DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Female members of Boko Haram are almost as likely as men to be deployed as fighters in northeast Nigeria, challenging a widespread perception that these women are mainly used as cooks, sex slaves and suicide bombers, researchers said on Monday.
While men in the Islamist group dominate in leadership and training roles, women may outnumber them in other senior roles, such as recruiters and intelligence operatives, according to a report based on interviews with 119 former Boko Haram members.
Four in 10 female respondents said they served as soldiers - compared with 45 percent of men - while both sexes carried out domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning, the report found.
"Recruiters are adapting to the tightening security environment," said Mahdi Abdile, director of research at Finn Church Aid and co-author of the study, adding that women and girls are increasingly being targeted for recruitment.
"The intelligence community is on the lookout for young men, so it is easier for women to navigate past security barriers and penetrate communities," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Boko Haram has killed about 15,000 people and displaced more than 2 million in Nigeria in a seven-year insurgency to carve out an Islamist caliphate, and it still launches attacks despite having been driven out of much of the territory it held in 2014.
The Islamists have stepped up suicide bombings carried out by children in recent years, many of them carried out by girls, according to the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF).
While there has been a global focus on these female suicide bombers, women in Boko Haram have long been involved in planning logistics, planting mines and bombs, and fighting as soldiers, said Vincent Foucher of the International Crisis Group (ICG).
The report also found that six in 10 of the former militants - who are currently undergoing rehabilitation programmes - were introduced to Boko Haram by friends and relatives, while only a quarter learnt about the group at mosques or Islamic schools.
"Mosques and madrasas (Islamic schools) used to be the place to get new recruits ... now they are under the spotlight," said Abdile, adding that this shift in strategy represented a challenge for anti-terror and radicalisation efforts in Nigeria.
Religious beliefs, poverty, a lack of education and work, and opportunities offered by Boko Haram were cited by the former militants as the main reasons for joining the Islamist group.
Boko Haram has lured young entrepreneurs and business owners to join them by providing or promising capital and loans to boost their businesses, Mercy Corps said in April.
The report was carried out by Finn Church Aid, The International Dialogue Centre, The Network of Religious and Traditional Peacemakers and the Citizen Research Centre.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)