Girls and women kidnapped by Nigeria's insurgent group, Jamāʻat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-daʻwa wal-Jihād (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, face mistrust and persecution upon their return to society, according to new research by International Alert and UNICEF, released today.
"These findings show a pressing need to do more to re-integrate those returning from captivity by Boko Haram," says Alert's peacebuilding adviser in Nigeria, Kimairis Toogood. "Many of these girls already face lasting trauma of sexual violence and being separated from their families, so we must ensure they get all the support they need when they finally return."
At least 2,000 women and girls have been physically abducted by Boko Haram since 2012, including more than 200 girls in 2014 from their secondary school in Chibok local government area (LGA) in Borno state in April 2014. Many of them have experienced sexual violence or sometimes trained to fight or encouraged to become suicide bombers. Many more women have also been held hostage by Boko Haram in their own local LGAs.
However, as rescue efforts continue by the Nigerian government and military, and many of the survivors are returning home, the community perceptions of them and children born out of sexual violence by Boko Haram, and their integration and relocation, are proving difficult.
Communities interviewed for the report viewed returnees as "Boko Haram wives" and "annoba" (epidemics), conveying the fear they have been radicalised and, if allowed to return home, might recruit others.
At the same time, communities generally believed that over time relations could be rebuilt and the women and girls could gradually be accepted and trusted. But for this to happen, the women and girls would need to go through a more comprehensive rehabilitation process before returning home.
In addition, the children of these returning women and girls, whose fathers are believed to be Boko Haram fighters, were perceived with acute suspicion. And while perceptions of women changed over time, this did not apply to children. Entrenched views among communities referred to "bad blood" transmitted to children by their biological father, placing them at risk of rejection, discrimination and potential violence in the future.
Even some of the mothers felt this way: "Initially I didn’t want to [keep the child]," said one of the women, "but when we were rescued and counselled in the camp, I decided to keep the pregnancy […] When I think of the baby that will come, it disturbs me a lot because I always ask myself this question: Will the child also behave like JAS [Boko Haram]?"
The report also found that while humanitarian assistance was reaching Boko Haram survivors and returnees, it was still inadequate for the breadth and depth of the need. Many women and girls, isolated and ostracised not only by communities but also their families, faced dire poverty and some were forced into prostitution to feed their children.
"There is a fear that if the needs of these survivors and returning populations are not met, these factors could add another dimension to an already complex conflict situation in northeast Nigeria," says Toogood.
The assessment was conducted in four internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Maiduguri Metropolitan Council, Borno state capital, where 95% of all IDPs are returnees from Boko Haram camps.
The findings will inform a new project by Alert and UNICEF in northeast Nigeria aimed at better rehabilitating and reducing stigma against women, girls and children associated with Boko Haram, and to prepare communities for their reintegration.