The struggle for abducted Nigerian women and girls doesn’t end when they escape, says Dr. Fatima Akilu. The trauma scars them, and she says it’s important they receive the mental health supports they desperately need.
“They come back to a system where we’re only beginning to really understand the effects of trauma. And it’s also in a country where we don’t really have very many practitioners that work in mental health,” Akilu, executive director of the Neem Foundation in Nigeria, told Matt Galloway on The Current.
“One of the major problems, when you take care of nutrition and other health needs, is trauma, especially post-traumatic stress. And what we find now is we are witnessing intergenerational trauma.”
In 2014, the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from the Government Girls Secondary School at the town of Chibok in Borno State, Nigeria. And while that incident generated a global response, the number of women taken is likely much higher.
Some of those girls have been freed, but the transition back into society can be tough, said Akilu.
“When they come back from captivity, life as they know it is completely different. They come back to communities that no longer exist, and most of them live in refugee camps or with host families,” she explained.
Sometimes, many women who were just girls when they were abducted or sold to the militant groups come back with children who were born in captivity.
“[They are] finding it very difficult to reintegrate into society, to adjust in school, and to have a kind of normal childhood,” said Akilu.
Canadian journalist Mellissa Fung says that whenever she hears of a kidnapping, her first thoughts always go to the taken.
Fung was kidnapped by armed men in Afghanistan in 2008 while working as a reporter for CBC’s The National. She was held captive for 28 days before being released.
And while she says the girls captured by Boko Haram have gone through so much more, they can still relate to each other.
“We share a scar,” said Fung. “One of the girls was stabbed at the same place I was, by her captor.”
That scar is more than just skin deep, according to Fung. Because of that, she’s telling the stories of former Boko Haram captives in her new book Between Good and Evil, The Stolen Girls of Boko Haram.
Fung says that when she was interviewing the girls for her book, she was able to talk about her own experience in a way she hadn’t before.
“In sharing our stories and learning about how they’re coping with the aftermath, I learned a lot, too, about trauma and the long trail it leaves,” said Fung.
But, she says, there is a major difference to her story and theirs. After her captivity, Fung had access to some of the best trauma therapists. Despite that, she still struggles with the trauma of what happened.
Meanwhile these girls don’t have that same access to help.
“I wanted to learn how they coped with the aftermath of trauma without all the help that I had,” said Fung.
For the past two years, Akilu and the Neem Foundation have been helping kidnapped women, and anybody else who has been affected by conflict in Nigeria.
The Foundation has trained hundreds of people to care for mental health needs across Nigeria, though she added that more work needs to be done.
There is still a stigma around mental health issues in that country, she explained. When the foundation enters a community to help, it spends up to four weeks educating people about the importance of mental health care. Once people understand the value of addressing trauma and accept the group’s help, they start to provide that mental health support.
“In a community, no matter how large, no person is turned away. Every person is assessed individually,” said Akilu.
Once that happens, they are given four weeks of intense psychotherapy and expressive therapy. Then the foundation comes back two months later to see how people are doing. The Neem Foundation has been doing this for two years.
Fung has seen the benefits of this therapy, and talked to women who have been through it.
“They would say that they have come a long way. Those who have been able to access the therapy that Dr. Akilu is offering, that it’s helped them process what’s happened to them and has given them a reason to look ahead, look forward,” she said.
That said, Fung noted that there are still many more people who need that help beyond those the Neem Foundation has reached.
“The need is just so great. We don’t know actually how many people who … are traumatized, who are in need of this, because nobody actually has a clear grasp of the numbers.”
For that to happen, Akilu says the key will be to invest in training for more mental health practitioners.
“I think my job is to build a generational capacity of mental health practitioners,” said Akilu.
“We don’t have time for people to go to school for the amount of years that I did, but we need to address this problem. So how can we do it in a way that is safe, in a way that we can provide good, quality, effective mental health?”