Since it began its military campaign against the Nigerian government in 2009, the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds of girls. But some young women join the group voluntarily, raising questions about how to help them when they come back home.
Four years ago, Aisha Mamman was studying for a diploma in accounting when Boko Haram attacked her town, Bama, in northeastern Nigeria. Now she’s a 25-year-old mother and the ex-wife of a Boko Haram commander.
Since the militant group began its campaign of violence against the Nigerian government in 2009, Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds of young women and girls, subjecting them to sexual assault, forcing them to work as slaves and making them participate in violence, including suicide attacks. But Mamman’s experience is different – she is one of a number of young women who have chosen to marry men they know are members of the terrorist group.
Mamman met her husband when he gave her and her family shelter as they fled toward the Cameroonian border. “He liked me, so he took pity on us,” she says. When her parents continued on to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, she chose to stay with him as his fourth wife.
“I fell in love with him and he was treating me well. So when he asked me, I married him.”
They lived together for three years in Sambisa Forest, a Boko Haram stronghold in Borno state, until the area was taken back by government forces last year. Mamman was taken to a government facility in Maiduguri, where she and 60 other former militant wives are going through a deradicalization program run by the Neem Foundation. She still speaks wistfully about her life with her husband.
“He was very good to me. I miss him … [he was] the love of my life,” she says. “But there’s no point missing him because I know I will never get to see him.”
In recent years, news reports have highlighted the plight of girls taken hostage by Boko Haram, in particular the 276 girls from one school in Chibok town. The kidnapping sparked a global social media campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, with public support from public figures like Beyoncé and Michelle Obama. Little attention has been given to girls like Mamman, who join Boko Haram voluntarily but are often still victims of psychological, physical and sexual abuse. Those who work with women released or rescued from the group say stories like Mamman’s raise questions for the Nigerian government, NGOs and civil society groups about how these women become radicalized, and what should happen to them when they come home.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Fatima Akilu, the director of Neem Foundation, says women join Boko Haram for complex reasons, but often they’re lured by the promise of a better life.
“[Boko Haram fighters] come to their villages [with] a lot of money, swagger and respect. They were like romantic characters for these women,” says Akilu. “The girls marry them mostly because they feel that these men can economically empower them.”
As wives of commanders, they enjoy a life of privilege and relative power, commanding other captives – usually young women and girls – who “wait on them hand and foot,” says Akilu. Women can even choose to get divorced from their husbands if they don’t feel they are being treated well enough.
“These women come from a very traditional, patriarchal society where their voices are not heard, and suddenly they have a lot of decision-making power and authority. They have a much better life than the other women in their community,” says Akilu. “A lot of young girls actually aspire to marry Boko Haram fighters.”
Once they are embedded in the group, the women come to accept the routine killings and acts of terrorism and can also become actively involved in them. Akilu compares the experience to joining a cult or a gang.
“They don’t see that there is anything wrong with what the young men are doing. When you’re part of a group, you come to normalize the things that you would otherwise condemn. There is a kind of fracturing that happens psychologically and emotionally,” she says.
Some of the women in the Neem Foundation’s deradicalization program were told to kill their parents as a condition for joining the group. Others helped assemble improvised explosive devices. All of them witnessed atrocities and regular beheadings. Mamman says she saw the killing of prisoners so often she just “got used to it.” Now, she says, she sees them dying over and over in her mind, like a video playing on repeat.
Some of her female friends opted to become suicide bombers, as did one of her husband’s ex-wives. “She wanted to please Allah and get safe passage to paradise,” Mamman says.
In the Neem Foundation program, the women receive psychological counseling and religious “re-education” from an imam. The imam tries to break down the beliefs the group passed on to the girls that justify killing and other acts of violence, supposedly in the name of Islam. The counseling sessions help girls and women come to terms with the atrocities they have witnessed or taken part in and find ways to feel positive about the future.
“The hope is these girls don’t go back to the group, but we don’t know what will happen when they’re back out in society,” says Akilu. “Someone can fall into a belief system quickly, but it’s hard to get them out of it.”
The goal of the program is for the girls to rejoin their communities so they can resume some semblance of normal life. However, communities are not always willing to accept them, whether they joined Boko Haram by choice or not. A recent report by International Alert highlighted the double victimization faced by girls abducted by Boko Haram, as well as their children, who are often the product of rape and are seen as carrying the “bad blood” of their fathers.
Huawa Mele, a 13-year-old girl in the program who was forcibly married to a Boko Haram fighter, says “life had no meaning” after she was freed because she thought she would never be able to live among her community again.
“The people think we joined Boko Haram by choice. Some of us were thinking of not going back [to our families]. We thought about committing suicide,” she says.
The Neem Foundation is currently putting together teams of psychologists, religious leaders and therapists to help communities reintegrate the young women the organization works with, but resources are limited. With 2 million people displaced by the fighting, the Borno state government is struggling to provide the basic protection and services these women need.
In some cases, women and girls who have been rescued or released are detained by Nigeria’s anti-terrorism police, sometimes in inhumane and dangerous conditions, which further hampers their chances of recovery.
Akilu says her organization works with the government and supports its anti-terrorism activities, but points out that interrogating women and girls who have experienced extreme trauma can be counterproductive. She says there needs to be greater understanding of the reasons women and girls are drawn to militant groups in the first place, to stop others from following the same path.
“This is very long-term work. It needs to happen at many levels. We’re hoping that while we’re doing this work on the ground, these higher levels will also fall into place,” she says.
For now, organizations like the Neem Foundation are the only resource available to former Boko Haram wives. Even though she misses her old life with her husband, Mamman can see the positive difference the program is making. “Despite other people stigmatizing us, they took us in. They have changed our lives,” she says.
Additional reporting by Eromo Egbejule.