Escaping Boko Haram: Kidnapped, Raped and Now Rejected By Their Families

Women and girls who are returning home after being held captive by Boko Haram now face alienation and rejection by their families and communities.

Since 2012, more than 2,000 women and girls have been kidnapped by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, including more than 200 taken from their secondary schools in Chibok in 2014 which attracted intense social media attention with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that ultimately had no impact. While hundreds have been freed over the past months, the Chibok girls were not among them. The women and girls were raped, physically abused and forced into marriage with their captors.

After the Nigerian government started to gain ground against the extremist group, forcing them to retreat, many of the girls were freed and returned to their homes. They now face the consequences of capture and slavery.

A report from International Alert and Unicef has revealed that “many face marginalization, discrimination and rejection by family and community members” while “[t]he children who have been born of sexual violence are at an even greater risk of rejection, abandonment and violence.”

Communities that once wished for their safe return are unwilling to accept the girls back into society. Labelled, annoba (plague), they are twice victims.

Every victim returning to state-controlled areas is put through a government deradicalization program to rid them of all traces of Boko Haram. This exorcism is not available to their children who are the ultimate reminder of the abuse these women have faced. Although the report finds that many of the women wanted to bring their pregnancy to full term, not all wanted to care for their children and others aborted the pregnancy using local methods.

Lucy’s story epitomizes the struggle women and girls face as they attempt to reintegrate and restart their lives as victims again. When Lucy escaped Boko Haram she returned home to her husband, but found she was pregnant from her time in captivity. Lucy’s husband rejected the unborn child as a member of their household. Children born as a result of rape are considered tainted by the “bad blood” transmitted by their militant biological fathers. Since abortion is illegal in Nigeria and only permitted when the mother’s life is in danger, most women and girls have few choices. Lucy introduced chemicals into her womb, but despite the abortion being successful, her husband still divorced her.

Years in captivity have meant some of the girls no longer see themselves as victims nor their captors as insurgents. International Alert and Unicef had to terminate one interview with a woman who believed that the Boko Haram fighter who abused her was actually her husband.

Boko Haram bombings. (Diariocritico de Venezuela)
Boko Haram bombings. (Diariocritico de Venezuela)

They are also being shunned because they are feared to have been radicalized in captivity. The report states “Many people view these women, girls and their children as a direct threat, fearing that they have been indoctrinated and radicalized by JAS [Jama’atul ahl al-sunnah li da’awati wal jihad, the name of the group commonly known as Boko Haram]. The recent increase in the use of female suicide bombers throughout Nigeria, including under 18-year-olds, has also reinforced the widely held belief among many that women and girls exposed to JAS (whether by force or voluntarily) are contributing to the overall insecurity in the region.”

These fears have been exacerbated by rumors circulating in villages of women and girls returning home and murdering their parents. For those moved into host communities, community leaders have set up committees to spy on the girls.

The hostile reception only adds to their horrifying ordeal. The suspicion and mistrust means the girls are not receiving treatment nor adequate support to help them deal with what they have endured over months in captivity. The findings suggest there is a pressing need to reintegrate those returning. Governments and NGOs should work to establish support services, and educate families and communities receiving the women and girls on the trauma of sexual violence and separation from their families.

The United Nations estimates that 2.8 million people have been driven from their homes as a result of the violence. Displacement camps are facing severe food shortages, made worse by plummeting oil prices that are stagnating the nation’s economy. Areas including Borno State, which has been a constant target of Boko Haram, have almost 50,000 people critically food insecure and on the verge of famine.

The girls now face an uncertain future, as rejection and isolation forces them into destitution, abandoned by their husbands, with no skills and burdened by a child born from their ordeal. Some have resorted to prostitution to feed their families. They live in constant fear that Boko Haram will return to reclaim them. Children born of sexual violence are at even greater risk of abandonment and violence.

So far, the humanitarian response has failed to meet the scale of needs the girls and communities face. In Maiduguri, the state capital of Borno, where 95 percent of people are internally displaced by the fighting and where many of the girls have returned, ensuring proper care for former captives of Boko Haram will be challenging.

As Kimairis Toogood, peace building adviser for International Alert, highlights “If the needs of these survivors and returning populations are not met, these factors could add another dimension to an already complex conflict situation.”