Federal University, OyeEkiti. Department of Theatre and Media Arts.

Email- Omorodion.martina@gmail.com   Phone: 08028716336


Sexual violence and forceful abduction are twin evils that occur during armed conflicts. The breakdown of law and order heightens tensions that lead to increased violence and abuse. Since the history of man, rape has been applied as a tool of terror and domination in conflict times. The defilement of a woman was viewed as a means of demoralizing or transmitting a message of intimidation, to their men. This paper is a textual analysis of Soji Cole’s Embers that deals with the plights of the vulnerable group of Internally Displaced Persons affected by the Boko Haram Insurgency. The paper focuses on rape as an illegitimate weapon of war and the devastating effect it has on the individuals and the society at large. Grounded on the Vulnerability theory of Martha Fineman, the research finds that women are vulnerable based on their lowly positions in the society and by virtue of their reproductive capacity. The paper recommends amongst other strategies, the protection of vulnerable groups during armed conflicts, the sensitization of belligerents on humanitarian laws and the provision of sustainable solutions to IDPs and the general population during and after armed conflict.

KEYWORDS: Rape, Sexual Violence, Armed Conflicts, Boko Haram, Vulnerability.  

Rape is a powerful weapon. It is a weapon of sheer, unbridled terror and immense, calculated devastation.                            

Askin Kelly


Violence is a universal human experience that is reflected in various forms. Violence can be interpersonal or between states. The history of man is replete with violence- wars, genocide, mass murder and terrorism. Violent acts are integral to man’s existence although scholars of wars make a distinction between war and violence. Justifying wars as the foundation of civilization and society, wars were regarded as “necessary” and the rules of engagement spelt out. Distinction was made between belligerent and non-belligerent. As a result, modern war was rational, impersonal and scientific in approach. Very little attention if any was given to the civilian and non -military victims. As Carrol Struat (6) states:

Modern war reduced killings to a science with rules which marked it off from cruelty and barbarity. Even after the First World War, reticence about talking about what war really was like continued, killing glossed or reduced to a convention, only inadvertently were the “excesses” of soldiers alluded to.

The reimagining of war and its attendant abuse of human dignity was as a result of the works of social thinkers who were concerned by social conflict around them much after the 2nd World War (Straut 7). An understanding of violence extended to armed conflicts perpetuated by state and non- state actors, war crimes, terrorism, direct violence and the threat of violence. Other acts of violence are ethnic wars, religious uprisings, political riots and civil strife. Despite the semantics at play, the general consensus was that violence impedes progress and impacts humans negatively.     

This paper is concerned with rape as an “illegitimate” weapon of war targeted at vulnerable unarmed civilians. Using Soji Cole’s Embers, the paper highlights the trauma caused by rape during armed conflicts and the devastating effect it has on the society.  The paper concluded with recommended strategies for dealing with sexual violence during armed conflicts. Despite the so called “rules of engagement” of modern war, war-time rape has been used as an instrument of domination, coercion and ethnic cleansing. Belligerents have used sexual violence in their strategy of war to pursue their objectives. In many cases, these sexual violence and abuse are not limited to non- state actors but extend to “lawful combatants” and “friendly army” as well. Historically, women were regarded as property of men and were thus considered as spoils of war. The law of patriarchy placed women under the rule of the father and rape against a woman was regarded as crime committed against the man who owned the woman. Rape and other forms of sexual violence are used by the conquering troop to humiliate the men (opponent) and subjugate them further. As conquering armies matched through the fallen territories, inevitably women were raped as a symbolic act of conquest. The ICRC Guidance document on Assessing the Needs of Women affected by Conflict notes that:

In many cultures women are viewed as symbolic representatives of caste, ethnic or national identity. This is often accentuated prior to the outbreak of conflict. Hence an attack on a woman is seen as an assault on the entire community to which she belongs. The defilement of women is viewed as a means of demoralizing or transmitting a message of intimidation, to their menfolk (25).

War time rape has existed since the history of man but received little of the attention it deserved. Traditionally, crimes against women were given low priority if any at all (Askin 61, Wood 457, Kabeer 4). Rape during conflict can be strategic or Opportunistic. However, rape is generally used to cause terror as with the Boko Haram insurgent kidnaps of female students. Rape targets a vulnerable group and is used as an act of the conqueror over the vanquished.  Mahlet (i) notes that:

Wartime sexual violence is a devastating form of aggression committed against civilian populations during armed conflicts. It is used as a tool of war to systemically target vulnerable groups, inflict psychological trauma, displace populations, deter opposition, and disrupt community cohesion. This violence is most often inflicted on women and can have catastrophic effects on their health and well-being and on their families and communities.          

Gendered War and the Abuse of Unarmed Civilians

Sexual violence during conflict can take the form of forced prostitution, rape, ethnic cleansing and dilution through rape and sexual torture. Sexual violence during conflict is not only limited to women but to men as well. Conflict related sexual violence are characterized as war crimes under international law and are crimes against humanity. Despite this, rape remains a prevalent strategy that is manifested in various conflicts around the world. An example of the use of sexual violence during conflict to destroy a population or an ethnic group is the Rwanda genocide of 1994, the rape camps of Bosnia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Sexual violence during conflict is not limited to women alone but extends to men as well. As noted by Wood (458) war time rape can affect boys and men as well as women and girls. Belligerents may target particular ethnic group or be broader in their approach. Depending on the organization, sexual violence can be manifested in various forms. For example, The Boko Haram insurgents in North East Nigeria target young girls whom they engage in forced marriages and servitude. Rape is by a sole perpetrator unlike some other organizations where rape is by multiple perpetrators.

War time rape reinforces gender inequalities and normalizes sexual violence. In patriarchal cultures, the lowly status of a woman contributes to gender based violence which becomes pronounced during armed conflicts. A woman’s body as the temple of reproduction and rebirth is subjected to abuse in a bid to destroy the sanctity or “purity” of a tribe. Rape is used as a psychological weapon to eliminate a group and to carry out ethnic cleansing. Other gender specific crimes are: forced pregnancy, forced marriage and forced prostitution. Forced sterilization, sexual multination and genocidal rape are some of the evils perpetuated against women.

The trauma of these sufferings extends beyond wartime to peace times when women still bear the results of the abuse. Even during peace and reconciliation tribunals, some of these crimes are not addressed because of the psychological turmoil they cause. This paper argues that the underlying culture of a people can contribute to the treatment women receive during conflict. It is worthy to state that all persons are teachable therefore belligerents can be trained to observe sexual decorum even at war times. Hence, the customs of wars and the rules of the violation of the laws of war as captured in Article 2-5 of the Yugoslav status and the International Humanitarian law.

Rape is a powerful tool of subjugation and defeat. It has effects not only on the victims but on the entire society as well. Hideous accounts exist of sexual violence during the Second World War and at more recent conflicts such as the Uganda civil war and the crises of Democratic Republic of Congo. Rape becomes a tactic of war systematically employed to cause terror and wreak the society. Rape is not limited to only non state actors but also to belligerents and representative of the government like the military. It is a tool used to defile and destroy. The tragedy of sexual violence occurs not only during conflict period but also in times of peace. The existing cultural norms can play a contributory role in silencing rape, especially in a culture that upholds feminine chastity and sexual modesty.  

The effect of the trauma from rape leads to mental health challenges mostly arising from stigma from family and the community especially when such abuse leads to unwanted pregnancy and childbirth. The situations are made much worse when displaced women are forced to use sex as a survival tactic. Sex becomes a weapon and the body of a woman the battlefield. Banjeglav (40) states that a woman’s body is a physical and metaphorical representation of the social and physical body of the nation. Killing or damaging that body symbolically kills and damages not only the woman, but her family and the society at large. Sexual violence such as rape and forced marriage tears through the fabric of a nation. It is made worse by a culture of silence, where victims of rape are shamed and often blamed for their misfortune. Proving the charge on rape has never been easy and the victim often feels she has more to lose to public humiliation especially as the most intimate abuse of her sacred and private self is brought to fore for scrutiny. In a patriarchal society where a woman worth is in the value of the man that possesses her, speaking of rape is often interpreted as a defilement of the woman.

Conceptual Framework

The study is based on the theory of Social Vulnerability which is an offshoot of Martha Fineman’s Vulnerability Theory. Vulnerability means the quality of being easily hurt or attacked. Vulnerability can be defined as the susceptibility to harm and the process that creates and maintain that susceptibility. Zakor and Swager (i) posit that in the progression to vulnerability, root social causes interact with dynamic/structural pressures to create unsafe spaces. Everyone experience vulnerability in one form or the other. Fineman(n.pag) notes that, the theory emerges not just from our human vulnerability but extends to how we experience the world with different levels of resilience. The inequality of resilience is at the heart of the vulnerability theory.

Social vulnerability refers to the inability of people, organizations, and society to withstand adverse impacts from multiple stressors which they are exposed to. These stresses can be natural or human caused disasters, disease outbreaks or armed conflicts. A socially vulnerable community is one in which people are discriminated on racial, ethnic, gender, linguistics or religious bias. Physical, economic, social and political factors determine people’s extent of coping, resisting or recovering from hazard. In this context, it relates to an individual or group’s capacity to anticipate, cope, resist or recover from the impact of natural or man-made hazard.

Example of vulnerable groups include, displaced persons, migrants, young unaccompanied women, returnees (former migrants or displaced people), marginalized persons like widows, physically challenged persons, elderly people without support and others. In crises times, women generally are vulnerable because of their social status and reproductive roles. Women thus suffer relational vulnerability due to their subordinate status within the hierarchy of male dominated systems such as: family, military, labour force or society. Vulnerability of women is worsened during conflict and displacement as they often lack access to proper medical care; suffer from malnutrition, infectious diseases and other health problems.

Opportunistic violence including abduction, rape, forced marriages occur in displacement settings. Scholars note that interfamilial and intimate partner violence worsen during conflict and displacement. Barriers to reportage, disruption of communities and access to medical facilities are some of the factors that heighten women vulnerability. Vulnerability theory helps us understand the structures that expose women by virtue of their gender and reproductive organs to risk of sexual violence especially in times of conflict and displacement. The abuse of women also includes the objectification of women. When women are objectified and instrumentalized as tools for the utility of another. The human essence is denied of autonomy, agency and subjectivity (Okoli and Azom, 1222). The theory of social vulnerability and objectification throws ample insight into physical, sexual and psychological abused faced by women during extra-ordinary times ( war, conflict, uprising). This is not to downplay the prevalence of sexual violence that occurs in interpersonal relationship during normal times.    

Characterizing Rape in Soji Cole’s Embers

Background to the play

 The Boko Haram insurgency is notorious for its abuse and degradation of women. Women are the object and the victim of violence. Not only are women used as the instrument of terror, they are subjected to massive abuse and exploitation. The group abducts young girls and women and subject them not only to rape and forced marriage but also uses as them as suicide bombers. It is estimated that the Boko Haram insurgents have abducted over 1000 school children (CNN,com). April 2014, then group was fingered in the kidnap of 276 mostly Christian girls from their school, in Chibok, Borno state. The group was also responsible for the kidnap of 110 school girls in Dapchi, Yobe state. Although some of the missing Chibok and Dapchi girls returned, a good sum is still in captivity in the hands of the insurgents, forced to be wives and mothers. Jonathan Hill (n.pag) states that the insurgent’s goal was to use the young girls as sexual objects and as a means of intimidating the civilian population into compliance. The Boko Haram crises is marked by extreme violence, killings and mutilations, bombings, ransacking of whole villages, abduction of minors, forced recruitment of young men, forced displacement of whole communities, separation of families, disruption of community life and increase in internally displaced persons. These challenges create opportunities for gender based violence and sexual abuse as captured in Soji Cole’s Embers.

Synopsis of Embers

Embers is based on the life experiences of three girls – Idayat, Atai, Memunah and a woman, Talatu. The four reside at the Internally Displaced People’s camp after their encounters and escape from the Boko Haram boys. The play highlights the vulnerability of lives of women at the IDP camps. Through their stories the women share their life experiences before and during the insurgency. Embers particularly exposes the lowly status of women, made worse by the Boko Haram crises. Embers exposes the rot that takes place in the IDP camp which is supposed to be a place of sanctuary for the displaced girls. It highlights the psychological trauma faced by the victims of rape and abuse. At the end, the girls cope with trauma in different ways which leads to the ultimate destruction of lives. Soji Cole predicts in Embers the end that comes upon a society that doesn’t treat with urgency the challenges, pains and anguish of its most vulnerable class.

Rape Culture and the Guilt of a Nation in Embers

 In Embers, Talatu an elderly woman shares her story with the three younger girls. In telling her story, Talatu serves as a therapist, encouraging the girls to talk and share their pains and sorrows, leading to the purgation of emotion. The four women all experience various forms of sexual abuses especially rape at various points in their lives. This is made possible by various structural and cultural factors that normalize sexual abuse. The incidents also manifest in both the private sphere of the home and the public sphere leaving no space safe. Embers rape culture in a society and the various forms in which it is manifested.

Rape can occur as a form of Intra-familial violence. It is not in all cases that rape is carried out by a stranger. Talatu as a young orphan, after the death of her mother had to go live with her uncle. Although her uncle was married with several wives, he entrapped Talatu in sexual slavery. The sexual abuse of Talatu also extended to his first son who also raped her at will. Talatu’s story embodies the plight of many vulnerable orphans across the nation. Made vulnerable by her status as an orphan and also as a girl child her resilience in the face of hazard is limited and Talatu is forced to flee the village for the big city of Kano. Talatu’s story is not much different from the story of late Ochanya Ogbanje 13, who died from complications arising from being raped and sodomized by her uncle and his son in October 2018 after enduring years of sexual abuse. Late Ochanya’s story is one of many sad tales that dot the news of rape by close family members and guardians. Intra-family rape is a twin edge sword of abuse and incest, which is strongly frowned on by the African culture. It is not limited to the girl child but affects boys as well. Incest is often accompanied with physical force and psychological threat as it is committed by one saddled with the responsibility of keeping the victim safe. Such abuse can push children into exploitative and dangerous situation, as with Talatu, who escapes to the city living on the streets before being tricked into prostitution which engaged in as a survival tactic.

This breach of trust extends to persons in the position of power such as teachers and religious leaders. In this situation rape becomes an abuse of power and domination of a stronger party over a weaker one. Such wicked practice is often accompanied by vile threats against the minor should he/she seeks redress. In Embers, Idayat is raped by her arithmetic teacher in primary six. Pupils in primary six are aged between ten to twelve years old. At such a tender age, Idayat is defiled by one should protect her. The situation is even made worse by the culture of silence that encourages and normalizes rape. Idayat’s mother knows she has been raped and defiled but her mother is more concerned about keeping it secret so as not to jeopardize Iayatr chances at finding a husband. Vitim blaming and shaming are part of the reason Idayat’s mother keeps the rape a secret. As Idayat narrates:

IDAYAT: …Mother said that I would never find a husband once the news got out that another man had defiled me. She said that the whole community would look down on me. She said that I would be called names that would bring shame to me… (49)  

It is sad that in delicate cases like rape, the perpetrator walks free and unencumbered while the victim bears all the guilt and the shame. This is especially worsened by weak rape laws which promote the culture of rape that is exacerbated in conflict times. When rape occurs, the victim is often held up to scrutiny and bears the burden of proving the case. As Kabeer notes,

 Sexual violence against women in the public domain is one of the few examples of public violence where the victim’s moral character becomes relevant in shaping public and legal perception about the extent of consent or coercion that defined the act- as in, whether or not ‘she was asking for it’ or ‘deserved what she got’ (4).

Opportunistic violence including abductions, rape and forced marriage occur in displacement settings and are perpetrated by unknown individuals. The culture of a society contributes in certain ways to the attitudes reflected in the treatment of vulnerable groups like old people and unaccompanied young women. Extreme masculinity displaced during crises is manifested in intimate partner violence and increased sexual violence in the public sphere. This can be caused by the breakdown of law and order and the tensions caused by frustration, terror, stress and the loss of traditional male roles. This is compounded by the subordinate status of women in a patriarchal society where masculinity is associated with dominance and aggression. The interplay of factors operates at the individual, interpersonal and institutional contexts of the society. For example, the roles men play as head of the family, decision makers and bread winners reflect in women obedience and sexual availability/ submissiveness. It is supported by cultural norms that discriminate against women in social, economic and political spheres.

In Embers, for example, the three young girls have been abducted by the insurgents and taken to Sambisa forest at one time or the other. However, there response to the trauma differs. Akai like the others girls is kidnapped from her school and forced to live in the forest with the insurgent. She is assigned a ‘husband’ who has six other women. He renames her Atuba, by so doing changing her identity and making her is wife. Akai suffers this forced marriage until she makes her escape from Sambisa back to her community. She meets her ransacked community been protected by the military and she is taken away by them. In Akai’s story we witnessed the abuse of victims at the hands of government forces. Not only is she been subjected to the ordeal at the hands of the insurgents, she goes through the same and even worse in the hands of the ‘friendly’ military. The continual rape at the hands of the so called protectors destabilizes the girls. Memunat justifies life in the forest with the Boko boys preferring life there to that at the IDP camp. In  practice, rape is by a single perpetrator with the Boko Haram boys and the kidnapped girls are assigned to a ‘husband’ that fends for them. In the camp however, the girls are at the mercy of the military men who provide security cover, the Red Cross officials who provide Humanitarian services and the politicians who come by night to pick girls of their choice. Although, Akai is encouraged by one of the good soldiers to report her rape to the Red Cross officials at the camp, very little could come out of it. This can be as a result of the lack of expertise by Humanitarian workers to provide more than the physical needs of victims or unwillingness to be seen as interfering with the local culture or religious belief of the people (ICRC 429).

In Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camp, vulnerable groups are faced with lack of access to quality medical care, good foods, drugs and sanitary conditions. Struggle for limited resources can cause abuse of human rights. In such situations sex, becomes a tool of exploitation and manipulation. Girls exchange their bodies for food and other favours. This can be regarded as rape as victims are compelled by the dire situations in which they have found themselves. It is nit with consent but out of coercion. Incidences of exaggerated masculinity are not rare to see in such situations. Bayero, the illiterate soldier makes it his duty to harass the girls and Talatu. He refers to their talk as gossip and threatens to come for one of the girls (veiled sexual threats). In one situation, he sexually molests Talatu even though she is old enough to be his mother. This shows that rape doesn’t happen to young girls but can happen to another one, old, male or female.

In conflict situations, rape can be used as torture. International law (s2340) recognizes rape and other forms of sexual violence may constitute torture and can be prosecuted as such. Rape results in severe mental and physical pain. In Embers, Memunat is put through such torture after it s found out that she had let the Boko Haram boys into the cap. She is repeatedly raped to break her into confessing all details of her involvement with the Boko Haram boys. Memunat is raped to death and only in death does she receive respite. Rape and other forms of sexual violence is thus used as a tool to intimidate, dominant and punish.

Strategies to reduce rape in conflict situations

Despite the bleak situation, strategies have been developed to improve reportage of rape incidents and increase access to health services. Some other strategies of are:

  1. Emphasis should be placed on confidentiality and protection of identity of rape victims. This will encourage the coming out of more victims and would increase reports of rape. Presenting a non-judgmental stance is mandatory to encourage victims to speak up.
  2. Prevent and respond to Gender Based Violence (GBV) in conflict areas. This also includes Intimate Partner Violence and all forms of domestic violence.
  3. Train belligerents and non-state actors on the law of armed conflict, to observe humanitarian laws and prohibit all forms of sexual violence against men, women and children.
  4. Make sustainable solution assessable to IDPs and general population.  For example, the Mirabel centre in Lagos is an NGO that offers support for rape and other forms of sexual violence. The Lagos state Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) is worthy to emulate. Government should also create dedicated family support units in police stations and IDPs camps with specially trained officers to handle cases of Sexual violence.
  5. Encourage victims and survivors to share their stories and tell their truth. This will encourage other victims who might be going through depression and mental torture.
  6. Create strong rape laws and seek the prosecution of offenders. Government should endevour to get more convictions on rape cases. Often tomes, the cases are stalled by the slow, long and torturous justice system. Maintaining a sexual offenders’ register also helps to prevent and limit repeat cases. 
  7. Train humanitarian workers to integrate health care for victims of sexual violence while extending supports to general populations affected by armed conflicts. For example- Medecins Sans Frontiers has progressively integrated health care for victims of sexual violence while extending supports to the general population (Wood 429).
  8. Extend policies to cover male victims of sexual abuse and encourage them to speak up.
  9. Train boys and girls on the evil of sexual violence and self –defense acts.
  10. Institute reconciliatory panels to heal the ‘social health’ of the community. This will foster social bonds through forgiveness, togetherness and limit resentment between victims and perpetrators.
  11. Reduce stigma and shame to victims of sexual violence during armed conflicts especially when it involves childbirth and pregnancies.
  12. Give support to Health systems in delicate situations. The international Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent provides such trainings in partnership with the United Nations High Commissions for Refugees.


Abduction and sexual slavery occur quite often in crises and is linked to the breakdown of law and order. Vulnerable groups are mostly unharmed civilians, unaccompanied young females and old people. Although the incidences of sexual violence in armed conflicts cannot be completely eliminated, it can be largely prevented. It is important to state that sexual violence is unacceptable. Research from the ICRC indicates that warring factions can successfully be educated on the right behaviours in conflict situations. Armed groups can be taught to recognize protected persons and to shun sexual violence against civilians and combatants alike as noted under the Geneva Convention. In Peace times, continuous training should be held to teach skills that prevent sexual violence. Communities must integrate social norms that prevent violence of all forms either IPV or GBV. Government should endeavour to create safe spaces for young persons and school children. In all, the prevention of sexual violence require addressing all factors of the social ecology- the individual, the community and the societal levels.

                                                      WORKS CITED

Askin, Kelly. War Crimes Against Women: Prosecution in International War Crimes    Tribunal. The Hague: Kluwer Law Int. 1997

Banjeglav, Tamara. “The Use of Gendered Victim Identities before and During the War by    former Yugoslavia”. CEU Political Science Journal. Vol 6. No1. https://ssm.com          Assessed May 25, 2018.

Cole, Soji. Embers. Ibadan: Emotion P, 2018.

Fineman, Martha. “Understanding Vulnerability Theory.” www.scholarblogs.emory.edu         2019/08/26. Assessed August 16, 2020

Hill, Jonathan. “Boko Haram, the Chibok Abduction and Nigeria’s Counter-terrorism Strategy. July 2014, Vol7, issue 7

ICRC. (Editorial). “Sexual Violence in Ahmed Conflicts: Breaking the Silence.”          International Review of the Red Cross. 2014. 96 (894). Pp 427-434

ICRC Women and War Team. “Addressing the Needs of Women affected by Conflict.”        Guidance Document. Geneva: ICRC 2004

Kabeer, Nalia. Violence against Women as Relational Vulnerability: Engendering the Sustainable Human Development Agenda. Occasional paper. UNDP Human            Development Report Office.

Mahlet, Woldetsadik. Long Term Effect of Wartime Sexual Violence on Women and Families: The Case of Northern Uganda. 29th, April 2020.

Okoli, Al Chukuma. Azom,Stephen. “Boko Haram Insurgency and Gendered Victimhood:     Women as Corporal Victims and Objects of War Small Wars and Insurgencies.” 2019.      30:6-7. Pp1214-1232

Straut, Carroll. Culture of Violence: Interpersonal Violence in Historical Perspective. United   Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan. 2007

     Stephen Busari. “Since 2013, over 1000 children abducated by Boko Haram including 276      girls from Chibok.”  www.cnn.com April 13, 2018

Wood, Elizabeth. “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Policy of Implication of Recent       Research.” International Review of the Red Cross. 2014. 96 (894). Pp 457-478

World Health Organization (WHO). “Violence against Women in Situations of Armed            Conflicts and Displacement”. July 1997.

Zakour, Michael. Swager, Charles. “Vulnerability Plus Theory: The Integration of        community Disaster Vulnerability and Resilience Theory.” In Creating Katrina,        Rebuilding Resilience. 2018, pg 45-78

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