Alert urges rapid support for girls released by Boko Haram

International Alert has welcomed the release of 21 schoolgirls by Nigeria’s insurgency group Boko Haram last week, but has cautioned that they may struggle to integrate back into society unless both immediate and long-term support is provided.

Those released in the past faced deep stigma and mistrust from their own communities, for a fear they could have been radicalised in captivity and their children born of sexual violence ‘tainted’ by the 'bad blood' of Boko Haram fighters (full report).

Kimairis Toogood, Senior Adviser for International Alert in Nigeria, said:

Tragically, the ordeal does not end when these girls and women escape or are rescued. Many face rejection, and even violence, from their own families and communities due to stigma around sexual violence - especially if they return with a baby. This makes re-integration extremely difficult.

This fear has been fuelled by Boko Haram’s use of women and girls in so-called suicide attacks. Twenty-one girls were used in this way in 2015 alone.

The 276 schoolgirls abducted from Chibok, northeast Nigeria, in April 2014 are just a fraction of the estimated 2,000 women and girls who have been held by the insurgency group. While most remain in captivity, hundreds have escaped or have been rescued.

Many are deeply traumatised and require both immediate and long-term medical, psychological and social assistance.

Since December 2015, International Alert, together with UNICEF Nigeria and local partners, have been providing emergency support for hundreds of girls and women.

They have also organised workshops to support the process of long-term reintegration. This includes not only providing collective therapy for survivors, but also working with communities and family members to foster empathy for and reduce stigma towards those who return.

Jummai* (pictured), one of the girls helped by the programme, said:

When I first arrived in the [displacement] camp, I was labelled a ‘Boko Haram wife’ with a dark soul. They thought I was evil. They viewed me as impure. I was isolated and the stigma was hurtful. The workshop conducted by International Alert was immensely helpful. I developed the confidence to speak to people.

Kimairis Toogood added:

We have found that with the right package of support, reintegration is possible. Unfortunately resources available are vastly inadequate to meet the needs of women, girls and children caught up in the conflict. With more and more victims now returning from captivity, there is an urgent need to scale up this work to ensure survivors and their communities – many of whom themselves are victims of Boko Haram - can heal and move forward.

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Photo credit: Carol Allen-Storey/International