NIGERIA – What will happen to recently freed Chibok girls?
The Nigerian government last week announced the release of 82 girls, who were among the 300 abducted from the high school in Chibok in April 2014. The mass abduction by the militant Islamist group drew international outcry that adopted the rally cry “Bring Back Our Girls,” focusing attention on the conflict with Boko Haram. About 100 girls are still thought to be held captive.
The latest group of abducted girls was released in exchange for six unidentified identified suspected militants, possibly high-ranking Boko Haram commanders. There are also rumors of a large ransom paid. The Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross had worked with the Nigerian government to help free the captives.
After their release on Saturday, the girls were in the northeast town of Banki, close to the Nigeria-Cameroon border. They were later flown to Nigerian capital Abuja to meet President Muhammadu Buhari.
On hearing news of the release, parents of missing girls quickly tried to determine if their daughters were among those freed. A representative from the group of Chibok parents visited the girls to check their identities against the list of those freed, and then inform their relatives. There were tearful reunions and a mixture of emotions as the 82 girls were reunited briefly with their families, who had made the long journey from Chibok 900km (600 miles) north-east of Abuja.
The girls’ ordeal does not end with their release but is just the start of a long struggle back into family and community life. Both parents and daughters will have changed a great deal over the past three years. Captured as children, the Chibok girls are now young women and the transition from adolescence to womanhood was made harder by their captivity.
Boko Haram seeks to impose a strict Islamic law in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north, largely by violent means. It is clear that even when the fighting is over, the group’s harmful impact on the region will remain for a generation, unless those abducted can be quickly and effectively re-integrated in society. Psychologists who have worked with girls previously released from Boko Haram said family therapy rather than isolation would be a better way of reintegrating them. There have been times when released women not from the Chibok group who were allowed home without proper psychological support have been alienated by their communities or even their own families. Some captive women converted from Christianity to Islam, and some were married to Boko Haram fighters and had children with them, so they were treated with suspicion and even shunned by their community.
Although some charities have called for the girls to be reunited with their families , they are not likely to return home soon. If the treatment of the 21 girls released last October and the few who escaped is a guide, the young women will go through a process of re-integration or rehabilitation while they are kept government care …. or government custody depending on the point of view.
Some families support this process, others are angry that more than six months after being released from Boko Haram, they still do not have their daughters back. There was anger at Christmas when freed girls were brought to Chibok to meet relatives, but were taken to a local politician’s house and their families were only allowed to visit them for a short time. “I can’t believe my daughter has come this close to home, but can’t come home,” said one father at the time.
The chairman of the Chibok community in Abuja, Tsambido Hosea, said parents were being invited to visit Abuja in small groups. “They are in a rehabilitation centre. The government says it is giving them some instruction so they will be ready to go to school,” he said. The girls are also thought to be receiving training for vocational work like tailoring and knitting. It is also possible that former captives are not being allowed home because their notoriety could make them targets for kidnapping again.