The Christian Science Monitor : 2019-02-11
29 : 29 : 29
message to community members. They tell them that the children born in captivity had no say in how they came into the world, and what’s important is how people raise them, not their bloodline.
Some communities are surprisingly pragmatic. They realize that if they don’t accept these young women they may go back to Boko Haram – and some have. Similarly, if communities reject the children, they may indeed grow up and join a militant group.
Not everyone who goes to these sessions is transformed. In fact, most aren’t. Some husbands or families simply can’t or won’t accept their wives or daughters. “We are quite realistic,” says Chungong. “We don’t think just because a father says, ‘OK, I accept you or you can come live in my house,’ that she is welcome or well-treated, or that long-term change has happened. But over time, we hear some positive results.”
In its programs, International Alert has reached about 7,000 girls and young women who survived Boko Haram. The group estimates that some 200 families have taken back their daughters and wives.
Fatima’s family now welcomes her. She can visit freely, eat with them, and sometimes spend the night. But because the family is crowded into one small shelter, she resides separately with Mohammed. Other children now play with him.
With a quiet smile, she says she dreams of being a doctor or a nurse, but for now she has no way out of the camp. She has had no education and is not comfortable attending the basic classes UNICEF offers to young children who have never gone to school. She wants something better for Mohammed. She takes him to school each day in the community outside the camp, borrowing a bicycle if she can, and pays for his education largely by selling half of her food rations.
Fatima is still being treated for depression, but is sleeping better now. Like many others who have returned, however, she tires easily and suffers from chest pains and what Shikson describes as panic attacks.
But Fatima is strong, Shikson says, affectionately stroking her arm and occasionally resting her head in Fatima’s lap as we talk. “She’s a very strong woman and a resilient lady – because she has been through hell and survived it.” Asamau, who was abducted by Boko Haram, sews a cap that she will sell to help sustain her living at the Bakassi camp for displaced people in Maiduguri. young adults, like Fatima.
The community leaders are the entry point into the programs, says Emmanuel Bosah, who runs Neem’s rehabilitation and reintegration program – they know every child who returns from the forest and the troubles they face. Neem, UNICEF, and other groups rely heavily on these respected elders and religious leaders, who they train to help heal the psychological wounds.
“Religious leaders use a lot of imagery about forgiveness and putting yourself in the shoes of another person,” says Chungong of International Alert. “This is both Christian and Muslim, because we have displaced people of both faiths.”
Initially, Fatima rebuffed Neem’s overtures. But one day she came on her own and then agreed to join a peer support group. “These are essentially safe spaces where women and girls who have returned from Boko Haram can come and talk to others who had similar experiences,” says Chungong. “Before, they used to feel so traumatized and so stigmatized that they just kept everything they were feeling to themselves.”
Gradually, the nonprofits bring into the group other young women who were not associated with Boko Haram but who have also seen horrors and may well have suffered sexual violence. “They get to hear, sometimes for the first time, what other women went through and realize they are just as much victims of the conflict as they are,” Chungong says.
In her individual sessions, Ms. Shikson says, Neem helped Fatima understand that “she needs her child, and he can be a source of comfort, a source of joy. She has learned to accept that.”
The groups also work with families. They try to get the parents to understand that their daughters are victims and that they are doing the best they can to rebuild their lives under tragic circumstances.
Acceptance can be especially hard for husbands. If a wife returns with a child, or pregnant, they often don’t consider how it happened. “It is almost irrelevant if it was by rape or choice,” Chungong says. “It’s just ‘I cannot be a father and welcome a woman who is carrying someone else’s child.’ ”
The leaders preach a similar Others are not so fortunate. Also in Bakassi we meet a young woman named Asamau. Tiny, with an angelic face, she looks closer to 14 than the 18 years old she is. As Shikson begins to narrate her story, Asamau starts crying uncontrollably and crawls off to the corner of the tent. “She is in crisis,” Shikson says. “She’s battling with how to cope with life without her mother, without anyone around her, because her father was killed in her very presence and her mother has now rejected her and gone away.”
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