7 ways to support women and girls who escape abductions

By Gabriella Jóźwiak 22 April 2016

A woman holds up a poster calling for the release of schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Last week Nigeria marked the second anniversary of the Chibok school kidnappings. Photo by: Michael Fleshman / CC BY-NC

Nongovernmental organizations working in Nigeria have called for renewed focus on supporting women and girls who escape abduction, as the country marked the second anniversary of the Chibok school kidnappings last week.

Two hundred and nineteen of the 276 girls abducted on April 14, 2014, from their secondary school in northeastern Nigeria by Muslim militant group Boko Haram are still missing. But aid organizations working in the country say concentrating on their rescue is not enough. Boko Haram has abducted at least 2,000 women and girls in the country since 2012, according to estimates from charities International Alert and Amnesty International. Those who return from abduction also need support.

Boko Haram characteristically forces captive girls to marry its members. Many are raped and become pregnant as a result. Devex spoke to Kimairis Toogood, International Alert’s senior peace-building adviser and The Wellbeing Foundation Africa’s Nigeria Country Director De Luther-King Fasehun about the best ways to support the women and girls who survive such ordeals.

1. Reintegrate girls as soon as possible to help them and their children avoid stigma.

Research published in February by International Alert and UNICEF found women and girls released from captivity by Boko Haram are often rejected by their husbands, families and communities. Those around them fear the girls have been radicalized and their children, born of sexual violence, have tainted blood.

“While they are happy to have survived, returning home to their loved ones and community members who treat them with disdain has been another challenge for them to overcome,” said Toogood. “Add to this the fact that many are returning with children born of sexual violence by Boko Haram, and their husbands divorcing them as a result of that child, and we can see how the plight of survivors is harrowing to say the least.”

International Alert and UNICEF have worked with 240 survivors so far targeting girls living in formal state-administered camps for internally displaced persons. The project runs workshops where women and girls that have survived Boko Haram-related sexual violence can discuss their experiences. It also holds workshops for community members in IDP camps to address why released captors are stigmatized.

“These issues are very pressing and it is in everyone’s interests to try to address them as soon as possible,” said Toogood. “When we talk of stigma, the mothers are clear that they are being stigmatized, but they show great concern for the ‘bad blood’ stigma assigned to their children ... If we do not act now and comprehensively, as the child gets older, this stigma may inhibit their ability to go to school, to play with other children or even get married.”

2. Work with religious leaders.

Toogood said using religious officials when challenging community stigma has proved a successful approach.

“Religious leaders were the most tolerant and accepting of the women and girls and children born of sexual violence, even to the extent that they are counselling husbands to not divorce their wives over their survived captivity,” she said. “Whether it is a Christian or Muslim religious leader, they tend to understand the position from a compatible position, as [does] the international community, and are good to leverage for sustainable change and high project impact.”

3. Ensure the safety and security of beneficiaries.

Previous abductees interviewed by International Alert have described being abused by other women in IDP camps when they have discovered their connection to Boko Haram. Toogood said agencies supporting such women must be wary not to encourage divisions between community members.

“For example, if giving food aid, do not simply give it to the IDP camp members,” she suggested. “Giving aid to only a small proportion of those in need can set up competition between the groups that is unhealthy for the overall success of social cohesion.”

4. Listen to victims.

The Wellbeing Foundation Africa focuses on maternal, newborn and adolescent health. Among the girls it supports, three — aged between 15 and 19 — escaped Boko Haram’s Chibok abduction by jumping off a moving truck.

Fasehun said although the girls have escaped the stigma attached to those who are held by Boko Haram, the incident has caused them “deep stress.” He recommended NGOs and aid organizations working with similar beneficiaries “take time to patiently listen” to the girls.

“This is the first and most important step,” he insisted. “Such individual-based communication should be maintained throughout the course of any intervention.”

5. Reassure previous victims that efforts to save other kidnapped girls are ongoing.

“Psychologically, they seem to be struggling with the reality of the loss of their friends and classmates,” Fasehun said about the girls his organization supports, adding that any intervention must include constant reminders that efforts to save their friends are continually in place. “They look up to us at the foundation, to do what we can, including advocating to the government, to ensure freedom for their friends who are still in abduction.”

6. Work in partnership with other agencies on the ground.

Both WBFA and International Alert agree partnering with local charities strengthens work among groups of returned abductees. International Alert delivers its workshops with the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria and the Herwa Community Development Initiative. Toogood said these partnerships helped the charity gain access to the IDP camps and their target beneficiaries.

“The State Emergency Management Agency manages the camps and the leverage that those organizations provided to allow us access to the camp was fundamental,” she explained.

Fasehun said development organizations should “tap into the network of existing organizations, in order to share learning,” adding that this has helped WBFA approach each woman and girl as an individual rather than pursuing interventions that may not suit each case.

Joining networks has also helped the organization provide other support to the victims, such as health kits, and help girls back into education. One former victim, for example, has gained an opportunity to finish her education in the United States.

7. Be aware of typical development and humanitarian assistance challenges.

Toogood said that organizations should be aware that raising funding for such work is no easier than for other issues. International Alert’s work with UNICEF has received $75,000 from the United Kingdom, funding that expires at the end of April.

She was also keen to remind development professionals that the culture of silence around sexual violence is a global phenomenon.

“Women and girls have legitimate fear about reporting incidents of sexual violence in Nigeria, and when these incidents involve Boko Haram it further complicates their abilities and desires to identify themselves and discuss what has happened to them,” Toogood said.

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About the author

Gabriella jozwiak profile
Gabriella Jóźwiak@GabriellaJ

Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning journalist based in London. Her work on issues and policies affecting children and young people in developing countries and the U.K. has been published in national newspapers and magazines. Having worked in-house for domestic and international development charities, Jóźwiak has a keen interest in organizational development, and has worked as a journalist in several countries across West Africa and South America.


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