The many layers of SDGBV as women, girls in Borno remain under siege
As more awareness is created around Sexual, Domestic and Gender-based Violence (SDGBV), especially in the cities and urban areas; girls and women in many rural and hard-to-reach communities in conflict-afflicted areas are still suffering acute sexual and gender-based violence, most of which is under-mentioned and often go unreported.
In Borno state, girls often exchange sex for food, are forced into marriages for money and food and are stigmatized and ostracized when they seek help.
Aisha (not her real name) is a six-year-old girl living with her grandmother in Maiduguri. Orphaned a few years ago, she was brutally raped by her landlord’s son but her grandmother is afraid to report it because she does not want to be ejected from the house where they live.
Housing is extremely scarce and expensive in Maiduguri and has been made worse by the insurgency as most people have fled the other local government areas into the state’s capital, where there is a bit of security.
Aisha’s case is not peculiar as young girls and now boys, are raped and molested at will in exchange for food, a place to stay or for no reason at all in conflict-ravaged Maiduguri.
14-year-old Mariam (not real name) was abducted by bandits and taken to the bush. Approached by three different suitors for marriage, she turned them all down so they came together and gang-raped her all night and dumped her by the roadside to die. She conceived from the rape and got pregnant. She is now a single mother, struggling to make ends meet.
A 13-year-old orphan (name withheld) who lives with her grandmother went to charge her sister’s phone (Maiduguri does not have electricity) and was lured by a man with a plate of noodles and egg. He raped her and she got pregnant and gave birth to a boy. Another man said he would marry her on the condition that she neither breastfeeds nor take care of the child so her breasts don’t fall, and her grandma agreed because the man has given her some money.
Sadly, these cases are not out of the ordinary and in fact, are almost the norm now as rape cases grow everyday, leaving health workers and civil groups in a quandary as to how to effectively tame this monster and bring it to an end.
Causes, Rise Of SGBV
Speaking with The Guardian, Hassana Waziri of the Unified Members for Women Advancement (UMWA), a Civil Society Organisation (CSO) working with vulnerable girls and women in Borno state, lamented the rise in cases but more so among young boys, which mostly go unreported because of stigma, shame and the taboo attached to it.
“Families of boys that have been molested or raped feel a lot of shame and try to cover it up. The perpetrators, when we manage to get them arrested, always claim it is the devil’s handwork. There is a lot of attention on girls now so perpetrators have shifted to raping boys, who often do not say anything out of shame.”
Waziri’s organization, which currently works in Maiduguri Municipal Council and Jer LGA in Sageri, Gwanje, Gamboru and London Ciki areas, says many girls in these hard-to-reach communities are undergoing abuse, trauma, stigmatisation and rejection by their families and communities as the victims are often seen as the cause of their misfortune.
“Many parents don’t want to subject the already traumatised victim through the agony of pursuing cases as well as exposing them to the public for fear that nobody would want to marry her because she is ‘soiled.’ This is a legitimate, common concern for many parents, that they wouldn’t be able to marry off these girls as they need the money marrying off these girls would fetch them.”
Waziri said despite telling parents that hiding the victims automatically protects the perpetrators, many do not budge. “Most times, we learn about abuse and rape cases from other people in the community, not the victims themselves. If victims don’t report and present on time, we cannot pursue these cases legally because the courts need evidence. By the time we learn about it, it’s late and we simply provide trauma counselling, skill acquisition and a new lease of life.”
Samuel Orahii, Project Manager for Allamin Foundation for Peace and Development, Maiduguri, lamented that the Boko Haram conflict in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe has led to mass abductions of girls, who are taken into the bushes and turned into sex slaves. He said some of the girls that manage to escape, return with many children as a result of sexual violence and forced, multiple marriages.
“Insurgency has caused a very sharp rise in SGBV and many men in these conflict-ridden communities take advantage of the ongoing conflict to rape girls. Poverty and scarcity of food also increase SGBV as many women and girls are raped in exchange for food and water. Security actors are also complicit as they take advantage of the situation by ‘arresting’ and going on molest the unjustly arrested girls and women.”
He regretted that issues around SGBV are treated with a lot of secrecy as victims are afraid to speak out for fear of not getting married, fear of abandonment by family members and ostracisation from the community. “Some community leaders claim they will settle the case between victim and perpetrator but they do it by either telling them to get married or setting the latter free after he begs. Therefore, many victims do not speak out because of shame and the unsavoury consequences and they know they most likely wouldn’t get justice.
Many communities have been cut off or become very difficult to access, making it harder for victims to report and perpetrators to roam freely. We have a case we’re presently following of some military officers that raped some girls, getting them pregnant. We reported to the theatre commander and he has assured us they will be court-martialed but I can’t mention their names now because the case is still under investigation. But it is so rampant and most go unreported.
Speak to most of these girls here, their stories are very traumatizing, even for us that have seen a lot of horrifying things here. Girls are abducted and taken to the bush for two, or three years where multiple men rape them almost daily. Nobody talks about this in the media but it is happening on a large scale.”
Lucy Dlama of Women in the New Nigeria and Youth Empowerment Initiative on her part regretted that the strong culture of silence is a huge factor in what keeps SGBV alive. “Loss of confidence is also a determining factor.
Victims feel it is useless to report to the authorities especially when the perpetrator is rich. Girls as young as four and five years old are raped and given N500, N1000 or even N50 as bribes. Stigmatisation and shame are also factors and guardians tend to cover abuse because of shame. Poverty and hunger in the Northeast are unbelievable and sex for food is very rife. These are some of the issues we encounter and we get no single funding for what we do, passion is what keeps us here.”
Professor Patricia Donli of Gender, Peace and Development Centre said there is improved awareness and reportage as more people have become more responsible in reporting SGBV cases to CSOs and SARCs but would not abate anytime soon as acute poverty and hunger drive it.
Donli who works with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in host communities in Maiduguri said, “Early marriages are rife because people are hungry and need to survive so they are giving away girls as young as 7 away in marriage in return for food. Food meant for survivors are given out in return for sex leading to a rise of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and conflict-stimulated sexual violence. Camp elders, security personnel and men in the community, exploit these girls, promising them marriage. Boys are being sodomised heavily now but it is underreported as boys are less willing to talk and their violation is harder to see.
“In Moba, Gwoza and Ngala where we held VAPP awareness meetings for these communities, most of them were hearing about it for the first time ever, most people in these areas do not know there are laws in place to protect them.
In the past, perpetrators and their families were stigmatized but these days, it is victims and their families that are stigmatized. Victims are afraid they wouldn’t get married if it gets out that they have been raped so perpetrators capitalize on this.
Programme manager for Borno Women Development Initiative (BOWDI), another CSO that works with vulnerable and displaced girls and women, Aisha Hamidu, pointed out that according to available statistics, SGBV is up by 65 per cent, compared to last year, and 97 per cent, compared to pre-covid years.
“Acute poverty, protracted insurgency, unstable transition and lack of jobs are some factors raising SGBV numbers. It’s getting harder to track now because people are moving out of camps and relocating to other states and neighbouring countries. Just five camps are left in Borno now and may likely close in December.
“Unfortunately, most cases go unreported if you compare the data coming from the health sector as we do triangulation of data; there is a huge gap between victims and the number of reported cases. Many women in the rural communities even stopped coming to us for help because of stigma so we added skill acquisition so they felt more comfortable coming in and when they did, they were able to report cases to us as they felt more secure. We had to engage men as well as we noticed a bit of conflict as they felt we were only focusing on women and neglecting them. They were engaged in sporting activities and they started feeling comfortable, opening up to male support workers. Sadly, we could only monitor progress for six months as the camp was closed and they moved away to other places.”
Hypersexualisation As An Underreported Layer Of SGBV
Unfortunately, the hypersexualisation of young victims as a result of early exposure to sexual violence is one of the many underreported layers of SGBV and is rife among girls in these rural communities. Waziri said this usually happens because the girls have been exposed to sexual violence very early on and begin to think it is normal and ok to be abused.
Orahii on his part said many of the girls that escaped or were freed went back into the forests because they had become addicted to drugs and had been hypersexualised. “Their families tell us they willingly went back because they missed their lovers. Most of these girls are not up to 18 and have a couple of children already.
Reiterating that this was a real, under-discussed and unreported layer of sexual violence, Hamidu said many young girls who were themselves assaulted, went on to recruit other girls to become sex slaves as they had been abducted very early and gotten used to being exploited sexually. “14-year-old girls are scouting girls and exchanging them to be raped for food, money and other mundane things. Parents are trafficking their young girls to other countries to be used as sex slaves or sold into forced marriages.”
• This report was supported by the EU-ACT Programme
Waziri said vulnerable girls and women are brought together and taught life skills and how to understand and identify GBV in all forms. “They are linked to agencies where they can access services and help. We try to educate them, build their capacity and give them the courage to speak out. We link them up with Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) and human rights because when they report to the police on their own, nothing comes out of it mostly and the SARCs and CSOs mostly have to run around to ensure they get justice or help or both.”
Orahii said their network of SGBV survivors has over 5000 members already where they offer counselling, psychosocial, medical and legal support as well as skill acquisition.
“Fear of protracted cases is also another factor that keeps victims quiet, and a major win would be prosecuting cases quickly so that victims get justice and can move on with the healing process. There are no forensic services in Borno, the closest one is in Adamawa and anyone can imagine the logistics of getting the police to move samples there and back.” Donli said.
“The VAPP law is still relatively unknown, we have to make people aware of it and train the police and other security agents to apply it in cases of rape, assault and sodomy. More sensitization and victim support are needed; we must begin to treat them in a survivor-centred manner. It may take some time but we ensure we get justice.”
Hamidu said they’re working hand in hand with the government and other agencies to stem this problem, especially in hard-to-reach communities with their community-based model. “We go through the community structure to penetrate these places as this is the fastest way to access most of these areas. They know about SGBV, they know they shouldn’t be involved in it but when you ask as well as survivors why they are not accessing services and help, we hit a wall. We know these things take time but we would not give up.