How women are reconstructing their lives after the horrors of Boko Haram
Maiduguri, Nigeria—When Boko Haram militants captured the northeastern Nigerian town of Gwoza in August 2014, 45-year-old Amina Mohammed was still reeling from the loss of her husband. He’d died two years earlier, when militants came to forcibly recruit men from the town of 300,000. The violence in Gwoza had been building for years before Boko Haram declared the town its headquarters.
As the terrorists forced soldiers out of town, razed homes, and destroyed property, Mohammed fled with her 10 children, ages 3 to 17, to the nearby volcanic plane of the Mandara Mountains, where dusty caves and tunnels offered refuge. Trapped in the mountain slopes without food, two of her children died of starvation and illness within two weeks of their arrival. Mohammed knew she had to find a safer location than the desolate Mandaras, so she trekked with her remaining eight children to the relative safety of the city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, in northeastern Nigeria. It was a treacherous journey, one that ended with more heartbreak for the family.
“When we got to Maiduguri I was a bit relieved from fear and panic,” Mohammed said, “But I was pained that I lost two more children on our trek to the city.” This left Mohammed with six surviving children.
Boko Haram launched an insurgency in 2009 that continues to this day and aims to create a so-called Islamic State in northern Nigeria. The conflict has killed at least 20,000 people and displaced up to 2.1 million, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The radical Islamist group gained global attention when it abducted 276 girls in April 2014 from a secondary school in the town of Chibok, in Borno State. While #BringBackOurGirls helped make the kidnappings known globally, of the 276 girls, only 164 have escaped or were released after negotiations between the government and the militants. Some 112 remain in captivity.
Though UN agencies and hundreds of nongovernmental organizations are providing relief materials and support to internally displaced persons in the region, the humanitarian situation remains dire. Some 7.7 million people, half of whom are children, in the three most affected states—Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe—need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.
Back in Maiduguri, Mohammed and her six children have been staying in an informal camp for displaced people in the city since September 2014. Informal camps are not established by the government, but instead by refugees who find an empty area where they can build temporary shelter. The camps range in size—from a dozen families to hundreds of people—and have no official protection from the government. The majority of the displaced people largely depend on food aid and relief materials from NGOs.
This has been the fate of tens of thousands of refugees in Maiduguri who’ve been spread throughout roughly 16 formal camps in the city. While the government has begun to move some people back to their towns, most displaced people are still living in the camps. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that the population of Maiduguri rose from 1 to 2 million people following the influx of displaced people.
For widows and women in general, helping their families weather the shock of displacement and the loss of their livelihoods has been especially burdensome. Still, what came before the refugee camps was worse. Under the rule of Boko Haram in their towns and villages before moving to Maiduguri, women and girls were gravely abused, raped, and forced to marry in captivity. And for those who survived Boko Haram’s brutal abuses, more horrors like rape, sexual exploitation (often coerced sex for food), starvation, and detention followed at the hands of Nigerian security forces and camp officials. Women who suffered this exploitation and abuse have yet to receive justice from the government.
Since the insurgency peaked in 2015, the story of women and girls in Borno State has been one of sorrow, pain, and loss. But as the Nigerian army started recapturing towns and NGOs began to introduce programs that train women to work, more and more women are finding a way to start to heal from so much trauma.
Mohammed, who has tribal marks, rounded cheeks, and wears a hijab, is one of a few hundred women who has begun to find her way forward. In 2016, she learned of the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School in Maiduguri, which provides free Islamic-based education to orphans and the poor. Following the outbreak of fighting between militants and security forces in 2009, the school expanded to cater for children affected by the conflict, including children of Boko Haram fighters, soldiers, and police, as well as children roaming the streets without parents. The school provides textbooks, uniforms, health care, and meals to its students, including two of Mohammed’s children.
Maiduguri-based mediator Zannah Mustapha, who brokered a deal to rescue 82 Chibok schoolgirls in May 2017, started the foundation in 2007. It then expanded to include a Livelihood Center in 2017, where women affected by the conflict can access vocational training, which includes learning skills like hairdressing, bead and jewelry making, cosmetology, knitting, tailoring, bag and shoe making, computer proficiency, recycling, catering, and more.
Mohammed has learned to make body creams, air fresheners, and dishwashing grease, which she then sells in local markets. “With what I am learning now, I can make money and help my children,” she said with a smile.
The training programs range from four to 12 weeks and take place on an expanse of land comprising three blocks of one-story buildings on the outskirts of Maiduguri. Thanks to funding mainly from the UN Refugee Agency, and others like the Japanese Center for International Development, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and UNICEF, the center is able to employ a staff of roughly 60 people.
“We are always looking for widows and women with large families and no reasonable source of income,” said Kamil Issa, the Livelihood Center’s administrative assistant. “The goal for us is to provide a reasonable future to displaced women using practical trainings that teach them to survive and lead better lives. There is huge interest from women all over the city.”
Last year, the center trained 225 women. At the end of their training, women deemed productive by staff are grouped into business cooperatives of 10 women based on their level of participation in classes, the type of skill they learned, and where they came from, according to Issa. In some cases, the foundation provides small grants to help women willing to start on their own after they have participated in cooperatives and shown a “high level of seriousness and readiness to stand alone,” said Issa.
Still, some researchers have raised concerns about the impact of empowerment-based interventions for women in developing countries. One 2017 study argues that narrowing empowerment to just the economic livelihoods of women could further marginalize them, rather than help them. The study, conducted at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York, takes issue with a broad range of empowerment-focused programs for women in the developing world.
“What’s the problem with chickens and sewing machines?” asked the study’s authors, Kate Cronin-Furman, Nimmi Gowrinathan, and Rafia Zakaria. “We argue that they are hallmarks of an approach that fails to grapple with non-Western women as full subjects, and instead collapses their identity to the circumstances of their victimhood.”
In the end, they argue, addressing immediate economic needs without tackling structures that entrap women in the web of displacement and hardship may ultimately fail to provide sustainable solutions.
Regardless, for Mohammed, the skills she learned from the center have made a “huge difference,” even though she is not earning much now, she said.
“Before, I was doing nothing, but now at least I make little money to help my family,” she said. The program, she said, has given her happiness and a sense of hope “that I can one day rent a shop and feed my family comfortably without begging anybody.”
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