Boko Haram survivor Esther*, holding her daughter Rebecca in her arms. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Boko Haram survivor Esther*, holding her daughter Rebecca in her arms. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

As Islamic extremist group Boko Haram continues to hold young women captive in West Africa, some have been rescued only to return to their homes in shame, finding themselves labelled “Boko Haram women”.

Until October 2015 Esther* lived the normal life of a 17-year-old in Gwoza, a town in southern Borno state. She went to school, while also taking care of her ailing father, as her mother had died.

That all changed when Boko Haram struck her town. They surrounded the house where Esther and her father lived and as she was taken away by the militants, the last thing she saw was her father being struck and left for dead on the ground.

Continually raped

The rebels took her and a group of other girls to their hideout in Sambisa Forest, and used all kinds of methods to make the young woman renounce her Christian faith and become a Muslim. They first tried offering her privileges, but when that did not work, threats and intimidation followed. Many of her captors also wanted to marry Esther, but she did not give in.

As she recalls how she was continually raped, she can’t hold back her tears. “I cannot count how many men raped me,” she says. “Every time they came back from their attacks, they would rape us … defile us.

“Each passing day, I hated myself more and more. I felt that God had forsaken me. There were times when I was so angry with God… But still I could not get myself to renounce Him. I found myself remembering His promise to never leave me or forsake me.”

Esther eventually became pregnant. Who Rebecca’s father is, Esther does not know, and she says she “had no idea how on earth [she] would ever be able to love this child”.

Rejection and shame

In November 2016 the Nigerian military were able to track down Esther and her fellow captives and rescue them. Back home, however, they were received with suspicion and mockery, and called “Boko Haram women”.

“They mocked me because I was pregnant,” Esther recalls. “Even my grandparents despised me and called me names. 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’.”

Since Esther’s return she has received trauma counselling from the international charity Open Doors, helping her to work through her anger, pain and shame. She says she can now even forgive her enemies.

A year after her return, people still struggle to accept her and her daughter but they have also noticed a change in the young teenage mother: Esther is at peace with herself and what has happened to her, and says baby Rebecca is her “joy and laughter amidst sadness”.

Today the two of them live with Esther’s grandparents. Esther is not in school and has no official job but provides for them by working on a farm. She has also received some food aid through Open Doors.

In July UNICEF estimated that more than 2.7 million conflict-affected children in Nigeria were in need of psychosocial support. Reporting “that girls and boys were directly targeted by Boko Haram with severe psychosocial consequences”, the UN’s humanitarian affairs office, OCHA, expects “that more children will be identified as traumatised in varying degrees in the worst-affected areas” of the country’s northeast.

Research by UNICEF and International Alert, published in February 2016, showed that girls and women kidnapped by Boko Haram “face mistrust and persecution upon their return to society”.

*Not her real name