The first known teenage female suicide bomber was a 16 year old who drove a vehicle into an Israeli Defense Force Convoy in 1985, during Israel's 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. Although women have since been used in suicide missions across various conflicts, a new report released last week reveals an eleven-fold increase in the number of children—a large majority of them girls—used as human bombs by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Since 2009, the militant Islamist group has instilled terror in Africa's most populous country through abductions, bombings, and beheadings in attempt to create an Islamic state in its north-east region. Over the last three years, the insurgency has claimed more than 20,000 lives and displaced more than 2.3 million people from their homes.
In April 2014, the kidnapping of over 200 girls from the town of Chibok in Borno State helped to elevate the group's profile to a new level. As the #BringBackOurGirls campaign trended on social media, Boko Haram announced its allegiance to the Islamic State last March. In November, it was ranked the world's deadliest terror group.
According to the UNICEF report, one in five Boko Haram suicide bombers in the last two years was a child. More than three-quarters of attacks are carried out by young girls, which have spread to neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, where the terrorist group is trying to gain more control.
"Boko Haram uses the image of a pure and candid girl as a means of getting closer to the community," says Laurent Duvillier, UNICEF spokesperson for West and Central Africa. "Who would expect an eight-year-old girl to be an attacker? A girl might come knock on the door asking for water, but don't know what they are doing and what is strapped on them. They follow what they are told, whilst the device is detonated by a Boko Haram cell phone far away."
"Unlike in other countries, where suicide bombers are seen as martyrs and parents would hold photographs of their dead family members, these girls are victims," Duvillier explains. "Parents are not aware that their children are being used. These girls do not choose when, where, and who to attack."
Beyond the statistics lies an endless set of conditions that make teenage girls vulnerable to Boko Haram. "These girls have nowhere to go because Boko Haram kill entire families and wipe out whole villages. Girls just go with them and resort to joining the extremist group," says Hafsat Mohammed, a former journalist turned civil activist. She has counselled numerous girls who were kidnapped and held captive.
"One girl who fled the truck that carried the Chibok girls was telling me that the soldiers were trying to touch them. Some girls had to told them to stop, but others thought these men will show them love and protect them. This gave the girls a reason to go with them, and [they] lack understanding and what they are getting themselves into."
Although a "proof of life" video emerged earlier this month showing 15 of the 219 kidnapped girls, Mohammed knows from personal experience that the girls do not have to be in captivity to be brainwashed. Her second cousin fell in love with a fighter when she was just 15. "She had scored top grades at school," she tells Broadly. "But then everything changed when she fell in love with this Boko Haram boy.
"Her dad—my uncle—told me that one day she came home and said she wanted to marry him to the whole family... She told her boyfriend that her dad didn't want to marry him because he was from Boko Haram. She told [the boy]: 'If we do this, kill him, because I cannot live without you.'"
"The boyfriend came and killed members of their family," Mohammed continues. "He told my uncle that he would kill him too if they can't marry." To spare the remaining members of the family, the man eventually gave into his daughter. "She didn't really care about what [Boko Haram] were doing; she would join the group anyway, just to be with him. All she cared was that she loved him. There was nothing we could do to stop her."
She believes that more research is needed to find out why so many young girls end up brainwashed by Boko Haram. "I cannot put my finger on it, there are so many girls who accept joining. Brainwashing is like magic; these men can do it on anyone they want to."
But Mohammed blames the misuse of Islam as a means to indoctrinate girls who are too young to understand various interpretations of the religion. "People might know how to read the Quran and the hadith, but not know the literature inside out; all they know is how to read it. For someone who is not well educated, they just accept that they are doing it for Allah when terror groups take out passages but not whole chapters. That is not what Islam is about, but when you are not educated this is what happens."
Although news of rescued girls is often perceived in a positive light, there are still obstacles that serve to lure them back into the hands of the Islamic terror group. Children born as a result of marriages and rapes by fighters are seen as "Boko Haram babies" and, along with their mothers, are shunned by the communities when they need their support the most.
"As the saying goes, 'the child of a snake is a snake'," Duvillier explains. "A father I had met said his daughter was no longer a member of his family and that he didn't want her home, because she was a Boko Haram bride. But I told him that in doing so, this would be a victory for Boko Haram, making her more vulnerable."
Mohammad knows this all too well, having mentored former Boko Haram captives. "When the girls come back into the community, they are tortured, called names, and even laughed at when their friends died. Girls I met questioned why they had been rescued," she explains. "One girl loved her husband so much that she wanted to go back to him. Even though she was kidnapped and held captive, he showed her love, care... So she said she's going back."
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With the name Boko Haram roughly translating as "Western Education is Forbidden," the group has repeatedly targeted education facilities, forcing over one million children out of school. The girls have not only been denied access to education to get themselves back on track, but the continued attacks on schools across the northeast have also encouraged negative attitudes towards education—it is seen as just too dangerous to go to school.
"The problem stems beyond the events of Chibok; over 2,000 girls have been kidnapped by Boko Haram. Teachers, parents, children, they are all just too frightened to take that risk," Duvillier says.
Mohammed also believes that therapy is necessary to help restore the trust and self-belief of the girls affected. "We have this tradition in Nigeria that people shouldn't get counselling. You don't seek out, you don't talk about your problems—you just eat it up. This is a health risk; it takes them back to the group and then commit suicide."
As the Nigerian military attempts to crack down on Boko Haram, the government faces the additional problem of reintegrating those abducted by the terrorist group. "The previous government should have acted sooner to try and create more housing and security for displaced people, as a means to prevent girls from wanting to kill themselves," Mohammed says. "There is no easy solution, but together with the international community, we need to keep gathering information on why this happens and provide them support."