International Alert’s new project with UNICEF is helping transform the lives of women and girls returning from captivity by Nigeria's insurgency group Boko Haram.
The project was informed by our recent study which found the survivors, as well as their children born of sexual violence, often face rejection and stigma in their communities.
Together with our local partners, Federation of Muslim Women's Associations in Nigeria (FOMWAN) and Herwa Community Development Initiative, we are helping survivors move forward by running collective therapy sessions and dialogue clubs. We also help prepare communities for the return of survivors by fostering empathy and trust. This includes supporting religious and traditional leaders in promoting a culture of tolerance and forgiveness.
Our project is the first step in re-integrating these women and girls into society, and in healing communities affected by violent conflict.
The story of Binta
Binta is 21 years old, and was living with her husband and child when Boko Haram came to her village in northeast Nigeria. The men in the village ran away, to avoid being conscripted or killed, leaving the women and girls behind.
“The gunmen took us with them. We were so afraid of the bombs and the gunshots from the [government] soldiers. That’s when we were hungry the most. The insurgents are disoriented during that time, so they don’t feed us. We go to the bush and stay there when the bombs are going off.
“One day we decided that we would go to where the soldiers were and wait for them. The soldier viewed us as Boko Haram wives, but we swore we were innocent.
“They brought us here to the displacement camp. In this camp it was very difficult. The women were afraid of us and felt we had bombs and were a threat. Even most of our relations in town wouldn’t help us with anything. We’ve been here for 10 months, but no one has helped us among those we used to know. They think we had guns or access to guns.”
Binta joined a workshop run by Alert’s partner FOMWAN – a coalition of Muslim women’s organisations that brings together Boko Haram survivors in a safe and supportive environment, giving them an opportunity to express their feelings and learn about forgiveness and understanding through Islamic principles.
There, she realised she was not alone and learned to be more trusting of others.
The programme has made me become more accepting of other people. I have met people who have had the same experience and it makes it easier to talk about it.
Impact and next steps
Just three months into the project, we have already conducted eight workshops, reaching 240 survivors. Due to the success noted by girls like Binta, we designed four additional workshops and will reach a total of 320 survivors by the end of April 2016.
But this is not sufficient for addressing the needs of the survivors in the displacement camps, in the host communities and in their home villages throughout northeast Nigeria.
We estimate that up to 2,000 women and girls, as well as many boys, have been abducted by Boko Haram since 2012, including more than 200 girls on 14 April 2014 from their school in Chibok.
With more victims returning from captivity, there is an urgent need to scale up this work to ensure survivors and communities can heal and move forward. In addition, these women also need better access to health services and job opportunities to support themselves and their children. This is important while they are in the displacement camps, but also after they leave the camps and return to their home villages.
According to Kimairis Toogood, Senior Peacebuilding Adviser for Nigeria at International Alert:
“As we are not sure of the exact numbers of those still held in captivity, the breadth and depth of this issue is not even fully understood – but we know it is great. We estimate that thousands of people will need our help – both survivors and communities where they live.
“So we must begin addressing this issue now, with all the necessary resources.”
- Find out more about the Reducing stigma against those affected by Boko Haram project
- Join the #FutureForOurGirls campaign.
Photo: Fati Abubakar/ International Alert/ UNICEF