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UN urges Nigeria to ease abortion access for women raped by Boko Haram

The UN rights chief warns that a lack of abortion access would add to the suffering of former Boko Haram captives

The United Nations rights chief on Wednesday urged Nigeria to show compassion and make access to abortions easier for women and girls who became pregnant in Boko Haram captivity.

Amnesty International estimates that Boko Haram fighters have kidnapped more than 2,000 women and girls in northeastern Nigeria since the beginning of 2014, including the 276 girls seized from their school in Chibok last year in a kidnapping that sparked global outrage.

“During their captivity, lasting in many cases for months or even years, women and girls have been sexually enslaved, raped and forced into so-called marriages,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein told the U.N. Human Rights Council in a special session on Boko Haram.

“Many survivors of these horrific experiences are now pregnant by their rapists ... and several reportedly wish to terminate these unwanted pregnancies,” he said.

But in Nigeria, abortion is legal only when the life of the woman is at risk, Hussein said, warning that a lack of access would only add to the suffering of the former captives.

“I strongly urge the most compassionate possible interpretation of the current regulations in Nigeria to include the risk of suicide and risks to mental health for women and young girls who have suffered such appalling cruelty,” he said.

John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera there are different theories about the use of rape by Boko Haram. One is the traditional use of rape as a weapon to demoralize a community. Another is that Boko Haram believes radicalization can be transmitted biologically and that raped women will give birth to the feared group's next generation of fighters.

In May, The New York Times quoted Borno Gov. Kashim Shettima as saying that some Boko Haram fighters “even pray before mating, offering supplications for God to make the products of what they are doing become children that will inherit their ideology.”

Campbell warned, however, that even if the Nigerian law is expanded to allow abortions after kidnapping or sexual slavery, stigmatization may prevent these women and girls from getting them. 

“There is law, and then there is social custom,” he said. “And social custom is much stronger than law in many parts of Nigeria. So what the letter of the law is doesn’t mean a whole lot.”

Hussein also called on authorities to help women and girls freed from Boko Haram enslavement to reintegrate into their communities and avoid cultural opprobrium.

Boko Haram's insurgency, centered in northeastern Nigeria and aimed at creating an independent state based on the group's interpretation of Islamic law, has led to the deaths of at least 15,000 people since 2009.

Al Jazeera with Agence France-Presse

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