Nigerians were generally jubilant when news of the rescue of large groups of women abducted by Boko Haram broke. Prior to that many had been under the impression that the Chibok girls were the only casualties of kidnap attacks. Those people probably had not kept up with the news as there were weekly reports of such abductions long before the Chibok scandal ever made international headlines. However, owing to the peculiar circumstances of those abducted (predominantly illiterate), their stories, like those of so many others in the North East particularly, became a subject for mournful head-shaking accompanied by a vigorous lack of action on the part of the then Goodluck Jonathan administration. After all, compared to the scenario where entire villages were decimated by the marauders with no consequences, the matter of random abductions seemed to pale in comparison.
The rescued women ranged from children, to young adolescents, adults and the aged. All had been subjected to gruesome hardship while most had been sexually molested or suffered some form of slavery through the duration of captivity. All were traumatised. While some chose to brave the challenges and returned to their original communities, many have had to be accommodated in IDP camps owing to the lack of safety in their communities and their own fear of returning there. Others fled their states and are living on the run in other parts of the country where their safety is equally a matter for debate. Though some of the rescued women have been housed in IDP camps, their situation is quite different from those of other IDPs having been taken and kept against their will by terrorists. This is not intended to demean the sufferings of the other IDPs but the circumstances for both sets of women are distinct and require different approaches.
The rescued women should, by now, be receiving adequate mental and psychological care and counselling to checkmate the damage done from the dehumanising treatment meted out to them in captivity. There is also the possibility, which has so far not really been explored, that some of these women may very well be Boko Haram sympathisers now having been brainwashed into accepting the violent ideology preached by these terrorists. Known as Stockholm syndrome, the possibility of a captive developing a bond with their captor is a common occurrence and could pose a further security threat.
Incidentally, these camps which should ordinarily have been a safe haven for these rescued women has thrown up unique challenges with some totally unanticipated. It is common to hear of soldiers in conflict situations taking advantage of women sexually but what about the civilian population drawn from government etc that have been put in charge of administering these camps? Investigations reveal that officials of a certain government agency have been found wanting in the discharge of their duties. Not only have the women accused them of withholding relief materials except when offered sexual gratification, the same officials have also been accused of brutally raping these same women, a good number of whom are already pregnant, nursing mothers or have suffered one of form of trauma or another at the hands of their captors. As soon as the stories started filtering out, government’s response was to restrict access to the IDP camps to such an extent that the entire process is now mired in huge wads of red tape thereby discouraging external eyes and ears.
Not only is access to the IDP camps now extremely restricted, quite a few of the camps have been disbanded and moved to parts unknown practically overnight. Additionally, the trauma of being molested by those who are supposed to be protecting them has led these women to a place of general suspicion of the motives of any outsiders desiring to help.
Their situation is dire. In addition to physical and mental health challenges, a good number are pregnant and some do not want these babies. Now that access to them is so severely limited, what happens? Will we be facing cases of infanticide as babies mysteriously die or get discarded by mothers who do not want them? Away from this troubling scenario, we also encounter the dilemma of stigma and discrimination, a very real danger as these women struggle to overcome the shadow of Boko Haram.
This issue of stigma and discrimination is one which must not be taken lightly. These women face the challenge of being ostracised by their communities even if they do return. In the event they do not, they cannot live in the camps indefinitely, what happens to those who, after the camps are disbanded, cannot go back to their communities? What about those who have fled their states of origin and are currently living in illegal IDP camps in other parts of the country? What provision are the governments of those states making to ensure their safety and possible resettlement?
These are just some of the challenges Lawyers Alert and SCAIN, are trying to get answers to with support from the Urgent Action Fund for Africa, UAFA. So far, a meeting of crucial stakeholders has been held with a view to charting a direction, with hopes of passing resolutions to the authorities. The aim is to impress upon government its role in this crisis and also proffer solutions for the women rescued from the captives. The document will be available for public consumption on this page as soon as it is fully developed and submitted to relevant authorities.