Last month marked the three-year anniversary of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 girls from a government school in Borno State in northern Nigeria. The Islamic fundamentalists recently released 82 of those girls who have been missing since April 2014, allegedly after the Nigerian government released five of its fighters from prison. There are 113 girls still living among the fighters who haven’t been returned to their families.
What major news outlets haven’t shown is why rebels take “bush wives” at all. The coverage has tended to portray the kidnapping as a purely political act. However, for my M.A. thesis I researched the role of both female child soldiers and bush wives in West African civil wars. (For a book review I wrote, click here.) I found that kidnapping of girls goes beyond just the political.
The civil wars of the 1990s in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast saw unprecedented use of child soldiers. While the boys were often trained as fighters, girls fulfilled various support roles. They cooked and cleaned at rebel camps. They acted as porters for goods in and out of camps. They engaged in espionage at times. Some researchers pointed out how the girls helped meet the emotional needs of fighters, many barely adults themselves.
They also had children with the fighters, which entrenched a cycle of dependence on their captors. They had little chance of fleeing the camps with a child on their back, or did not want to endanger their child’s well-being (one Chibok girl allegedly chose to stay with her husband and child in Boko Haram). After three years, we now know that many of those girls kidnapped by Boko Haram have also had “bush babies” (the African term).
The humanitarian community now has the chance to apply lessons from the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) programs of the 1990s to the Nigerian situation. Then, kidnapped girls were often given a cursory physical evaluation upon their release or cessation of hostilities, with little follow-up care for their children and absolutely no therapeutic care for their mental health. A significant obstacle for girls of the 1990s was also reintegration back into their home communities. After having conceived children with the enemy, families and neighbors were often hesitant or unwilling to welcome girls home. The International Committee of the Red Cross, a leader in helping care for the Chibok girls, must tend to the social and psychological after-care of today’s Nigerian girls in a way that was overlooked twenty years ago in other West African countries.
However, the situation for the returning Chibok girls is more complex than “us versus them” like in previous conflicts. Most people of Borno state come from a more cohesive ethnic group, the Hausas, and share the religion of Islam. The lines between the rebels and villagers may not be as clear as in West Africa. Also, the international attention on the Chibok case may lend families in their home communities a greater sense of sympathy for the girls’ plight. This sense of sympathy will be much needed in the coming years as they rebuild their lives.