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A Chibok girl is home, but it might not all be sweet
The international media has been in a frenzy this week since the Nigerian military reported that they had rescued Amina Ali Nkeki, one of 219 schoolgirls abducted from the Nigerian town of Chibok by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram more than two years ago. Yet it will likely be very hard for Amina, and girls like her, to reintegrate after two years in captivity.
Amina may be the most well-known, but she isn’t the only woman to have escaped from Boko Haram. The Nigerian army says it has rescued hundreds of girls and women from the Sambisa Forest area since last summer. Other women have escaped on their own. Yet many of these girls and women face stigma from their communities when they return.
“Many communities look at these girls with great suspicion,” said Mia Bloom, a professor of Communications at Georgia University, who has written extensively about women and Boko Haram. “They are worried that the women will turn on them. They express this by using nasty analogies, by calling them rabid dogs or disease that is laying in weight”.
There have been reports of female escapees being denied land upon their return because of these stigmas. Many end up in IDP camps, some with young children—often fathered by their captors— in tow. Boko Haram’s sexual violence against women and girls has been documented by rights groups. Bloom says that the fact that many of these girls were used as sexual slaves or forced to marry members of the insurgent group creates increased suspicion when they return.
“An estimated 91% of girls who were rescued in the last year were pregnant”, Bloom said. “There is this perception that the women are going to give birth to little Boko fighters, even though Boko is an ideology and not an ethnicity”.
Part of problem lies in the way that sexual violence is viewed in some communities in northern Nigeria.
“You have to understand the cultural dynamics. Sexual violence is still viewed with shame and the tendency to want to stigmatise the victim,” said Mausi Segun, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Abuja. “But Amina was rescued with a baby, so she has obviously been a victim of sexual abuse. I think with the understanding that stigma is sure to follow, there must be efforts to educate the community and her family to protect her”.
Segun said that she had already heard of victims being stigmatized by the Chibok community. Recently, she interviewed a Chibok student who was lucky enough to escape from the truck that carried the girls away on the night of the abduction in April 2014.
“She was never even taken to the Boko Haram camp and had no personal interaction with the captors”, Segun said. “But upon her return to her community, neighbors starting calling her ‘Boko Haram wife’. Her family had to send her to another part of Nigeria just to protect her. So then you can imagine what the experience will be like for those who spent months with Boko Haram or returned with a baby.”
She stressed that this high-profile rescue was an important opportunity to work with communities.
“It has to be targeted education to change attitudes and behavior,” Segun said.
UN human rights experts have criticized the Nigerian government for failing to reintegrate women and children who are victims of Boko Haram, which they say is essential to peace. Hilary Matfess, who works with the Nigeria Social Violence Project at Johns Hopkins University and is a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, agrees
"We haven’t really seen a commitment from the Nigerian government to building the infrastructure to provide women and girls with the sorts of economic and social opportunities that they need to rehabilitee the northeast portion of the country," she said.
The girls will also need counselling after two years of trauma. Bloom says that extra care needs to be taken to help the girls work through complex feelings they may have about Boko Haram.
“It’s conceivable that after two years of constantly being fed the same messages and being brainwashed that some of the messages may have been absorbed,” Bloom said. “We know, for example, that when the Nigerian forces first went into Sambisa, some of the women shot back at the very soldiers who were trying to rescue them. You know, we can’t assume that the women are definitely radicalised but we don’t know what experiences have impacted her over the long term”.
The stakes of reintegration are high. If the girls are rejected by their communities, they may be driven back into the arms of Boko Haram.