Beyond the media frenzy, Boko Haram survivors need real support

A shorter version of this blog was originally published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

At first glance, the scene could be something out of a new mums social group. Clusters of young women gathered together and chatting distractedly, children flitting between their legs, babies tugging plaintively at their clothing.

But this is no meet-and-greet at a social centre. I’m in a camp for people displaced by violence from the Boko Haram conflict in Maiduguri, Borno State, the epicentre of the insurgency. I’m about to attend a support session for women and girls who were held in captivity by Boko Haram and subjected to sexual violence. Some have spent years held against their will in the vast forests on the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. They have been subjected to servitude and violence. Many watched friends sent off to die by Boko Haram commanders in suicide bombings, even as they feared their own families might be victims of these attacks.

Contrary to popular assumptions, life does not get easier when they escape or are rescued and find their way to IDP camps, host communities, or their villages. Their communities fear that they have been radicalised during their years spent with Boko Haram. The stigma of being raped is so strong that husbands can no longer look their wives in the eye, parents refuse to let daughters set foot in their household. For those that return bearing children, the rejection can be almost total. The children, their former friends, neighbours and family members say, have “bad blood”. Other children are told to stay away or they may be contaminated.

International Alert runs a programme that has been working towards reducing this stigma and promoting reintegration for two years now. Providing psycho-social support, our primary tool is dialogue and our first port of call is the women and girls who have survived this violence. Critics of our approach could say: people barely have food, medicine and shelter. What will sitting around and sharing their feelings do to make their situation better?

But anyone who spends time in a support session as I did on that day will have their questions answered.

As soon as the facilitator from our partner women’s group called people’s attention, a sombre mood descended. Even the children could tell something important was happening and fell quiet. Then, in small groups with women and girls of similar age, they started to talk. Stories about the horrors seen and lived. The thrill of escape and the despair of rejection upon returning to their communities. The grief of learning about family members killed during their captivity, husbands who had taken on new wives, friends and neighbours disappeared without a trace. They talked about their recurring nightmares, their inability to eat, sleep or find joy in everyday tasks. The guilt of resenting their children for having Boko Haram fathers. Their hopes that they could one day return home and lead a semblance of a normal life. They talked about love and relationships and death and violence, feelings of vengeance, regret, hatred, forgiveness. The emotional tension was so thick that I did not need the translator by my side to understand that something deep was happening in their psyche. Voices broke and stammered. Girls covered their faces with headscarves to hide their tears. Others stared blankly ahead as if lost in their own memories.  

But the important thing is: they talked. Freely and openly. I tried to blend into a corner to avoid drawing attention to myself as an outsider, but it hardly mattered. Once the conversation started it was impossible to stop the flow. For many, this was the first time they were ever allowed to express themselves about what they had gone through during the conflict. Terrified of being branded “Boko Haram wives”, they had kept their experiences to themselves and suffered in silence and solitude. And here, suddenly, a community of other women with similar experiences, not judging but listening and offering much-needed solace.

Afterwards, a participant told us the session had made her “feel relevant and empowered”. Another one said she no longer feels “isolated and alone”.

It is four years since 276 schoolgirls were abducted from Chibok in Borno State by Boko Haram and 112 are still held captive or missing. On 19 February 2018, 110 girls were kidnapped from a school in Dapchi in neighbouring Yobe State. A stark reminder that women and children continue to bear the brunt of this brutal insurgency. But what happens to them after the violence? The majority of the Dapchi girls were released some weeks later - though some tragically died during the ordeal.

Lost amid the celebrations of their return is the story of what happens to these girls when the media fervour and government attention dies down. Their abductors warned them never to return to their school. How do they find the courage to return to their former place of learning? How do they sleep peacefully without fear of being kidnapped again? How do they come to terms with what they have seen and lived?

Indeed, how do whole communities and societies - women, girls, men and boys - recover from the psychological and social devastation of a decade of war?

Dialogue will not fill an empty stomach. But words have a power to comfort tortured minds and to rebuild bonds of trust, respect and empathy that are the very foundation of communities.  

Photo credit © Carol Allen-Storey for International Alert