With a population of over 181 million made up of more than 250 ethnic groups with over 500 indigenous languages, Nigeria has been struggling with ethnic and religious tensions since gaining independence in 1960. Currently, almost every part of the country is in the grip of conflict. In the south, a group calling itself the Niger Delta Avengers is blowing up oil pipelines. In the center, farmers and nomadic herders are battling each other over diminishing natural resources while the Biafran separatist movement shows signs of resurgence. And in the northeast, the death count from the insurgency by jihadist militants Boko Haram keeps rising.
According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, since Boko Haram began its armed rebellion in 2009, more than 20,000 people have been killed, over 2,000 women and girls have been abducted, and 2.5 million people have been forced from their homes.
The international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps is one of a small number of groups dedicated to helping Nigerians affected by the violence. Many are women who have lost their husbands – and their only means of financial support – to the conflict, as well as women and girls who have escaped abduction by Boko Haram only to experience rejection when they return to their communities. Esther Balami, a protection officer for Mercy Corps, spoke to Women & Girls Hub from northeastern Nigeria about what these women need to carry on after fleeing from Boko Haram.
Women & Girls Hub: Can you tell us about the women who have fled from Boko Haram?
Esther Balami: Some of them were kidnapped, and they were able to gain their freedom. They’ve experienced a lot of gender-based violence while in the hands of the insurgents. We have women whose children were taken away from them or killed in front of them. We have children who have been separated from their families. We have children who have to take care of their siblings, all on their own. Many of them have suffered gender-based violence, kidnapping, rape or forced labor.
One woman is Esther, who lost her husband, a police officer in Yobe [state]. She ran away with her five children to Gombe. She received support from Mercy Corps to buy food and non-food items, like clothes and cooking utensils. She also received a grant – what we call livelihood assistance – to buy a sewing machine. So, she was able to start buying and selling some small goods, first from a small table and then from a shop. She also received training and membership into a savings group so she was able to start a small fish pond at her house. She has since been able to pay her children’s school fees, rent a place for them to sleep and meet her family’s needs.
Another woman named Hauwa fled from Mubi in Adamawa state to Bolari, a community in Gombe state. With a small grant she was able to buy a sewing machine for her son. He sewed clothes for people who paid for the service, and that helped Hauwa keep her son away from trouble because without anything to do they often join gangs and start smoking and drinking. They were able to sustain themselves, pay rent for the house and her children were able to go back to school.
Women & Girls Hub: What are your biggest challenges in helping these women?
Balami: As protection officers, we are raising awareness about gender-based violence within host communities. We are working directly with men and women. Young women, older women, married women, unmarried women.
The biggest challenge we face is the lack of adequate services to support survivors of violence, especially psychosocial services. Many of these people were kidnapped and, while in captivity, they experienced various types of violence. A lot of them were raped and forced to do things they didn’t want to do. You see the way they are interacting with each other, and you can see there is a need for psychosocial services. It’s very inadequate. In Southern Borno, there is only one general hospital that provides comprehensive services to survivors of gender-based violence. This has discouraged many from speaking out or seeking this care.
Despite having been kidnapped, [the women] act like nothing happened, while they are suffering internally. Although it’s not visible, some of them are almost physically suffering because you only have to start a conversation with them and they start crying. And they start telling you a lot of things that happened to them. While others, they just keep it in, they don’t talk, they are very quiet. You can see the social consequences of abuse and violence against them.
At first, attention was all concentrated on the Chibok Girls who were kidnapped in 2014 from Borno state. But, unfortunately, they are just a fraction of the number of women and children that were kidnapped by the insurgents.
There’s a lot of abuse, a lot of victimization, a lot of horrific response from the community. [The victims] are not welcomed, they are rejected by their communities. They are pointed at while walking around: “Oh, this is someone who was kidnapped by Boko Haram. We know she got pregnant while in captivity, and she came back and gave birth to a child.”
Those children are stigmatized. They are not even allowed to play with other children. The psychosocial support for the children is not adequate at all. When we went to a camp in South Borno for an assessment, a child saw us coming with our I.D. cards and we were all well dressed. He was so scared that he ran away from us, and his mother, like we were coming to attack him. That’s just an example of one child who was traumatized and has not received proper counseling.
Women & Girls Hub: How do you see your work going forward?
Balami: International organizations have provided support, especially for women and children, which is really helping them stand on their feet once again. Compared to where we were last year, we are able to access more communities in need in the areas affected by the insurgency. What we are seeing in our assessments in the northeast is that there are a lot of people returning to their place of displacement. And we will continue working with them to improve their well-being, rebuild their lives and look toward the future.