On women and girls kidnapped (including but not limited to those from Chibok) for The Guardian:
Nigeria makes headlines all too often these days – for the wrong reasons. Indeed, for the past 18 months whenever I have been outside Nigeria, people always want to know: “What happened to those girls?” They are talking about the 276 girls taken from Chibok government secondary school in April 2014. They form part of a total of at least 2,000 women and girls kidnapped between January 2014 and April 2015, who have sparked protests around the world and the intervention of high-profile figures and celebrities ranging from Michelle Obama to Chris Brown.
But almost two years on the political statements and media reports have yet to translate into meaningful help for the women and girls who come back. Report after report has documented the brutal realities of their existences under the control of Jama’at Ahlus-Sunnah Lida’awati wal-Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram: they are forcibly married to fighters and subjected to rape and other sexual violence. But it is important to not only see the women and girls involved with Boko Haram as victims. Many try to escape. Others choose to ferry weapons, indoctrinate and recruit or will take part in attacks. While the focus on women’s involvement with Boko Haram has been within the context of abductions, it is important to remember that many women and girls choose to join for reasons ranging from economic to ideological in motive, just as men and boys do. There is a spectrum between force and choice, victimhood and agency that belies simplistic assumptions based on gender stereotypes.
Not much is known about the situation once the women who were abducted, and their children, are back in their communities. A report by International Alert and Unicef published today is the first to examine what happens next. I was part of analysing the key findings with researchers and believe they have much to say about what needs to happen.
In general, survivors of violence usually want and need healthcare, counselling and help reintegrating into their families and communities. The report found it was no different in Maiduguri. However, although assistance was reaching survivors, researchers found this was far from adequate given the breadth and depth of the women and girls’ needs and the trauma they had experienced. It was also uneven. People spoke of those who arrived at internally displaced camps first or were in older camps having better access and quality of services and goods. Women and girls living in host communities reported not receiving any services at all. Importantly, abortion is only permitted to save the life of the mother, leaving women and girls who have become pregnant with few choices. Although a majority of women interviewed wanted to continue their pregnancy, not all were willing or able to care for the children while some had tried to abort the pregnancy using local methods.
These women and girls are stigmatised and feared by many. Referred to as “Boko Haram wives” or annoba (epidemics), people are afraid they have been indoctrinated – and will spread these views. Some husbands divorced wives on their return. Given the lack of economic opportunities, this leaves them facing destitution.
The children they have given birth to, whose biological fathers are Boko Haram fighters, are also viewed with fear and suspicion. They are considered “hyenas among dogs”, to have bad blood and are assumed likely to be the next generation of fighters. After all, “a child of a snake is a snake”. As a result, children, including babies, and their mothers are being ostracised and left at risk of further violence.
However, many family members have shown acceptance. Much depends on whether the woman or girl left willingly or was abducted, how long they had been married to their husbands and whether they had children together. Many cited Qu’ranic verses that men should take back their wives if they are in captivity for less than five and a half years and accept any child born as their own. Most people viewed the women and girls as victims – but felt they needed to go through a deradicalisation and rehabilitation programme before reintegrating back into the community.
It is easy to know what to think about “innocent” women and girls who are abducted and in captivity. There is less certainty when they return when there has been some element of choice or when they have played some part in attacks. Community reactions are understandable if women and girls have played active roles and given the trauma communities themselves have experienced. These fears have been exacerbated by stories circulating of women and girls returned from captivity murdering their parents.
Understanding and nuance is needed in response. The concerns of communities need to be addressed, but the solution is not to view all women and girls with suspicion, stigmatise and marginalise them further and infringe on their human rights. They need high-quality, long-term, ongoing care as well as conscious efforts to address and respond to community fears. The current insufficient and partial nature of services available needs to be redressed. This includes the right to choose whether to continue pregnancies. At minimum, alternative care systems for children that are monitored and regulated should be established. Concerted efforts are needed to address the biological determinism that affects how these children are viewed, not just now but at various stages over the next few decades as they grow up.
So far, the scale of needs has outstripped response. If urgent action is not taken then this trend is only set to increase as more women and girls return. In 2014, abductions in Nigeria captured the attention of the world’s media, politicians and public. It’s now time to translate some of that into meaningful and long-term support for the women and girls – and their children – who have come back.