Rebuilding a young life in Nigeria

A teenage girl recalls the horrors of being abducted – and a community steps up to help survivors of gender-based violence.

By Toby Fricker
Nigeria. A woman presses her hand against a screen door.
UNICEF/Kokic

24 May 2019

BORNO STATE, Nigeria – Fatima’s childhood ended when she was 13 years-old.

Four years ago, she was abducted by an armed group following an attack on her hometown in northeast Nigeria. “They came in the evening,” she says. “I was at home with my grandmother. They said they would kill her if I didn’t go with them.”

Fatima* says she tried to escape after the militants took her, but she was caught and taken to Chad, where she spent the next 12 months.

Her story is far from unique. More than 3,500 children were recruited by non-state armed groups between 2013 and 2017 and have been used in the ongoing armed conflict in northeast Nigeria. In addition, in 2018 alone, at least 180 children were abducted and many girls sexually abused in north-east Nigeria, although the true numbers are much higher.

Desperate measures

Soon after she was abducted, Fatima was forced to marry, and her life was made up largely of doing household chores – collecting firewood and cooking the meagre food available. That, and learning how to fight.

“I said I can’t do it, but they insisted,” Fatima says, adding she was forced to take a gun.

Fearing for her life, Fatima says she hatched a plan to escape with another woman in the group who had also been captured. They volunteered to be suicide bombers. It was a high-risk plan, driven by their desperate situation. The group agreed to their request and gave the girls vests with improvised explosive devices.

“When I was wearing the vest, they showed me a button to press, but I had no intention of pressing it,” she says.

The two girls, fearing for their lives and feeling like they had no other option, left with the vests wired to their bodies and looked for a village or town where they could get help. On the way, they encountered a group of Nigerian soldiers. The girls found the courage to explain what had happened and convinced the soldiers they had no intention of detonating the vests. The soldiers removed the vests, allowing Fatima to return home and begin the long journey towards healing.

Helping hands

Fatima is telling her story through her counselor, Aisha*, who has been managing her case for the past two months. It’s over 40⁰ C outside Fatima’s home. The breeze is picking up, swirling sand and dust around like a fan. Playing on a mat next to Fatima is a small child. He is getting restless, so Fatima picks him up and carries him around the yard. It’s her 8-month-old son, Abdul.

On returning home, Fatima married a man she knew before she was abducted. Aisha says that since she returned, Fatima has been gradually processing what she lived through.

“But it takes time,” Aisha says. “The experiences will of course live with her, so managing the responses to that, and engaging in community life, is important.”

Aisha will play a key role in that process, especially as she comes from the community and understands what Fatima is likely to need as she recovers. Aisha says her own skills were improved through training supported by UNICEF, training designed to provide a team of local counselors with the skills needed to support the large numbers of women and children affected by abduction and sexual violence and the stigma facing female survivors of gender-based violence.

In 2018, UNICEF reached 1.3 million women, girls and boys with gender-based violence prevention, response and risk mitigation services. But despite generous support, these protection programmes are still significantly underfunded, with less than 1 per cent of humanitarian funding allocated.

Looking forward

Fatima says she is determined to provide a better life for her son. She has enrolled in a new programme where young mothers will produce school uniforms for children in the community and earn a small income.

But right now, her son Abdul is clearly getting hungry. As he starts feeding, the sound of thunder reverberates around the yard. In the distance, dark clouds are forming across the mountains that separate Nigeria from Cameroon. The rainy season has begun.

*Names of people and places have been changed or omitted to protect identities.

 


UNICEF protection work in northeast Nigeria, including gender-based violence programming, is possible thanks to generous contributions from the Government of Norway and other UN Member States.

From 23-24 May, UN Member States, UN agencies and civil society organizations gathered for the ‘Ending sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises’ conference in Oslo, Norway, UNICEF calls for stronger programming, including safer interventions across all sectors of humanitarian response, a more central role for local women’s organizations, putting gender-based violence front-and-centre in humanitarian appeals and new innovations to end this epidemic.

UNICEF requires US $392 million for child protection programming, including gender-based violence in emergencies work, for 2019.