Freedom brings stigma and fresh fears for Boko Haram 'wives'

For hundreds of women and girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, their ordeal did not end when they escaped or when Nigerian soldiers rescued them and reunited them with their families.

Instead of being admired for their bravery, many have become outcasts in their communities, stigmatised due to their perceived association with Boko Haram. Others, who became pregnant after being raped by their captors, have been shamed and are now accused of spawning or seeking to spawn future Boko Haram fighters. 

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

There are no exact figures, but the government has said that “an alarming” percentage of kidnapped girls who returned from Boko Haram are pregnant. 

Pregnant and rejected

Lami,* who was 19 years old when she was abducted from Gulak, the administrative headquarters of Madagali, recalled the day she was captured.

“They launched an attack on our village, burning houses and churches, so we decided to run away, leaving our aged parents,” she told IRIN. “We were fleeing in the bush when they [Boko Haram] chased us on their bikes, threatening to kill us if anyone dare to resist.”

Her first few months in captivity were enough to break anyone’s spirit. Lami said she and the others were forced to watch men, women and children being “slaughtered.” Many girls were forced into marriage and required to wait on “husbands” they didn’t know. 

After several failed attempts at escape, Lami said she virtually lost hope of ever going home.

But then the guards’ vigilance began to slip and, one day, she was able to sneak out. She made her way back to her village, only to be told her father had been killed by Boko Haram. 

She soon also discovered that she was pregnant with her “husband’s” child.

Now eight months pregnant, Lami said she is constantly threatened because of her growing belly.

Local men have let it be known that they will not tolerate children of Boko Haram. 

“People in this village are rejecting me because of this pregnancy,” she said. “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.”

Vigilante ‘justice’

A number of local men in northeastern Nigeria, who have taken up arms to protect their communities from Boko Haram, have also begun to see it as their responsibility to enforce Islamic law, which views pregnancy outside marriage as illegitimate, unless the mother can prove it was against her will.

Unfortunately, most community members don’t believe that these kidnapped girls were forced into marriage, and they continue to view them and their unborn children with suspicion. 

"If any woman is found to be pregnant, in our tradition, the pregnancy is considered haram [unlawful],” a vigilante leader who identified himself as Mallam Ahmadu told IRIN. “Hence, we cannot accept them wholeheartedly because they can be like baby snakes."

Asabe*, aged 20, for example, who was held captive for five months after being kidnapped during a Boko Haram raid while attending Sunday church services, said no one believes she married her captor to save her life.

“They abducted us to their base in Bita and later took us to Gwoza,” she said. “It was in Gwoza that they forcefully married 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 said she prayed each day to “get out of their dens.” Eventually, there was a military raid on the Boko Haram hideout she was in. Asabe was able to run away during the ensuing chaos. Like Lami, she expected a warm welcome back home. 

Instead, she faced stigma and resentment. 

"They backbite [gossip about me],” she said. “Some even accused me of being a Boko Haram wife. Now I am in a dilemma [pregnant] and I don’t understand why. These are my people, rejecting me for no reason.”

Attempts at support

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

"The most important thing is to restore their dignity, especially when you have been in captivity against your will,” Bello said. “Only God knows what they [Boko Haram captors] have done to them, but some of them will have been violated, some raped. Many are now food insecure. So the government needs to take them [in], work with them and bring them back to the reality of their lives.”

Some local authorities, however, still continue to perpetuate the stigma, including the governor of Borno State, Kashim Shettima, who has publicly warned that these pregnant women and girls could breed a new generation of terrorists. 

“They [the unborn children] could indeed inherit their father’s ideology somehow,” Shettima has told government officials. 

He is now advocating for a special mentoring program for these mothers-to-be to ensure they don’t give birth to “future insurgents.” 

iaa/jl/ag