Changing Roles for Borno Women

Monday Feature

Chineme Okafor looks at the lives of women in the rural communities of Borno State who have been forced by the misfortunes of Boko Haram insurgency to take up roles that are not really the ladies’ forte   

Conflict often displaces people from their traditional communities and such people end up playing different roles in their new settings. In most cases, men who once guided and provided for their homes switch roles under such circumstances, while women and their daughters, who hitherto stayed home, become visible, with some becoming actual breadwinners. 

In Borno State, many women now engage in activities that were traditionally carried out by their husbands or brothers, who have either been murdered or have become economically weakened by the deadly attacks of Boko Haram terrorists. 

Rampaging Boko Haram

Since 2009, Boko Haram has terrorised many states, especially Borno in the North-east, killing, maiming, and displacing people in a war they declared against the Nigerian state. According to them, their very existence abhors Western ways of life, thus their deadly actions are meant to break its (Western education) hold on these communities. 

As they rampage, thousands of people and families are being displaced. Some have left for Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, which became one of the safest cities in the North-east. In communities Boko Haram visited, they left miseries and chaos. Only women and their girl children are left to shoulder the family responsibilities because their husbands, sons and brothers, who hitherto did these for them, had been killed or displaced by the insurgents.

Even in communities for displaced people, women still do chores that normally reserved for men. A social documentary, “uprooted”, by the Paged Initiative, shot the documentary of the lives of these women who play dual roles for their families.  


As the lives of the women change, mostly irreversibly, due to the conflict, the roles they play in their families also change. Women who knew only the traditional life of been catered for by their husbands, soon saw themselves pitched against the harsh reality of surviving in new conditions.

“The pain of what they did to me; they killed my husband and my son, made me to become a member of the civilian joint task force (JTF),” said Zainab Hamidu, whose town Gworza, once fell to Boko Haram, before it was liberated by Nigerian forces.

Resilient and bullish in outlook, Zainab told the team from Paged Initiative that she was into big time business engagements, but could not continue because of the insurgency. She told the social researchers and documentary filmmakers from the PAGED Initiative, which made a film of their struggles that Boko Haram forced her to become a civilian JTF.

“Business is a part of me, and if I don’t do it, I don’t have peace of mind,” she explained. 

Zainab indicated that after she lost her husband and child, she became a snitch on the terrorist group, but had to leave town subsequently to evade potential attempts on her life by the group, who she suggested had found out about her spy role.

She said she left Gwoza for Mauduguri, and then volunteered her services as a civilian joint military taskforce – a security framework formed by locals, and which helped the military fight through the difficult terrains of the region.

Zainab, also told of how women in her community helped their husbands, brothers and grown up sons escape been recruited by Boko Haram. She told a story of how a man was dressed in female attire and made to join a fleeing party of women to escape the terrorists.

But it was not only Zainab that picked up a new role as Boko Haram ran through Borno, Halima Bukar, also did, but a quite difficult and traumatising role. She buried people killed by the group in her Bama community to keep it from potential epidemics.

“When they feel like, they would say pick up this unbeliever and bury him. There were no men, so we the women are the ones doing it,” Bukar, claimed. 

Now a petty trader in Maiduguri, Bukar left Bama with her family to be confronted with new challenges in Maiduguri. She now contributes to the family finance and upkeep even though her traditional husband objected to it. 


The PAGED Initiative has travelled to makeshift communities for the displaced in Maiduguri to learn about how women and girl children fared with their new lives. It subsequently made a film – “uprooted” – from its efforts, and did public screenings of it in Maiduguri – mostly in camps occupied by displaced people; Abuja; and then Lagos.

THISDAY worked with the PAGED Initiative, and found that the change in role mostly came fast and unanticipated. 

Narrating how the terrorists’ invasion changed the lives of these women and their families, Ms. Ummi Bukar, who is the programme officer for PAGED Initiative, told THISDAY that the film – uprooted, was shot to gain insights into how people – mostly women – have picked up their lives after their communities were ransacked by Boko Haram. Bukar explained that the PAGED team spoke to more than 500 people in six communities, but was able to identify four striking stories from four women including Zainab and Halima. 

According to her, the team wanted stories that were thorough and balanced, and which could inspire other women in similar conditions to get up and get going with their lives.

“Uprooted is a documentary that examines changes in gender roles in Borno State. The documentary followed the lives of four women as they told us their conflict experience, and how their lives had changed because they came to Maiduguri to start lives again,” Bukar. She added, “These are women who had lost everything but started afresh. Things had changed as well as the situations they found themselves in, they had to adapt, and some of the things that had to change were the normal roles they played in their traditional homes.”

She explained, “We worked in six communities – Malakyariri; Bulabulinbolibe; Shagari Low Cost; Fori; Jimtilo; and Bulari, spoke with over 500 people for this film as part of research for it. From these, we picked out people that we took their stories because they stood out. We wanted people with very thorough and balanced stories.

“We saw a shift in the gender roles. Men that used to be protectors of women ran away and left them. Sometimes, the women even helped the men to escape. So, the roles changed right from the conflicts and in the process of doing that, the women were left behind and they took up roles they normally don’t take.”

She also said, “That made them see that they were capable of doing more because they used to be sheltered and protected. We allowed them to tell their stories and explain how the gender roles occurred and how they had coped.” 

United by Misfortune  

THISDAY asked Bukar what the team found most striking in their research and filming, and she pointed out that the crisis had forced to bond, with wives becoming more involved in the decision making processes of their families.

In her explanation of this, Bukar referenced the patriarchal lifestyle of Borno communities, where wives were hardly allowed by their husbands to partake in fending for the families, or contributing to the decisions made for the home.

She stated, “All the changes in gender roles that happened were indubitable, but what struck us the most was that despite the changes, the women and men confessed that the love between them strengthened. Everybody confessed that they preferred their current relationships with their wives and husbands.

“People who had resentments for their significant other, are now a bit more understanding because of these changes, and I will expect that in a state like Borno were patriarchy is very strong, even though changes is inevitable, that it will be fought off and people would not see it as an advantage, but for them to see that their love lives are better for it is good and we are glad for them.”

She explained, “There are lots of other people who are forced to change their roles, but they are not as lucky as these people, and we want to have them see this and perhaps work through their challenges.

“The whole essence of the documentary is to hope that these changes will stick. Now, the women had tasted this and people might fight it. We want to screen it to people to see the advantages of pushing for these changes.”

She however stated that some of the women expressed fears that they might be forced back to their traditional roles when they get back to their communities, adding that this would be difficult for them to cope with eventually.

According to Bukar, “A lot of the women expressed fears that they cannot imagine a situation where they will go back to their old lives of not working, or not consulted in decision making by their spouses. They used to live in extended family set up and with that they were not involved in decision making. They said they couldn’t imagine not being part of the process when they got back to their communities.

“One of the men we talked to admitted that he never knew his wife would be able to do what she was doing, but then said he would not allow her do them when they got back to their community. He said he doesn’t feel it was natural for that.”

She told THISDAY that changes in gender roles were usually hard to accept, adding that PAGED intended to use “uprooted” to change the narrative in conflict-affected Borno communities.

“It is a whole mind thing. The men said women were not meant to work, but to be pampered with food stuffs and gifts. We’ve had the validation screening because it is a participatory film; we need to get feedback from stakeholders in the film, which include the communities, CSOs and media. And, now, we will go ahead to use the film for local and international advocacy.” 


At the Abuja lap of the screening, Chelsey Buurman, who is a Second Secretary in the Embassy of the Netherlands, which provided funding for the project, told THISDAY the film had put a human face on the Boko Haram crisis. Buurman noted the often impressive roles women played in crisis management and peace building.

He said, “I think the biggest takeaway is that this movie help put a face to the conflict. It is easy for people who live in Abuja, Lagos or wherever to think about the Boko Haram crisis and the numbers of dead or misplaced people, but tend to forget that we are talking about people who had a life before this happened. They had dreams and hopes like everyone else. So, this movie helps put a face to it all, it is relatable.”

She further explained, “The embassy funded this movie as a human rights project, and within that, we focus on gender equality and women’s roles in peace processes and conflict remediation. You will see in the movie that women played key roles in peace building.

“This has also brought couples together and changed personal relationships, and so it is not about agenda only driven by feminism, people are beginning to see how it affects them and their values.”