Mellissa Fung is a Canadian journalist and film director. Her forthcoming film Captive features the stories of girls and women who live with trauma after being held in captivity by Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Recent reports that a young woman who had been kidnapped seven years ago in Chibok, Nigeria, by Boko Haram had escaped have reverberated through the families still waiting for word on their daughters.
The family of Halima Maiyanga, who would now be 22 years old, said she managed to call them to tell of her escape from her captors.
“Halima was in tears,” her brother Muhammad Maiyanga told reporters. “She told us she was with the military. We thought we’d never see her again.”
Nigerian authorities still have not confirmed that any of the remaining Chibok girls are in their custody.
The reported escape made brief headlines around the world, a reminder of those who screamed from above the folds of newspapers everywhere in April, 2014, when 276 girls were taken overnight and disappeared into the Sambisa forest. A hashtag #BringBackOurGirls trended, and political figures and celebrities, including first lady Michelle Obama, took to social media in an international campaign to demand their release. Since then, more than 100 were freed after negotiations with the Nigerian government and reports of a ransom paid. The government took the freed girls into its custody, sent them back to school as a group, housed them in dormitories and celebrated their return as a success. Many international journalists were granted access to tell their incredible story.
But the Chibok girls are only a fraction of the girls taken by Boko Haram in a reign of terror that has lasted more than a decade. The terror group (as rightly designated by the Canadian government in 2013), uses them as trophies for their warriors, wives for their soldiers and suicide bombers for their cause.
No one knows how many girls are still being held in the forest, but even conservative estimates say it could be thousands. For most of them, the only hope of escape comes when the Nigerian military launches a sporadic raid in the forest and chaos becomes a cover for a desperate flight.
And even then, true freedom is elusive. Escapees and former captives are not free from the suspicious gaze of neighbours and family, who assume that anyone who spent time in the forest has been indoctrinated. Not free from the stigma of having been a Boko Haram “wife.” Not free from the trauma of their experience.
And they are not the terror group’s only victims. It’s estimated that 2.4 million people across the Lake Chad area – north-eastern Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon – have been displaced as a result of the insurgency.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Nigeria received more than US$1.6-billion in international aid between 2018 and 2019, with hundreds of millions earmarked to help the government fight against Boko Haram in the northeast. But the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that a substantial increase would be required to make a significant impact. Canada sent $115-million in aid money to Nigeria in 2019 – some of it targeted to reduce maternal and newborn mortality as well as reducing sexual and gender-based violence.
It’s a start. Rehabilitation efforts must make special consideration for the plight of women and girls, who represent most of the displaced. Many are struggling with the aftermath of sexual violence. Most former captives of Boko Haram never finish the education that was so violently interrupted. Those who have been able to return to classes were sent home last year by the pandemic when schools shut down, compounding the already complex process of rebuilding broken lives.
The need is dire, but there are many brilliant Nigerians trying to help. Among them is Fatima Akilu, a psychologist who started an NGO with her sister called Neem Foundation. The organization has provided counselling to thousands, runs a de-radicalization program for former Boko Haram fighters and operates a rehabilitation centre for former captives in Maiduguri, the capital of the restive Borno state. The centre gives 100 girls at a time access to counselling, art and music therapy, sports, and computer skills, with the goal of reintegrating them back into their communities, armed with the understanding that their trauma doesn’t define them; instead, it helps shape them.
I had the good fortune of spending some time with Dr. Akilu at the school in 2019 prior to the pandemic and saw firsthand the progress the girls had made in her care. Hours and hours of careful counselling and targeted therapy have allowed them to finally experience some of the laughter and lightness they were robbed of.
Dr. Akilu says there are other NGOs doing similarly important work, but reminds me that in this part of the world, where many people struggle to simply provide shelter and food for their families, mental health is a luxury.
That’s why it should be a priority when international aid to any of the Boko Haram-affected countries is being considered. Canada already boasts a Feminist International Assistance Policy, targeting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. And with 50 per cent of its aid dollars earmarked for sub-Saharan Africa, this fiscal year, it’s the perfect time to consider the special needs of Nigeria’s stolen girls.
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