Nigeria: Young women abducted and raped by Boko Haram return home to face stigma and fresh fears

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Lami* was 19 years old when she was abducted from Gulak, a town in Adamawa State, in northern Nigeria near the border with Cameroon. She recalls the day: “They launched an attack on our village, burning houses and churches, so we decided to run away, leaving our … parents. We were fleeing in the bush when they chased us on their bikes, threatening to kill us if anyone dared to resist.”

Lami says her first few months in captivity were enough to break anyone’s spirit. She and the other young women were forced to watch men, women, and children being “slaughtered.” Many were raped and forced to serve the insurgents.

But the ordeal of the hundreds of kidnapped women hasn’t ended with their escape, or their rescue by Nigerian soldiers and reuniting with their families.

Back home, many face stigma because of their perceived association with Boko Haram. Some have been shamed or outcast because they were raped by their captors. According to the Nigerian government, an “alarming” percentage of kidnapped girls who have fled Boko Haram or been rescued are pregnant.

Mausi Segun is a researcher with Human Rights Watch who has interviewed many of the young women. Ms. Segun says, “Their experience was horrifying, but … Boko Haram is so despised that anyone identified with the group shares some of that label, the slur.”

After several failed attempts at escape, Lami was able to sneak out and make her way back to her village. She is now eight months pregnant, and local men have made it clear that they will not tolerate the children of Boko Haram. Lami says she is constantly threatened because of her growing belly.

She adds: “People in this village are rejecting me because of this pregnancy. I know some will be happy to have me dead. Many people are even saying I should still go for an abortion. They have threatened to kill me and the baby.”

Many community members don’t believe that the kidnapped girls were raped by Boko Haram, and continue to view them and their unborn children with suspicion.

Asabe* was kidnapped while attending church services and held for five months. The 20-year-old says no one believes her story.

She says: “They [Boko Haram] abducted us to their base in Bita and later took us to Gwoza. It was in Gwoza that they [raped] us after threatening to kill us. They killed whoever resisted their demands. I was attached to one of their leaders they call an Emir.”

Asabe was able to run away during a military raid on the Boko Haram hideout in which she was being held. Like Lami, she expected a warm welcome back home. Instead, she faced stigma, resentment, and gossip.

She says, “Some even accused me of being a Boko Haram ‘wife.’ Now I am in a dilemma and I don’t understand why. These are my people, rejecting me for no reason.”

The Nigerian government is providing counselling and medical care to help the young women with their pregnancies, in collaboration with local and foreign agencies. The government is also encouraging communities to allow the girls to return in peace.

*Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect identities.

To read the article on which this story is based, Freedom brings fresh fears for Boko Haram wives, go to:

Photo: Many of the women and girls who escaped Boko Haram thought their ordeal was over, but they continue to suffer. Credit: Ibrahim Abdul’Aziz/IRIN