The disappearance of a former Boko Haram bride who recently returned home after three years in the militants’ stronghold in northeast Nigeria has stoked concern about the difficulty of deradicalising and reintegrating women seized by the jihadists.
25-year-old Aisha, who was “forcefully” married to a Boko Haram commander, was among 70 women and children who in February finished a nine-month deradicalisation programme, having been captured by the army in a raid on the militants’ Sambisa forest base last year.
Last month Aisha vanished from her family home in Borno’s state capital Maiduguri, taking the baby boy fathered by a Boko Haram militant and some of her clothes, according to her younger sister Bintu Yerima.
“Before she left … she had received a phone call from a woman who was with her (in the programme),” 22-year-old Yerima told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Maiduguri. “The woman said that she had returned to the Sambisa forest.”
Phone calls to Aisha after she disappeared went unanswered, and her mobile has since been switched off, her sister added.
Fatima Akilu, a psychologist and head of the Neem Foundation, an anti-extremism group which ran the state-backed programme, said she had heard that some of the women who were under her care, including Aisha, had gone back to Boko Haram.
“Rehabilitation, reintegration is a long process … complicated by the fact we have an active, ongoing insurgency.”
Boko Haram’s bloody campaign to create an Islamic state is now in its eighth year with little sign of ending, and has claimed more than 20,000 lives and uprooted 2.7 million people.
“When you have fathers, husbands, sons and brothers who are still in the movement, they (the women) want to be reunited … to go back to a place where they feel they belong,” added Akilu.
POWER AND SHAME
The allure of power may be another factor in their return.
Thousands of girls and women have been abducted by Boko Haram since 2009 – most notably the more than 200 Chibok girls snatched one night from their school in April 2014 – with many of them used as cooks, sex slaves, and even suicide bombers.
Yet some of these women, like Aisha, say they managed to gain respect, influence and standing within the militant group.
Aisha told the Thomson Reuters Foundation earlier this year that other women kidnapped by Boko Haram were given to her as “slaves” because she was married to leading militant Mamman Nur.
Seduced by the power, and disenchanted with the domestic drudgery of their everyday lives, women are far more difficult than men to deradicalise and reintegrate into their communities, said Akilu, who called for more support for the former captives.
“Women often come out successful from deradicalisation programmes, but they struggle in the community,” Akilu said. “Some face a lot of stigma. They feel like pariahs.”
Many Nigerians fear women abducted by Boko Haram have been radicalised and may recruit others or commit violence once they return home, and that their children born of rape may have been tainted by the “bad blood” of the militants, according to a 2016 report by charity International Alert and the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF).
“It needs a lot of work to get communities to accept women who have done the almost unthinkable,” said Akilu, who explained how the reintegration process can take several years.
“Trying to reintegrate is especially difficult when Boko Haram are carrying out their atrocities almost every week.”