(Vatican Radio) Earlier this week the Islamic extremist group in Nigeria, Boko Haram, released from captivity 21 students, who are known collectively as the Chibok schoolgirls. They were abducted in April 2014 from the Government Secondary School in the town of Chibok in Borno State.
The Nigerian government is currently negotiating the release of an additional 83 girls, but some appear unwilling to leave their captors, reportedly fearing stigmatization and possible rejection on their return. Meanwhile, aid agencies are warning that the girls who have been released will require extensive support to help them recover from the physical and mental trauma they have endured while in captivity.
Doune Porter, the Chief of Communications for UNICEF in Nigeria spoke to Vatican Radio’s Hayley Susino about the challenges facing these girls and about the need to remember the many other people still being held hostage in the region.
Doune Porter explains that although the news of the recent release of 21 Chibok girls is wonderful, it is just the beginning:
“The girls who were kidnapped from Chibok more than two and a half years ago represent the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of children, especially women and girls, who have been held by Boko Haram and have been severely maltreated.”
Porter says that the girls are often raped and forced into marriages with their captors. They are also beaten, intimidated, and starved in many cases.
After being released, the girls need extensive medical and psychological attention and care. Some have given birth or return pregnant and are very ill and malnourished. Although UNICEF has not yet been in contact with the 21 Chibok girls released earlier this week, they have spoken to hundreds of other girls who were held by Boko Haram.
Porter details the kinds of support the girls need:
“In the short, medium, and long term, they need psycho-social support and psychological support so they can begin to come to terms with the experiences that they had and also so they can begin to reintegrate with their families and their communities. The trauma they have been through is something that makes it very difficult for them to return and to pick up life with the people that they haven’t seen for months and in some cases years.”
Because the Chibok girls have received so much international and media attention, they have been heavily and closely guarded by Boko Haram, making their chances of escape much more difficult.
Recently, the government has regained a lot of territory that was held by Boko Haram. UNICEF is hopeful that this will result in more women and children being released.
Once the girls are released from captivity, the reintegration process is extremely difficult. There is a lot of stigma surrounding sexual violence in traditional communities such as Northeast Nigeria. Additionally, children who are born out of sexual violence face abandonment, rejection, and violence:
“There is a strong belief here that if they carry the blood of Boko Haram because they were fathered by Boko Haram fighters, that blood will come out and they will turn against their community,” says Porter.
After the girls return, many of the families and people in the community are afraid:
“They are often afraid that the girls have been indoctrinated by Boko Haram and that they pose a threat to their community. Boko Haram uses children and especially girls as suicide bombers so that increases the fear in the community of girls who have been with Boko Haram for a long period of time,” explains Porter.
UNICEF has managed to reach hundreds of girls thus far, working with the community and religious leaders to help them understand what the girls have been through and aid the reintegration process on both fronts.
The work that UNICEF is doing in Northeast Nigeria is extremely underfunded. Porter says UNICEF has a goal of reaching 750,000 people in need in the region, but cannot because of a lack of funds.
She says people are also unaware of the extent of the problem and appeals for support, both through direct donations to UNICEF or by spreading the word, especially through social media, in order to gain visibility for this hidden crisis.