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Tens of thousands of men and boys have disappeared since the conflict in Northeast Nigeria began eight years ago. Some have been killed or abducted by Boko Haram; others have been detained by the military and never heard from again. Men and boys have become targets to both parties of the conflict.
The women and children left behind a humanitarian crisis with no protection, little or no support, and greater threat of sexual exploitation and abuse. But their struggle and tenacity for survival in an environment fraught with insecurity never ceases to amaze me.
“Many women are widows. They have to go to the market to sell small items to feed their family, or beg in the street to survive.” Aisha, 40-years-old displaced woman told us.
At the height of the conflict, many women were forced to witness the horrific massacre of their husbands.
Yasmina, a 48 years-old woman from Gwoza recalls the day when Boko Haram stormed into her village, killing adult men including her husband, leaving her a widow with eight children. “I was at the market when Boko Haram came to my village. I dropped everything and ran to my house, to my husband and children. I found my husband’s body by the door, with his head severed and placed on his back.”
A group of women newly arrived in the Muna Garage refugee camp, after escaping previous horrors, wait under a tree to be registered.
Yasmina’s experience is not unique in Northeast Nigeria. It is the same story for thousands of women affected by the conflict, who have lost their husbands, and are currently living in camps for displaced people resorting to dangerous activities such as firewood collection to survive, which exposes them to sexual assault.
Many women have been left behind with children and dependants to look after and many like Yasmina have had to make arduous and risky journeys to get their families to places of safety, in unfamiliar places.
Thousands of men disappeared in the conflict, and now thousands of women are left alone in camps and settlements where displaced people are seeking refuge.
No protection of safety or basic rights
The great majority of displaced people in Northeast Nigeria lack food, shelter, education, and healthcare, as well as their basic rights to protection and freedom of movement. But as one displaced man in Maiduguri said, “Young women and children are more affected by the conflict than anyone else, because they have lost husbands and parents, and many can’t find enough food.”
Men have often played the role of protector and provider of their family, while women used to stay in and take care of the home. As a result of the conflict, however, many displaced women have found their lives changed irrevocably, without the protection and income their male relatives provided.
Women wait at the entrance to the Muna Garage camp for displaced people outside of Maiduguri. More than 35,000 people have sought refuge here fleeing the violence of Boko Haram.
Begging for survival
Cultural norms before the crisis alongside the current absence of men and viable livelihoods have forced some women and their families to resort to unsafe coping strategies such as begging for survival. Hadiza, a 30-year-old displaced woman, says, “My children have to go to the market and beg. Whatever money they get is what we use to buy food. There is nothing left for anything else. I can’t send my children to school.” She goes on, “I don’t have the money. When I see them sitting at home like that, I think about my husband, because things would be different if he was here. I start crying.”
Displaced women in Maiduguri stated that street hawking or begging was the activity that put young girls most at risk of sexual violence and exploitation.
Resorting to 'survival sex'
There is little doubt that the impact on thousands of displaced women is already severe. During Oxfam’s individual interviews and group discussions conducted by my colleagues in different camps around Maiduguri, for example, some women stated that the only way to earn enough money to feed their family is to engage in survival sex in exchange for money or food, or permission to leave their camp in search of a livelihood.
An aid worker I spoke to, who has witnessed this dreadful reality, stated that some camps for displaced people have become “pools of prostitution.”
Hawa (*name changed to protect identity) was three months kidnapped by Boko Haram. Before that, they killed her husband in front of her. Because she was pregnant, no militia men wanted her as a wife, so they tried to sell her. Days before they succeeded, she fled and reached the displaced persons camp in Muna Garage, near Maidiguri, where she has lived for months. The episode caused an abortion.
Rampant sexual abuse
Some women of course are at greater risk of abuse than others. Humanitarian agencies have already identified that women who do not receive regular humanitarian assistance and cannot carry out their previous livelihood activities, are particularly vulnerable to one form of abuse or another.
In 2016, the protection working group in Nigeria has reported rape, sexual abuse and exploitation in half of twenty-six sites for displaced people in the Northeast.
Taking into account the traditional under-reporting of sexual violence, it can be assumed that the real prevalence is much higher. In early 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that displaced women and girls still suffer “rape and sexual exploitation perpetrated by fellow displaced people, members of vigilante groups, policemen, and soldiers.”
Female security staff needed
Given such abuse and threats to their safety and security, displaced women call for more female security staff including female police officers, so that they would feel more comfortable to raise concerns with them.
As Fatima, an 18-year-old displaced woman said: “There are many more women than men here. I’d feel more comfortable around female security people. It’s easier to explain the issues women face to other women.”
According to our research in Maiduguri, police are among the lease likely group for women or girls to go to if they are assaulted.
A group of women in the courtyard of a shelter in Jakana, a community that suffered the attacks of Boko Haram but which is now a refuge for thousands of people who have fled the violence and conflict. Oxfam has built two wells for water supply and promoted a community hygiene committee for the construction of latrines and distribution of kits.
Missing loved ones
Beyond abuse and exploitation, I witnessed many women still suffering the sheer psychological pain of not knowing what has become of their husbands and loved ones. “We miss them, we always talk about them,” says Hadiza, a 40-year-old woman living in an informal camp on the edge of Maiduguri.
Other women also suffer the memories of knowing all too well, having witnessed their loved ones’ killing with their own eyes.
Even after three years, Shurima laments the death of her husband and other men in her community: “They are the ones really suffering. They are the ones traumatized facing the threat of death.”
This entry posted by Nafkote Dabi, Oxfam Program Officer, Nigeria, on 1 November 2017. All photos by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam.
Oxfam works in Nigeria, Niger and Chad helping refugees and displaced people and the local communities that are hosting them. We distribute food, drinking water and hygiene training. We also work to get governments and donors to act to save millions of lives at risk. Muna Garage, near Maiduguri, is a camp run by the Government with about 35,000 displaced people living there. Oxfam helps with clean water, protection and health promotion.
Top photo: Aisatu with a group of women at the entrance to the displaced camp of Muna Garage outside of Maiduguri.