Aisha was only 14 when Boko Haram insurgents raided her village in Taraba state in northeast Nigeria some eight months ago. “They were merciless,” she says. They swarmed into her home and demanded that she follow them into the bush. When she refused, they executed her parents and kidnapped her.
“They tied me together with other girls from the village and made us walk in a line,” she recalls. On the first day of her captivity, Boko Haram militants asked, “Do you love us?” She did not; could not. The beating she endured marked the beginning of weeks of systematic abuse. Each day, six Boko Haram fighters raped her.
When the fighters left to raid a new village around three weeks into Aisha’s captivity, she took her chance. With two other kidnapped girls she fled the camp where she was held and crossed the Cameroonian border before arcing back through Adamawa state to reach Borno, Nigeria’s north-eastern most province.
Aisha now stays in a camp for internally displaced persons, without her family or friends. The insurgency, which began with a bloody uprising in 2009, rages on. “I feel safe,” she says, but her future—like the countless others kidnapped by jihadist militants—remains in jeopardy.
Escaping from Boko Haram is just the first step toward recovery. The international community’s jubilation about the return so far of 163 of the 276 Chibok girls masks the real barriers to reintegration faced by thousands of women and girls kidnapped by insurgents: More than 110 suicide bombings by children in 2017—at least 76 of them by girls—have fueled suspicions that returnees could be spies still loyal to Boko Haram’s cause. And it’s not about to end anytime soon, Boko Haram this month kidnapped over 100 girls from school in Dapchi, northeast Nigeria.
Returned women and girls are often ostracized, thought to be potential insurgents or seen as guilty of inviting sexual abuse. Women who fall pregnant face virulent condemnation, driven by local superstitions that the children of Boko Haram fighters will inevitably grow up to be militants. Publicly-funded counter-terror campaigns have stoked hostilities: a New York Times Magazine report described billboards in Maiduguri depicting young girls about to detonate bombs and ad campaigns painting the families of girls as collaborators.
The services that might once have supported them have retreated to safer urban centers. In Borno state, the epicenter of the insurgency, 527 of 755 health centers had closed or been destroyed by October 2017. To help the girls abandoned by both the state and their communities, mobile teams co-ordinated by the charity Plan International travel through the war-torn region, providing frontline care. (Plan’s is not the only program, but it is one of the biggest.)
“It is not safe for us to live in these communities,” explains Alfred Hangus, the project leader, “so our workers live in towns and cities and travel to remote regions in the morning and leave in the late afternoon.”
Each mobile unit has a driver, community engagement officer, nutrition expert, nurse, medical doctor, and gender-based violence specialist to provide basic care. A doctor and nurse offer screenings and medical advice in makeshift clinics. Nutritionists aim to provide information and supplies to the estimated 450,000 children in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states who suffer from acute malnutrition. Community engagement officers build trust with local leaders to ensure peaceful reception by villages and avoid ambushes by militants. The most sensitive work is conducted by caseworkers, who offer psychosocial support to countless traumatized young women. (While the teams are all mixed, the people working directly with Boko Haram girls are exclusively women.) Although many villages have welcomed the units, the situation remains tense and there are regular attacks.
Hangus recalls a mission to a rural community in early October. “When our vehicle approached, the children ran away.” A local community leader explained that the brand of pick-up truck was the same insurgents use to kidnap villagers. “The trauma is still so fresh.”
Mobile units rely on UN security reports and allies within villages to assess the risk posed each day. Many forge bonds with the local militias that have formed to try to defend the villages from the indiscriminate killings by both Boko Haram and members of the Nigerian military.
Most of the frontline workers said they felt relatively safe, though each stressed the unpredictability of life amid the jihadist insurrection.
“You cannot trust anyone. Even the people who are settled do not know their enemy,” says Angela Machonesa, Plan’s communications manager and a Zimbabwean. She gathers testimony from kidnapped girls and is blunt about the challenges frontline workers face: “The insurgents dress like them, talk like them, eat the same food as them. They may not explode in our faces, but they may be a spy making a phone call to whoever is able to come and raid at the next moment.
“There have been times that we have moved out of a place, and the moment we leave, the place is attacked.” While the areas they serve remain under siege, to date none of the mobile units have come under direct attack.
Girls kidnapped by Boko Haram have unique needs and are often hardest to reach—the stigma of being associated with the militants means few girls openly identify themselves as escapees. Elizabeth Joel-Maiyaki, a caseworker with more than three years experience helping girls in north-eastern Nigeria, stays in contact with local leaders who discreetly identify girls who may be in need of support. The team also offers basic women’s health services and check-ups to small-scale women’s groups.(Any large gatherings risk being attacked.) By offering services to all women, those who attend are not automatically revealed as victims of Boko Haram.
Joel-Maiyaki describes her work as “psychological first aid.” Many of her patients have never spoken about their trauma and many are left without the family support, raising children they believe they cannot love. Joel-Maiyaki and her colleagues offer trauma counseling to those most in need; more complex cases are referred to the few trauma centers that remain in besieged towns like Maiduguri.
As well as psychological support, Plan International provides classes to train women in the skills their estranged families no longer teach them. Girls are taught to cook bean pancakes—a local staple—and how to sew and knit in the hope that they might eke out a living from their trade. Women and girls who feel ready to return to school are offered advice and cash transfers to cover school fees.
Treating trauma is only the first stage in reintegration. Rejection by their community is a persistent barrier to the girls’ recovery. Much of the work carried out by the mobile units relates to removing the stigma associated with Boko Haram victims, through education and reconciliation led by local community leaders.
“We teach these communities that these girls have done nothing wrong—that it can happen to anyone,” Joel-Maiyaki explains. “Whatever has happened to these girls, they have the right to survive, to be protected, to be heard.” The work is grueling, but has had some success in recent months.
For minors like Aisha, a potential foster family is on the horizon. Another girl who gave birth to a baby after being raped by one of her kidnappers, has started a new life after her release. “A man from the community wants to marry her,” Joel-Maiyaki recounts with excitement, a rare situation for girls violated by Boko Haram. She hopes to marry in the next few months..
According to Joel-Maiyaki, being a woman on the frontline is crucial to the work they are doing. “Before now, it was believed that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, but coming to the community, women see me participating, talking, giving them hope. They see that the voice of a women can be heard.”
The work of the mobile units is a daring remedy to a region at war, but they remain necessary—given the government’s inability to stabilize the region and end the insurgency.
“There is no comprehensive government program for any of the tens of thousands of people kidnapped by Boko Haram, except the 276 Chibok girls,” says Fatima Akilu, Director of the Neem Foundation, an NGO specializing in psychosocial support for victims of the insurgency and counter-terrorism, and a trained psychologist with extensive experience of frontline support. Many girls remain beyond the reach of the mobile units and with ongoing attacks meaning they need to flee villages again and again, delays between visits can slow down their recovery.
“Decisions around women’s needs are being taken by men, and women are not given enough prominence in the peacemaking process,” says Akilu. In her view, women’s health issues and psychosocial support for women and girls have not been adequately prioritized in national policy. “Women are tolerated at the very low levels, but when it comes to levels where policy decisions can change lives for generations, women are not given a seat at the table.”
Girls like Aisha are unlikely to be reintegrated into society while the government propagates fear around returning women. Some women have joined Boko Haram willingly—“and in my eyes, they are perpetrators, not victims,” says Akilu—but government-funded campaigns that ostracize kidnapped girls only push them closer to their captors.
“Let’s put it this way,’ says Akilu. ‘If Boko Haram have learned that they need women at the table—and they have allowed women to hold and play various roles within their organization—then why can’t we?”
Edward Siddons is a writer for Apolitical, the global network for public servants. This report is part of an ongoing series on women, security and peacebuilding supported by Women, War & Peace II broadcast series and The Fuller Project.