Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) has been a significant threat to the safety of most women and girls at Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Borno, Northeast Nigeria.
Officials of both government and non-governmental organisations have not only condemned the scourge that has brutalised many over the years, but they have also blamed the menace on crisis-related factors — including issues of diminished access to food and related livelihood support.
Due to the prevalence of cases of sexual abuse as well as the attendant impunity and victim-blaming, many survivors have gradually lost the courage to speak about their ordeals.
“It is still better for me to offer my body for sex in exchange for food or money so that my six children and I can feed than steal, only to be caught and shamed,” said a widow, who spoke on strict assurance of confidentiality during a focus group discussion (FGD) recently conducted by a Maiduguri-based NGO.
A mother of nine said, “I’d rather look the other way, not asking my teenage daughters where they got the food and money they brought home every evening, than risk another day of hunger in the IDP camp.”
“I kept male ‘lovers’ amongst the officials in the IDP camp for over three years now because they usually give me an extra ration of food to take home during the monthly distribution of food,” a 16-year-old girl disclosed at the same gathering.
“My father left us because he said he could not stand being unable to feed the family. So my mother was left with the responsibility of taking care of the six of us. She had nothing, and my younger ones always cry of hunger. So my sisters and I had to join other girls in going out to play with our male friends who usually give us some money and sometimes extra tickets to get food during the distribution of palliative.”
Many blame the scourge of SGBV on the lack of adequate livelihood support for the women; as such, some had suggested that women’s dignity can better be safeguarded outside the camps in their proclaimed communities.
HumAngle asked some IDPs, camp, NGO, and government officials to share their thoughts on the safety of returned IDPs as they head back to communities where there are reportedly worse constraints due to lingering hostility by Boko Haram and state actors.
The issue of gender-based violence remains one of the major threats to the survival of women in conflict-torn Northeast Nigeria.
Between 2014 to date, Borno State has hosted about 32 official IDP camps that sheltered a substantial number of the over two million persons displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency.
“The issue of SGBV had attained an unprecedented level in Borno, and the danger of it all is that it is dangerously becoming a common norm, especially in camps,” observed Lucy Drama, an advocate and member of the Borno Civil Society Network.
Some government officials informed HumAngle that the prevalence of rape and sex for food syndrome in camps “was seriously downplayed.”
“Until we moved to salvage the situation, women and girls were constantly raped while using the toilets, or young girls were caught in toilets making out with adults who lure them with an offer of money or food,” said Ya’Bawa Kolo, Director-General of the Borno State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA).
“We had to quickly move in to separate female and male toilets by moving them apart from each other before parents of vulnerable girls could regain their sanity,” she said, adding that this measure did not stop the menace but “only reduced it a bit.”
HumAngle gathered that though unbridled sexual abuses were common amongst the IDPs, “more than 60 per cent of SGBV cases that we used to have were carried out by paramilitary security operatives deployed to man the camps.”
As heinous as the issue of SGBV is, many victims prefer not to speak up about their experiences.
“There is no point shouting about it because we have seen cases where rapists or adult officials who used money or food to lure teenage girls were seen going about freely days after they were caught red-handed or reported to the authorities,” said Mairo, a women’s leader in one of the IDP camps, whose two daughters have suffered abuse.
“If you raised the alarm that someone has sexually violated your child or ward, some of the fellow women would be the group to talk you down that you better go back into your home and keep quiet to save the dignity of your child, or they’d tell you that what happened to your child is not a new thing, that everyone has their problems.”Some IDPs on their way out of Maiduguri after the closure of the Bakassi IDP camp, Nov. 2021. Photo credit: Abdulkareem Haruna/HumAngle
A Maiduguri-based NGO focusing on SGBV informed HumAngle that a yet-to-be published study indicates that 85 per cent of women interviewed did not deny engaging in survival sex.
Although HumAngle did not get the NGO’s permission to publish its name, it allowed this reporter to examine the research document and listen to some of the recorded sound bites of the focus group discussion it conducted at some camps within Maiduguri and Monguno.
“The report blamed key factors like drastic reduction of food ratio, sell and sex syndrome, denial of resources and intimate partner violence as some of the main motivations for SGBV.
“If you doubt how big this problem is, we have records that show that we had 79 cases of rape, especially of young girls, in Bakassi camp alone this year,” one official said.
The source continued: “This data is easily sourced these days because women openly report cases of dishonesty or abuse. During an FGD that we had in September, we had women freely testifying that they engage in survival sex.
“For young girls, it is more of sexual exploitation and abuse. We had a lot of sexual exploitation involving humanitarian workers.”
The NGO official noted that the lack of food, medical care, means of empowerment, and access to farmlands often leads to SGBV.
“All these factors, as basic as they may seem to be, often lead women to easily slip into emotional and psychological abuse. And some of the women who are widows would rather accept any kind of man for marriage because they want to survive or seek some kind of protection. But in the end, they end up in the hands of the wrong persons who would further abuse them or deny them access to sources of livelihood.
“In the early days of the camp when government NGOs brought support to IDPs, monies would be given to men, being the supposed heads of the family, but what do they do with it? The resources only empowered them to pick new wives.”
The source said the uncontrolled trend of SGBV had led to many unwanted pregnancies, with some of the women dumping the babies after delivery.
“There were so many cases of abortion and baby dumping became rampant in the camp,” said an official who worked at the now shutdown Bakassi camp.
“You see, while the young girls could easily go out and commit abortion, many matured women, including widows or divorced women, kept their pregnancies by covering the shame under their hijab until they delivered the baby and then they would secretly dump the babies out of shame because the society they would go back to after the camp has no place for children born out of wedlock.”
Will women fare better in returned communities?
The Borno State government had already commenced the closure of IDP camps around Maiduguri ahead of a Dec. 31, 2021, deadline.
The government’s view is that it is no longer sustainable to keep supporting camps for people displaced by Boko Haram about seven years ago. Instead, it wants the IDPs to return to their reclaimed local government headquarters often surrounded by trenches manned by armed soldiers and other security personnel.
Most of these secured areas are taking shape as mega camps based in garrison towns. Visitors to reclaimed local government headquarters like Monguno, Dikwa, Rann, Gwoza, Gubio, Malamfatori, and Damasak say there is no city life or safety outside the dug up military-manned trenches that encircled these communities.
This situation, according to NGO personnel working in those restricted hinterlands, has significantly diminished returnees’ access to livelihood activities like farming, fishing, and hunting for game.
Abba Kaka, a local trader in Damasak, a town in Abadam Local Government Area (LGA), said, “Unless you want to die, you dare not step off 500 meters outside the community without encountering Boko Haram gunmen.”
“I have to find a way of returning to Maiduguri where I can live in the host community and even go to the farm in some safe locations rather than living in restricted locations like that.”
Humanitarian officials have expressed concern that such restricted access to normal means of livelihood could worsen food insecurity among female returnees who would then become even more exposed to all kinds of abuses.
“It will even be more than what we had here in the IDP camps when they go back to local government headquarters where they still have to live in shanties and camp-like situations without access to sufficient food and basic life-saving supports,” said Elizabeth, an SGBV desk officer working with an NGO.
“It’s like taking us back to square one on the grounds we have covered on building the resilience of the women and girls. It will be fine if the returnees can have access to some safe locations to cultivate their food since the government had warned NGOs to stay away from some of the resettled communities. But if that is not achievable, the government must fashion out the best way to continue to support women, especially.”
Another challenge to the fight against SGBV in the resettled communities is the non-availability of facilities like toilets.
“Many women and girls became survivors of rape in the IDP camps because of open defecation or bathing, and that situation could manifest again in the returned communities as more population would surely overstretch the already existing facilities,” Elizabeth said.
Humanitarian actors generally stress that the issue of ‘dignity’ as part of the three criteria required for returning IDPs must be guaranteed alongside ‘voluntary’ and ‘safety’ considerations.
David Steve, a Borno-based monitoring and evaluation consultant, had, in an interview, suggested that “as much as closing down IDP camps and returning the displaced persons to their ancestral homes is the best aspect of any humanitarian crisis management, their dignity as returnees must be protected at all costs.”
“Dignity encompasses having a decent home to return to, access to basic healthcare, and access support for livelihood opportunities. Even if we cannot afford all those requirements, at least there should be adequate facilities like toilets, especially for women and girls, to protect them from any kind of physical or sexual abuse and rape,” he added.
“Food must also be prioritised at all times, especially as it concerns children because what drives SGBV in most cases is hunger; it makes children susceptible to being lured to be raped or makes mothers who lack means of feeding their kids vulnerable to exploitation like exchange sex.”
Borno government’s stand
Yabawa Kolo, Director General, Borno SEMA had, in an interview with HumAngle in Maiduguri, said the state government was not unmindful of the “likely challenges that returnee IDPs would face in their communities.
“But the decision to return the IDPs in Maiduguri to their communities is a well-thought-out determination of the Borno State government under the capable leadership of Professor Babagana Zulum.
“By closing the IDP camps and returning them to their local communities does not mean that they would be abandoned there. We need to be monitoring them to ensure that they are stabilised, especially in the areas of livelihood support and healthcare support,” she said.
The DG SEMA said that though women and girls had passed through a lot of emotional trauma due to abuses in the camps, they had, over time, been supported to build resilience through different support and empowerment strategies.
“Our next stage of intervention is the stabilization phase; which encompasses the protection of the dignity of women and girls in returned communities. That’s why over a billion naira has been budgeted for SEMA and that would largely go into the provision of empowerment support for the returnees.”
Kolo said she is confident that with the review and strengthening of SGBV laws, women and girls in Borno State “would be more protected than ever before.”
This report was produced by HumAngle in partnership with the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) with support from the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO).