* This post was authored by Brittany McKinley, J.D. candidate 2019.
In April of 2014, the militant Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram, abducted 276 girls , ranging from 12 to 17 years old, from their government secondary boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria. The abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls devastated the world and sparked the global #Bringbackourgirls campaign which was supported by many celebrities including former First Lady, Michelle Obama. After a series of government negotiations and the promise that 83 more girls would be released soon, the world rejoiced as 21 Chibok girls were freed on October 13th, 2016. Seven months later, the remaining 83 girls were released after negotiations mediated by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Today, the remaining 113 Chibok girls are unaccounted for. Meanwhile, contrary to President Buhari’s previous statements, Boko Haram remains at large carrying out attacks in Northern Nigeria and neighboring countries with more than 20,000 killed and millions displaced.
While in captivity, the Chibok girls were sexually abused, enslaved, married off to militants, impregnated, and some were even forced to become suicide bombers. Once released, these women and girls have faced an unwelcoming stigma and a long journey to reintegration when they return. According to a 2016 report by Charity International Alert and UNICEF, many Nigerians fear women abducted by Boko Haram have been radicalized and their children tainted by the “bad blood” of the militants who raped them. Zara, one of the victims of Boko Haram, shared her experience with stigmatization in an interview on BBC, describing how she was shunned and called a Boko Haram bride due to her pregnancy. Of the 21 girls who were released last October, none have been able to move back home and are still being held in a military re-integration program. The Neem Foundation, an anti-extremism group in charge of running the state-backed De-Radicalization Program, states that “[r]ehabilitation, reintegration is a long process [that is] complicated by the fact there [there is] an active, ongoing insurgency.” Akilu, head of the Neem Foundation, in regards to a victim who is thought to have returned to the militant group, explains that “[w]hen you have fathers, husbands, sons and brothers who are still in the movement, [the women] want to be reunite[d]… to go back to a place where they feel they belong.”
Boko Haram remains a major issue in the region and though 104 girls have been released, the issues they face coming home are directly tied to the pervasiveness of Boko Haram and the resentment that villages harbor towards them. This resentment leads to the stigmatization that makes it hard for girls like Zara to return home. On their joint mission to Nigeria in 2016, UN Rapporteurs on sale of children, slavery, and right to health examined measures the Nigerian Government could take to help address these issues. Many of the recommendations focus on solving the root conditions that can lead to violent extremism such as poverty, discrimination, exclusion and gender inequality, and lack of security and deprivation. The report suggests that addressing these immediate needs of the victim’s communities as well as these root conditions can help in the victim’s long journey towards rehabilitation and reintegration. Furthermore, a more gender sensitive approach to the fight against terrorism, including better gender-sensitive training for law enforcement and increased awareness of the remedies and protections available to victims, would also help and has been implemented through workshops held by the UN. Thus, though the fight against Boko Haram is a long and treacherous one, addressing these root issues are not only doable but ought be the duty and focus of every government.