By Stephanie Sinclair
January 27, 2017
After conquering Bama, the second-largest town in Nigeria’s Borno state, a small group of fighters from the militant Islamist group Boko Haram forced their way into the thatched-roof home of Hawa’s family, demanding the 15-year-old girl as a bride.
“My parents refused to give me away in marriage,” Hawa told me in November. “So they killed them in front of me.”
They then turned to her grandfather. “What do you have to say?” the fighters asked. He reluctantly acquiesced, and they handed him a few thousand Nigerian naira as a bride price, roughly $10. The men carried Hawa away.
After invading Bama, the Boko Haram insurgents came to my house, one of them saw me and said, “I want to marry you.” I said I will not marry you. My parents will not give me to you. Then he said, “O.K. that is easy. Let me kill them, so that you will now be the one to decide.” We got married in the Sambisa forest. Three months later, he came to tell me that he wanted to go attack a community. My husband was killed in that attack. I was pregnant by that point.
Along with about 20 other girls, many of them friends and classmates, Hawa was taken to one of the militants’ camps deep within the 200-square-mile Sambisa Forest.
Since beginning its insurgency against the Nigerian government in 2009, Boko Haram has unleashed bombings, assassinations and abductions from its bases in the forest in an effort to topple the government and create an Islamic state.
Kidnappings like Hawa’s were not uncommon in northern Nigeria, yet it was only when the group abducted 276 schoolgirls from their dormitory in the town of Chibok in 2014 that the world took notice. With the mantra “Bring Back Our Girls,” the issue exploded on social media. But with little news from the remote region, the public’s interest waned.
Nearly three years later it’s now becoming apparent that the Chibok abductions were just one instance of a profoundly disturbing tactic: child marriage as a weapon of war.
The situation was unbearable. They killed people in our presence so we would be afraid. Unfortunately, we had to leave some of our friends behind. We’d hoped we would meet soldiers and hoped they would not shoot us when they saw us. We lost faith we would be rescued. We foraged for food for the seven days it took us to get to Maiduguri.
According to the International Crisis Group, the relative ease with which Boko Haram carried out the Chibok abductions emboldened the group. With increasing frequency, both Christian and, more recently, Muslim women and girls have been kidnapped, dismantling communities that oppose the group’s brutal tactics. To attract male recruits and motivate combatants, Boko Haram awards these “wives” to fighters. As these girls reach puberty, forced marriages often turn them into unwilling mothers; their children are destined to become the next generation of fighters, raised with their fathers’ twisted ideology.
This trade in child brides was common even before the conflict. According to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of civil society organizations, across Nigeria 43 percent of girls is married before their 18th birthday. In northern Nigeria, the rate is as high as 76 percent. Girls are most commonly forced into marriage for economic reasons: one fewer mouth to feed for their birth families and sources of labour, sex and childbearing for the groom’s family. Now, with the region devastated by violence, desperate parents increasingly see early marriage as a way to protect their daughters as fighting closes schools, and families grow more impoverished.
I never considered him my husband. If I liked him, I wouldn’t have run away. I felt like a living ghost. I was not afraid to escape, being alive in that camp was already the worst thing that could happen to me.
On a hot afternoon, in a cramped office in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, I discussed the status of the Chibok girls, many reportedly married off to fighters, with Engr Satomi Ahmad, the executive chairman of Borno’s State Emergency Management Agency.
“Being the chairman of this agency, the Chibok girls, for me, don’t even represent 0.1 percent, not even 0.1 percent, of the entire abduction of girls,” Mr. Ahmad said.
Reports provided to the Nigerian government estimate that up to 9,000 women and girls have been abducted since the start of Boko Haram’s insurgency. Mr. Ahmad believes that at least 13,000 more are unaccounted for, and likely even more from areas that are too dangerous to assess.
Last November I spoke with about 30 girls who had been abducted and forced to wed some of the world’s most violent men. They spoke of being caged for months, of friends set on fire, of being forced into marriage and sexually assaulted by men who “smelled of blood.”
My friend died while giving birth. When I saw her die, I decided to escape. When I got home, I discovered I was carrying a dead child. I would love to have been able to deliver and take care of the child.
They abducted all of the girls in the village. They put us in a big house and we were married off after two weeks. After my first attempt was to run, they found me and threatened to kill my mother, who was hiding me. They contemplated killing me or beating me but finally decided on flogging me. I was pregnant at the time.
They described the risks they had taken to free themselves: racing through gun and mortar battles, sometimes pregnant or carrying a child, crossing rivers, walking for days without food or water, and the suspicion they were met with even after reaching safety.
Hawa didn’t know how long she’d spent in Boko Haram’s camp in the bush, though it was enough time to give birth to a baby boy, whom she named Mubarak. The child was nearly 6 months old when Hawa, now 17, escaped from her captors. But the journey home provided new tragedies: During the long walk to Maiduguri the baby died.
“I did not have enough milk to feed him,” she said.
Life outside of captivity has its own hardships for the girls called “Boko Haram wives,” with other Nigerians wary of their allegiances after so long in captivity.
The terrorists’ calculated use of children as suicide bombers — 75 percent of them girls — has added to the atmosphere of fear and distrust, with a devastating cascade of consequences for girls who do manage to escape.
I was abducted from my home in the evening. I was just hanging out in the neighbourhood when the insurgents came and forced me onto their bike. I’d been married just a week earlier. My baby was born in the bush. The insurgents nullified that marriage, and I was remarried to an insurgent. I returned to my husband when I escaped. He took me back.
AISHA A., 15
“Some pity us, others don’t want us near them,” Aisha I., 17, told me. After three and a half years in captivity, she arrived in Maiduguri homeless and three months pregnant.
Like the other former abductees I spoke with, Aisha and Hawa found themselves without education, money, family support or anyone to help them reintegrate peacefully and safely into society. In fact, I learned in interviewing representatives from multiple global aid organizations, few even knew the escaped girls were living in Maiduguri.
Why is no one trying to help Nigeria’s missing girls, either the ones held in the forest or those who have escaped? The effort and resources appear focused on the 276 Chibok girls. Boko Haram leaders claim the girls they’ve taken don’t want to come home. But government officials and escapees I spoke with say otherwise.
On my last morning in Maiduguri, I went to say goodbye to Aisha. Light streamed into the simple room in which she lived, and I watched as she made tea, organized her few belongings and nursed her son; each task a small step toward the life she hoped one day to rebuild.
“My dream for the future is for God to help me,” Aisha said. “And those who are still in the forest to escape.”