In early 2013, as women and children fleeing Boko Haram flooded into the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri, Fatima Askira watched them arrive to under-resourced makeshift camps with nothing more than the tattered clothes on their backs.
At the time, she didn’t consider herself particularly qualified to help them. She had recently graduated from the University of Maiduguri with a degree in botany, and had little experience working with victims of conflict – especially ones who may have survived brutal attacks, kidnappings and rape at the hands of the militant organization that has, in recent years, killed more than 20,000 and displaced millions more across northeastern Nigeria and the surrounding Lake Chad region.
But after bearing witness to their suffering in her hometown, Askira was inspired to start with what she knew how to do: collect clothes to donate to some of the displaced. With the help of a social media campaign, her charity drive ballooned from a small-scale local collection into a national volunteer network that brought donated clothing, toiletries and food to Maiduguri from across Nigeria. Askira, now 26, has since formalized that effort into the Borno Women Development Initiative. She and the NGO’s 19 other volunteers and staff focus on working with local government officials and humanitarian agencies to run reintegration programs at safe houses for women who either willingly joined or were forcibly recruited by Boko Haram.
Women & Girls Hub spoke with Askira about the challenges that arise when these women leave the extremist group and try to rejoin their old communities.
Women & Girls Hub: Do the women who end up at these safe houses have a variety of experiences in captivity, or do they share a similar narrative of what life was like under Boko Haram?
Fatima Askira: There are different kinds of women being rescued. The women who did not go into the bush but who were living under Boko Haram control because their villages were taken over by the group are the ones who can more easily reintegrate into the camps, because they were not really radicalized.
But some of the women have been wives to Boko Haram, and they were rescued by the Nigerian army and are now being kept in safe homes. Most of them were married to Boko Haram voluntarily and were not forced into it, because they married [the Boko Haram fighters] when they were still in our society. When their husbands were chased out of the communities, then the women followed them. Some of the women followed voluntarily, some were forced.
When I was speaking with one of the girls recently, I asked her what it was like to be living for so long with Boko Haram. I said, “Didn’t you feel like you wanted to come back to your family after all these years that you stayed with Boko Haram?” And she said, “Fatima, it’s not like I have a choice. He’s my husband and I married him because I love him and then this happened. And I thought of my parents for a while, and then I had to forget about them because life goes on.”
Women & Girls Hub: For the women who left their families voluntarily, how do their parents react if their daughters want to come home?
Askira: It’s not possible to integrate any of them quickly back into their families. They may be radicalized already, so they have to go through the deradicalization process and learn countering narratives before we can integrate them back into their communities. And some of the parents say they won’t accept them immediately after they are rescued. You know how hard it is for them: Your daughter spent about four years with Boko Haram in a place like that, you don’t know who she is, you’ve forgotten what she looks like.
But from the other side, some of the women at the safe house don’t socialize, they don’t talk to you. It’s often easier for them to speak with each other because they are like a family now. Still, sometimes it’s possible to reach them. In one instance, we played them propaganda audio from an imam who split from Boko Haram earlier this year and then condemned the group for being too violent. He hadn’t left Boko Haram entirely, but there was some balance and sanity to what he said. They heard how violent it was and they heard from a person they trust that it is wrong.
Women & Girls Hub: Do the women seem to have been deeply involved in the conflict itself?
Askira: They don’t even know the extent of the violence caused by their husbands, that’s the most amazing thing. When we played a video of a bomb blast and the destruction it caused to try to explain this to them, there was so much surprise on their faces. When they were with Boko Haram, they didn’t go out and they were kind of restricted in an area without access to news or information.
Women & Girls Hub: How do you see your project moving forward?
Askira: The next project we want to do is set up an informal school for the women to be able to access a little bit of Western knowledge. We believe that would maybe bring out their interest in going back to school and tell them school is not in conflict with their religion, but rather that school will further motivate them or be the source of a future for them, because after school you can get a job.
Women & Girls Hub: You’ve described a lot of damage to the local community caused by Boko Haram. Have you faced difficulties convincing the community that reintegration is necessary for peace?
Askira: What I’ve come to believe is that the Boko Haram fighters, some of them are victims, too. Equally as we have families, they have families, and their families did not commit any wrong in society because their children joined this movement. So if we’re going to bring some sort of balance, we need to go down to the communities, reorient them and sensitize them to the importance of accepting some of these people back.
When I started, initially a lot of people said, “It won’t work out, why are you wasting your time? Nobody will support you, nobody will assist you.” And I said, “I still want to do it.” And sometimes it’s very challenging for us to access materials and reach out to others. But you just keep doing it in any little way you can.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.