Teenage Boko Haram escapee learns to love her ‘Boko Haram baby’

Esther was 16 when Boko Haram extremists attacked her village in Borno state, Nigeria. Esther and her father tried to escape. The militants struck her father and left him in a heap on the ground. They carried Esther off into the forest with several other young women.

The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria has created a humanitarian disaster. It is estimated that Boko Haram have killed over 20,000 people and displaced about 2.6 million others.

As a Christian, Esther was separated from the Muslim women and offered a choice: forced marriage or slavery. Esther chose slavery. But she was married off anyway.

“I cannot count how many men raped me. Every time they came back from their attacks, they would rape us, defile us.”

According to research by Open Doors, Christian women are doubly vulnerable to persecution, targeted for both their faith and gender. In places of conflict such as Nigeria, sexual violence is weaponised. It is one of the most common forms of persecution against Christian women.

The militants pressured the girls to become Muslims but Esther refused.

“There were times when I was so angry with God,” Esther said. “But still I could not get myself to renounce Him. I found myself remembering His promise to never leave me or forsake me.”

Eventually Esther managed to escape from the camp. “We trekked through the forest for three days without food, water, or shoes on our feet,” Esther said. “It was raining all day long, so much so that the water eventually reached our knees. I was seven months pregnant.

“I had no idea how I would ever be able to love this child. Every passing day I hated myself more and more. I felt God had forsaken me.”

When she returned home, Esther was ridiculed and abused by her village: “They mocked me because I was pregnant,” Esther said. “I cried many tears. I felt so lonely. What broke my heart even more was that they refused to call my daughter Rebecca. They referred to her as ‘Boko.’”

When women return from Boko Haram captivity, their communities often view them as unclean due to a perceived loss of purity. They are ostracised, which exacerbates their vulnerability. Esther had missed years of education while in captivity, she had a baby to support and both her parents were dead.

Open Doors is also working with communities to help them respond positively to women like Esther and not reinforce the cultural stigma associated with abuse and sexual violence. Open Doors partners provided Esther with food aid and she joined a trauma care programme: “Before I came for this programme, if you called my daughter ‘Boko Haram baby’ I would fight,” she said. “Now, even if they call her that I don’t feel pain anymore because I know that’s not who my baby is.”

In October 2018, Esther drew her self-portrait in a trauma and advocacy programme with UK artist Hannah Rose Thomas.

“I was very surprised to see that I drew myself very fine for the first time. I am really surprised. I feel so happy in my heart. Seeing that I could draw myself looking so beautiful makes me feel so happy.

“We came with heavy hearts and we are leaving with joy.

“If I had not attended this programme, I think I would have developed serious health problems, like high blood pressure. Sometimes when people said hurtful things to me my heart used to boil and I used to get sick. I was told I had a severe ulcer and the migraines I got were because of the trauma.

“I lack the words to say thank you. All I can say is: May God bless you and thank you so much!”

Esther’s self-portrait.
Image copyright: © Open Doors International

According to research by Open Doors, Christian women are doubly vulnerable to persecution, targeted for both their faith and gender. Their suffering is often unseen and ignored by the world around them. Through the campaign See. Change. Open Doors is ensuring women are treated with care and dignity, and seen when isolated.

In places of conflict, such as Nigeria, sexual violence is weaponised. If the act itself doesn’t kill the women, the trauma and stigma, potential pregnancies and diseases wreak havoc on their lives for generations. Open Doors wants to ensure doubly vulnerable women are seen and recognised in UK government policy on sexual violence in conflict. Tell the government to take note of this vital issue by signing your name on a piece of cloth which will be sewn into a banner. This banner, a handmade petition, will be presented to the UK government in November 2019 during the Preventing Violence in Sexual Conflict (PSVI) Conference.

Nigeria is number 12 on the Open Doors World Watch List.

The majority of Christians live in the south of the country, and their religious freedom is respected. In the north of Nigeria and the ‘Middle Belt’, where Christians are in the minority, they face horrific levels of persecution at the hands of Islamic extremists. The militant group Boko Haram abduct and kill those who refuse to conform to their extremist brand of Islam. Attacks by armed groups of Fulani herdsmen have resulted in the killing, maiming, dispossession and eviction of thousands of Christians. Twelve of the northern states are under Sharia (Islamic law), and Christians in these states face particular discrimination.

Main image copyright: © Open Doors International

Erin James

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