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Boko Haram Abductees Face Tough Return


The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls went viral in 2014 after Michelle Obama held up a sign with that slogan. The girls were the students from Chibok, Nigeria, kidnapped by the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. In the past few months, Nigeria's armed forces have freed some of the many hundreds, even thousands of young Nigerian woman held captive by Boko Haram. But our next guest says some of the girls have been rejected by their families when they've been returned home. Rachel Harvey, chief of child protection in Nigeria for UNICEF, joins us from Abuja, Nigeria. Welcome.

RACHEL HARVEY: Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So first, how many Nigerians have been either abducted or taken captive by Boko Haram?

HARVEY: It's a very hard question to answer, and the reason for that is because Boko Haram held huge pieces of territory. I'm not sure that people realize what a big territory they held. They held 19 out of 65 local government areas in the three states of emergency. So normally, you would have families reporting the abduction of their wives or their children, but you have large swathes of territory that no one had access to for long periods of time. So at the moment, the estimations are between 500 and 2,000 that were abducted, but we've already seen over a thousand children come out following the Nigerian armed forces taking back the territory. So we think this is really just the tip of the iceberg to what these families and the girls and the children experienced.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's talk about these women and girls who are coming back to their communities. You've spoken to them. What are we seeing? What are they saying?

HARVEY: So it was a really big concern for us. As the Nigerian armed forces started to take back these territories and the women and the girls came back, but also the children who had been born out of sexual violence, we were finding that communities and families were struggling to accept these children and women and girls back. And so we wanted to really understand what was going on, so we entered into a partnership, a collaboration with International Alert, but also the state ministry responsible for social welfare and international organization of migration to understand - what are the perceptions of community and the perceptions of the families, girls and women? In this conflict, we've seen children and women used by Boko Haram in attacks. Just to give an example, last year there were 86 suicide attacks, and 21 were carried out by under 18-year-old girls. So there's a fear about the returning girls and women, that they somehow may have been radicalized because they've spent such long periods under the control of Boko Haram.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When these women come back, some of them are pregnant, obviously, some of them are carrying children from Boko Haram fathers. Can we talk about what kind of situation they're finding themselves in when they come back to their communities?

HARVEY: So I think what we found most alarming was the situation of the babies and the children that were born out of sexual violence. Whereas the girls and women had a chance of reintegration, the perceptions towards these children and these babies was much more extreme. And there's a tradition in Nigeria, or there's a belief that the blood of your father runs through your veins. So if your father was Boko Haram, eventually these children could grow up to become a risk, to become a threat to their communities

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So on the one hand, you have these women who are coming back, and they're being rejected and their offering are being rejected. And on the other hand, there's a fear of them themselves being radicalized and posing a security threat.

HARVEY: We've gone back in with those partners, International Alert and with our local partners, to look with the communities and see what are the perceptions here? How can we address them? How can we support the girls, support the families? Not just to access basic services, but address the psychological distress that they've been suffering? Address the distress, address the fears around it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how do you?

HARVEY: So what we found works the best is you need champions within that community. You need strong, influential voices that are going to say we need to accept these girls and women back, and the children. These are victims, it was not their fault. They're part and parcel of our society. So what we do is we identify not just the traditional religious and community leaders, but also those who have an influential voice amongst the women in particular in the community, so that they can become those carriers of the messages that these girls, these women, they deserve our support. They deserve our acceptance back. And then we can open up community dialogues so that people - we can't just dismiss that communities have fear. We must address it head on and allow communities to express those fears, but with religious and traditional leaders providing that voice of reason and tolerance so that these girls and women can come back into their communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rachel Harvey of UNICEF in Nigeria. Thanks for joining us.

HARVEY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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