One afternoon in April 2015, Amina emerged from Sambisa forest with her daughter beside her. They were among the very first women to be rescued by security forces from Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group that has been carrying out a violent insurgency in Nigeria since 2009. Amina, her daughter and the other women who were rescued that day reported having been raped, beaten and, for some, forced to marry Boko Haram fighters. When they stepped out of the forest, they assumed their torture was over.
But for this mother and daughter, and many others like them, their troubles weren’t over.
Many of the women and girls who escape from Boko Haram arrive home only to be rejected by their communities and families, who consider them to be tainted by their forced association with the group.
Amina and her daughter, whose real names have been withheld for security reasons, are among thousands of women and girls who, since 2013, have been taken from their homes in northeastern Nigeria in large-scale abductions. In the best-known example, nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from their schoolhouse in Chibok in April 2014. The abductions gained worldwide attention and inspired the Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls.
In May 2015, Mausi Segun, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, arrived at the internally displaced persons camp (IDP) in Yola, Nigeria, where she interviewed women and girls who escaped Boko Haram. While there, she met with Amina, who told Segun that since their arrival both she and her daughter had been subjected to verbal and emotional abuse, and rejected by other women at the camp. Segun was startled to hear that the women responsible for the abuse had themselves been held captive by Boko Haram.
According to Segun, kidnapped women are pressured, through beatings, rape and starvation, to marry Boko Haram fighters. The women who refuse to marry are treated as slaves by the group and forced to do domestic work. “Boko Haram fighters show preference to their so-called wives, [and] the ones who refuse to get married receive the brunt of the abuse,” she says.
Once rescued and rehoused at the Yola IDP camp, women who had refused to marry fighters sometimes take their anger out on those who received better treatment from Boko Haram by marrying.
Both Amina and her daughter had married Boko Haram fighters. “The only way [Amina] could keep an eye on her daughter was to marry one of the fighters as well. For her, that was a sacrifice she had to make,” Segun says.
After they were rescued by security forces, Amina and her daughter arrived at the Yola camp to find their trauma continued. “[Her daughter] said the treatment they received in the camp was worse than the treatment she received with Boko Haram,” says Segun. “She would have rather been with Boko Haram than in the camp where she was suffering from abuse and stigmatization by everyone else.”
Even returning home doesn’t guarantee former Boko Haram captives freedom from being ostracized. Families often reject girls who were unmarried before their abductions and come back pregnant by a Boko Haram fighter. “In [the family’s] thinking, their daughter’s marriageability has been diminished because she has been with Boko Haram,” Segun says. According to her, women in IDP camps in Nigeria typically rally around pregnant women and help deliver and care for babies – but women who became pregnant as Boko Haram captives are often left alone with no support.
Kim Toogood, peacebuilding adviser for Nigeria at International Alert, says women and girls who survive Boko Haram are often marginalized upon their return and may be excluded from receiving basic aid. For their children born of sexual violence, who are often perceived to be carrying the “bad blood” of Boko Haram, the consequences of stigma can be even worse, inhibiting their ability to go to school, to play with other children or even get married, she says.
Together in Trauma
While the shared experience of having been kidnapped by Boko Haram can turn some women against each other, the Chibok schoolgirls who escaped the militant group find strength together as they recover from the trauma of their abduction.
When Boko Haram attacked the Chibok schoolhouse, the militants rounded up the girls and forced them onto trucks. As the trucks made their way through the roads of Chibok, 57 of the girls jumped and escaped. “Two sisters held hands and jumped, it was so frightening for them,” says Margee Ensign, president of the American University of Nigeria (AUN). The girls then hid in the bush before journeying back to Chibok.
Days later, Ensign was approached by one of her female security guards who told Ensign that her sister was one of the kidnapped schoolgirls and that she had escaped. Knowing that the girls who managed to get away from Boko Haram would need a safe haven to continue their education, Ensign offered them full scholarships to AUN. Six escaped girls are now fully enrolled at AUN’s university, and 18 are in its intense foundation program, preparing for university.
According to Ensign, many of the parents were afraid to let their daughters go back to school. One mother told her, “My daughter has been kidnapped and now you want me to leave her with you?”
The girls also had their own cause for concern. The high-profile nature of their kidnapping means they continue to be targets for Boko Haram. To make sure the girls feel safe, AUN has instituted specialized security, which includes a K9 unit. The school also provides security escorts to the girls whenever they leave campus, according to Lionel von Federick Rawlins, AUN’s vice president of security and safety.
The school also gives the girls access to a trauma therapist, who works with them when they show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder or debilitating distress, such as refusing to talk or unstoppable crying.
According to Ensign, allowing the girls to stay together as a group has become increasingly important for their recovery. Since arriving at the school two years ago, almost every girl has suffered the death of a parent or sibling at the hands of Boko Haram. “We have had so many mourning days for parents that have been lost,” says Ensign. “Their response as a group [is] to pray and sit and talk.”
In October 2016, Boko Haram released 21 of the 200 Chibok schoolgirls held by the group. Ensign was with the AUN girls when the news broke and said they were ecstatic and crying with joy. They told Ensign, “Our sisters are coming home.”
Over the Christmas holidays, the girls from AUN reunited with the recently rescued girls in their hometown. On their return to school, the AUN students encouraged Ensign to provide scholarships to the girls who had recently been released. “They can look at us and see how far we have come,” her students told her.
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This story is part of our special series “Women and Jihad.”