The high profile abduction of 276 schoolgirls from their secondary school in the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria provoked a global response in April 2014. Hashtags, celebrity mobilization, and near universal condemnation followed the abductions as did the initial pressure to ensure the safe return of the girls to their families and communities. Despite the singularity of global condemnation, the vast majority of the girls remain in captivity. Over the past two years, news has trickled out of various failed attempts to locate the girls, a small number of girls have escaped or been released, and sensationalist stories of the girls’ co-option to extremist violence by their captors has also made headlines.
In reflecting on the experiences of those who have been released or escaped, this post offers some thoughts on the unseen costs and the sustained harms that women who have been captured — and subject to sexual slavery, torture and a myriad of other violations — experience after their release. Early reports about the girls that have returned show a mixed picture of familial acceptance, rejection, and a stated desire by some to return to their ‘husbands’. National and international obligations to these young women should not solely be about ensuring their release from captivity. Once they are released, attention must be given to understanding and addressing the ongoing psychosocial harms that abductees invariably experience on return to families and communities.
As a vast literature on psychological harm attests, the impact of conflict-related harms including abduction, is severe and long-lasting. Studies reveal wide-scale individual impacts such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. For example, in addressing the post-release experiences of former child soldiers (both boys and girls), acute and complex individual reactions include complicated bereavement, substance abuse disorders, poor physical health, and poor psychological health including deep-seated fears, insecurity, somatization, anger control, and arrest or regression of childhood developmental progression. As I address further below, these reactions occur in communities and family contexts where there is frequently little capacity to understand, redress and provide long-lasting physical and psychological care facilitating a return to functionality and re-integration back into the communities from which they were taken. Early intervention, including pre-release engagement with families and communities to address these likely short and long term challenges may improve the chances for meaningful reintegration of the girls when they are returned to their homes.
Importantly, the costs of abduction should not only be counted in terms of individual harms. The impact of conflict and political violence on communities and the social fabric is immense. Abduction damages communities, as well as their social and political infrastructures. It deliberately targets social and cultural institutions. As Bracken and Petty so precisely capture: “Modern warfare is concerned not only to destroy life, but also ways of life.” Targeting women and girls has been a particularly powerful metaphor and practice of destroying not only individual lives but also the bounds of kinship, cultural integrity and familial belonging.
This is in part because the direct harms experienced by abducted girls (and boys) is compounded by the perceived stigma of having been ‘taken.’ That stigma is particularly acute where sexual violence and, in consequence, pregnancy follows. In-depth studies that follow the lives of women who give birth to children born of rape underscore the exclusion and marginality that are heaped upon the penetrative violence girls have experienced in captivity. In short, we need to understand three levels of connected harms that abducted girls face: their captivity, what happens when they return back to their families and communities, and the inter-generational exclusion experienced by their children. Being attuned to these layered harms enables better preparation for the release of the Chibok girls, and incentvizes some groundwork with their families and communities to better prepare for their acceptance and reintegration.
How should we respond to such harms? First, recognize that the harms go far beyond the initial abduction. The attention to forced abduction is warranted and can create the conditions that enable release, but our outrage meter should also be attuned to the connected harms that follow once the girls come home. This means we need to recognise that their communities and families can also do harm on return, however challenging that reality is to address in practice. Second, stigma and exclusion will not be banished overnight. Economic as well as psycho-social support will be an essential aspect of successful re-intergration. However, commitments to economically and socially support those who have been abducted should not fall exclusively on economically marginal families and communities. If we are prepared to spend sizeable funds for search and rescue, equal resources to rehabilitation and re-integration of these girls are not unreasonable demands.
Finally, honoring the resilience and agency of the girls who have survived requires not merely seeing them as psychological ‘projects’ that merit, at best, paternalistic psychological interventions. Rather, it requires a shift to view survivor girls as valued social actors in dynamic relationships with their communities, families, and the state. In this fundamental attitudinal shift, lies the key to addressing the three layers of harm by providing a pathway to individual, communal and generational recovery.