. African Conflict & Peacebuilding Review, 10(2), 108-140.

Talking Points

In the context of Nigeria’s counterinsurgency approach to Boko Haram:

  • The overly simplistic understanding of gender in Nigeria’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS), along with the government’s failure to prioritize human rights in its security policy, together result in “gendered security harms”—harms related to gendered “assumptions,” “labels,” or “hierarchies” inherent in security practices.
  • Gendered security harms include coercive gendered practices, noncoercive gendered practices, the securitization of women’s rights, and gendered harms from “gender-neutral policy.”
  • By entrenching the WPS agenda in its counterterrorism strategy, the Nigerian government frames non-state armed groups as the only threat to women and girls while overlooking the violence and human rights violations by government forces.
  • While women and girls are certainly subjected to violence by armed groups, the reality is much more complex, as women and girls can be victims, perpetrators, and agents of security, and find meaningful and empowering work in these groups as spies, as recruiters, or as wives of male members.

Key Insight for Informing Practice

  • In its implementation by countries, the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda has lost its grounding in anti-militarism and peacebuilding—and, instead, is applied to reinforce militaristic logics underlying the global war on terror.


UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 heralded the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda, acknowledging the unique ways that war impacts women and girls and their distinct contributions to peace and security. Subsequent resolutions integrated the WPS agenda in all areas of security policy. This research is particularly concerned with UNSCR 2242, which focused on counterterrorism and countering violent extremism. Many feminists have criticized this merging of the WPS and counterterrorism agendas on the grounds that it “reinforc[es] stereotypes of women as victims in need of protection by men, from men.”

Elizabeth Pearson and Chitra Nagarajan study this dynamic in Nigeria’s counterinsurgency against Boko Haram. They look at Nigeria’s operationalization of the WPS agenda through its National Action Plan (NAP) on WPS and larger gender and security policy in Northeast Nigeria. Based on interviews and focus groups conducted in Nigeria between 2013 and 2020, they find that Nigeria has employed a narrow interpretation of gender as an exclusive focus on women (and their traditional roles), failing to account for the complexity of support for armed groups in the Northeast of the country. Furthermore, Nigeria’s gender and security policy, by not prioritizing human rights, has resulted in gendered security harms.

Gendered security harms: “[H]arms explicitly enabled through changes to gendered state security practices as well as the ‘gendered assumptions, gendered labels, and gender hierarchies’ of those practices, whether states explicitly recognize these or not.”

Definition from Sjoberg, L. (2018). Feminist security and security studies. The Oxford Handbook of International Security, edited by Alexandra Gheciu and William C. Wohlforth, 45-59. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nigeria’s counterterrorism policy adopts the values of the global war on terror, which are then reflected in the country’s NAP. By entrenching the WPS agenda in a counterterrorism strategy, the Nigerian government frames non-state armed groups as the only threat to women and girls in the Northeast while overlooking the violence and human rights violations by government forces. The NAP also focuses on “quantifiable increases of numbers of women and girls included, trained, and/or rehabilitated” but “without prioritiz[ing]… women’s rights or examining the inherent patriarchy of state systems.” Further, the NAP reveals a poor understanding of women’s roles as supporters or active members of armed groups, focusing only on their victimization. The reality is much more complex, as women and girls can be victims, perpetrators, and agents of security. Many have taken on multiple roles in armed groups, finding meaningful and empowering work as spies, as recruiters, or as wives of male members.

To demonstrate how these values and assumptions result in gendered harms, a typology[1] of four gendered security harms is applied:

Coercive gendered practices  

Gender-based violence is “particularly prevalent around military barracks and during military operations,” and “fear of sexual violence” limits women and girls’ freedom of movement, as they avoid interacting with soldiers at security checkpoints. Coercive gendered practices also harm men, as security agencies have identified men of certain ethnic backgrounds as part of “suspect communities,” making them the targets of military activity, arbitrary arrest, and extrajudicial killing.

Noncoercive gendered practices

One element of Nigeria’s NAP was to develop programs on “post-conflict and re-integration issues such as psychosocial and trauma issues.” Ironically, because the NAP emphasizes the role of women as victims and not as active members of armed groups, men were provided more formal resources for disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation, and reintegration. Women were “returned” home with little support. Underlying this approach is the assumption that men were members of armed groups due to a religious or political commitment whereas women were members only because of a lack of individual agency.

Securitization of women’s rights

Nigeria justified military interventions in the Northeast of the country by claiming they were protecting and rescuing women. This narrative masks the scale of human rights violations committed by government forces and shows a lack of genuine commitment to women’s rights. For instance, in 2018 the military claimed it had rescued 30,000 people when, actually, the military had removed many people from their homes and forced them to live as IDPs.

Gendered harms from “gender-neutral policy”

Various policies put in place to counter the armed groups in the Northeast have resulted in gendered harms. For instance, fishing, farming, and local markets have been banned in some areas for fear that these resources are being provided to armed groups. Due to fewer resources and savings, these bans have more severely affected women and girls. In other instances, the military has forcibly removed people from rural areas to town centers, under the guise of protection but without any support, leading to the sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls.

These harms are enabled by an overly simplistic interpretation of gender as meaning “women” and “essentialist, discrete notions of women’s roles.” In addition, this article demonstrates how gendered security harms can occur when a government overlooks its own practices and does not prioritize human rights. A more gender-inclusive approach is to work to understand “the complexity of gender dynamics in societies and state institutions,” how men are victimized, and the role that “masculinities play in driving conflict.”

Informing Practice

The Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda emerged from decades of work by women’s rights activists both inside and outside of the United Nations. Global treaties on women’s rights, like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), were the foundation for the WPS framework to emerge. Importantly, the Beijing Platform from 1995 recognized that civilian casualties, composed largely of women and children, often exceed military casualties in war and “proposed strategic objectives including reducing military spending in order to redirect resources to peace.”  

In many cases, much like what has transpired in Nigeria, the anti-militarism and peacebuilding roots of the WPS framework have been lost in country-based implementation of the framework to justify war-making and human rights violations. Countries are able to do this by narrowly focusing on the protection pillar of WPSwhile overlooking the pillars of participation, prevention, and relief and recovery. The protection pillar can be most easily interpreted to align with the logics of militarism, and its integration with the values of the global war on terror is the clearest example of how WPS can become militarized. The protection narrative of “protecting women from men, by men” is not only prevalent in Nigeria—it is also the same essentialist and racist logic that was used to justify decades of U.S. military intervention and occupation in Afghanistan.  

However, protection can be achieved without militarization­. In truth, nonviolent approaches to protection are often more effective and avoid the unforeseen consequences that arise from reinforcing cycles of violence. For example, Nonviolent Peaceforce, along with other organizations worldwide, employs unarmed civilian protection. This approach to protection can take many forms, including Women’s Protection Teams that work to minimize gender-based (as well as intercommunal) violence. In addition to embracing such non-militarized approaches to protection, imagine if a country’s approach to WPS-informed security policy were to prioritize the full participation of women in all areas of peace and security (the participation pillar). The inclusion of women in peace processes (as key negotiators and constituencies in peace treaties), improving women’s access to leadership positions, providing women with key resources and training to excel in the peace and security field, and recruiting more women into government positions—these efforts would profoundly shape the security of people of all genders in the country. For instance, listening to the experiences of women affected by violence would shape formal responses, ensuring that these responses effectively meet the security needs of those most affected. Even more radically, women’s participation both inside and outside of government would open the way for an acknowledgement of the government’s role in violence and human rights violations, as well as a plan for redress.  

Perhaps this needs to be said more explicitly: Women are not objects of the state. They should be fully integrated as leaders of government, driving its policy and decision-making. The emphasis on militarist protection narratives—and the exclusion of other WPS pillars—reinforces patriarchal norms and is ultimately counterproductive for sustainable peace and women’s liberation. [KC]

Continued Reading 

Onello, M. (2021, July 31). Women, power and peacebuilding: Assessing the Women Peace and Security agenda. Ms. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from

International Crisis Group. (2020, December 9). A course correction for the Women, Peace and Security agenda. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from

ICAN. (2019, January 11). Invisible women: Gendered dimensions of return, rehabilitation and reintegration from violent extremism. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from

Peace Science Digest. (2021, October 12). Which women’s rights? Exploring gender and peace in Afghanistan. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from

Peace Science Digest. (2021, February 5). Women acting to dismantle violent extremism. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from

Peace Science Digest. (2020, August 8). Examining gender and race through the experience of female humanitarian workers in Afghanistan. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from





Nonviolent Peaceforce:

Keywords: gender; security; Nigeria; Women, Peace and Security agenda; National Action Plans; UNSCR 1325; gender dynamics; patriarchy; masculinities

Photo credit:

[1] Huckerby, J. (2020). In harm’s way: Gender and human rights in national security. Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, 27(1), 179-202.