Chibok girls: We’re happy they were released – UNFPA Deputy Rep.
Out of over 276 Secondary School girls that were abducted by Boko Haram fighters in Chibok community, Borno State, in April 2014 no fewer than106 have regained freedom and are currently receiving psychosocial and other supports from the government and well-meaning local and international organizations. One of the organizations, the United Nations Population Fund, (UNFPA) has been playing a leading role in ensuring the girls’ successful reintegration into the society. In this interview with select journalists in Abuja, Deputy Representative of the UNFPA, Dr. Eugene Kongnyuy, spoke on the travails of the girls and expressed optimism that not only would the released girls be accomplished personalities in the society in later years, those still in captivity would regain freedom. Nigeria Health Online Bureau Chief in Abuja, ‘Tayo Albert, presents the interaction. Excerpts.
How will UNFPA help the girls reintegrate into society?
As you are aware, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) support is for the 24 Chibok girls that were released, 21 plus three, and now 82 girls have also been released. And, they are under the safekeeping of the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs. UNFPA received a request from the Ministry on certain specific areas that UNFPA has comparative advantage. These include physical rehabilitation, medical rehabilitation, psychosocial rehabilitation as well as livelihood support.
Basically, the physical rehabilitation is to provide the girls with their personal effects needs, which include culturally appropriate dressing and other clothing materials. In terms of medical support, some of the girls had series of medical treatment where they went through medical screening and diagnosis, and they were all treated. In terms of psychosocial support, they had serious psychosocial trauma as such they all needed counselling. They have lost basically their childhood, missed three years of adolescenthood and gone through violence: sexual, physical and emotional. And, they needed psychosocial rehabilitation.
In terms of nutrition, many of them were malnourished; they needed some balanced diet to get them back to normalcy. They also needed a shelter where they can stay and be looked after. Government is providing that. And, UNFPA also provided livelihood support through the government. The girls were asked question whether they wanted to go back to school, formal education, or they wanted to follow a vocational training track. They divided themselves into two groups. Those that decided to pursue formal education, teachers were recruited to actually fast-track their preparation for JAMB because they were kidnapped, as they were about to write their JAMB, so that they can proceed to university.
Those that wanted vocation training, many of them chose to be trained as psychotherapists, some of them are undertaking ICT training. So, these are the different forms of trainings they are offered so that they can prepare for their future in establishing small businesses or get job when they get themselves integrated back into their communities.
Most of the girls have not been allowed to see their parents. To what extent has UNFPA been able to access the girls since they were released?
We have been able to see the 24 girls, and we had access when we requested through the minister. According to the discussion we had with the minister, the girls have frequent interactions with their families. Their families do visit them where they are, and they do go back to their homes in Chibok from time to time, depending on when they choose to. They have frequent interaction with their parents, and with their spouses for those who were married before they were kidnapped.
In which area do you want the Nigerian government to step up services for the girls, considering, as you said, that the girls suffered serious trauma in captivity?
The government is providing all the support to all the girls. And of course, special attention is given to these girls, thanks to Senator Aisha, the Hon. Minister of Women Affairs, she has been marvelous in this regard. Her support has been really tremendous. In terms of medical care, they all went through some sort of medical assessment to identify the medical issues that they had. And, some of them had very serious medical challenges that required surgical operation. The government is taking care of that. I absolutely believe they have been receiving appropriate medical attention.
You have been speaking on the initial 24 girls that were released, have you had access to the 82 that were released recently?
I had a bilateral meeting with the Minister of Women Affairs, that was last week (May 8) and they were still undergoing medical assessment at that point in time. We in UNFPA have not been able to see them because they said the girls were undergoing medical assessment because they had similar medical cases as with the previous 24. We are hopeful that once the assessment is done, the necessary training is given, then, they will go to where they are supposed to live and that they will take similar nine-month rehabilitation programme as the previous 24 girls.
Have you any fear over the girls’ reintegration into the society, given the trauma and other inhuman treatments they faced in the hands of their captors?
There are concerns about their reintegration because it raises stigma within their community. When some of the girls who have children were asked the question whether they will go back to Chibok, they said even if they were going, they would not take their children along. Probably the reason is they feel that they will not be accepted if they go with children. So, they feel stigmatised.
UNFPA provides three-pronged approach. Survival-based approach which we are doing, ensuring the survivors of this type of violence receive the necessary rehabilitation. But, we are also keen to ensure there is a human right-based approach to it, that the human rights principles are respected as this is happening. The last approach is community-based approach, which is ensuring the community accept them for their easy integration, and that they can be reintegrated into the community.
This may take a bit longer, but the immediate support is on-going. We need a long term strategy, how to work with traditional and religious leaders, together, with families and the entire community to accept them when they get back to their original towns and villages.
Abduction of these girls has been highly politicised. There are Nigerians who say it was a ploy to oust the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan by the present political party in power at the federal level. From what you’ve seen in the past few weeks in the girls, are you convinced they were truly abducted by terrorists?
I think when something happens like this, there is a lot of speculation. But, the truth is that these girls went through violence. Their rights have been violated. They are violated physically, emotionally, sexually. They have been traumatised, they lost part of their childhood, being under captivity, treated as slaves.
There are allegations of drug abuse and addiction in the terrorists’ camps. Did you notice any of the girls reacting to drugs?
For now, I haven’t heard any such information on any drug abuse among the girls. I haven’t heard that.
Is UNFPA comfortable with the swap of the girls with Boko Haram fighters?
The strength of UNFPA is on rehabilitation of survivors who have gone through this type of violence. I have mentioned the three-pronged approach which we use for the rehabilitation. We are not experts in how to get them released, but we are happy to have them released. We are truly happy, and we are hopeful that the remaining girls will be released soon.
Latest video showed the remaining girls claiming they would not come back, saying emphatically that they are satisfied staying with the terrorists. How do you see this scenario?
I haven’t heard that. That can be just speculation. But, if the girls happen to be doing that way, refusing to come home, it means that they have been radicalised. And, it will mean taking the same approach we should take to someone who is radicalised by extremists.
These girls have spent three years in captivity; are you still hopeful that they can get to the peak of their academic career if they choose to go back to school?
I am very hopeful. Those who chose to go back to school, teachers have been recruited to fast-track their preparation for JAMB, to provide extra classes in bringing them up to speed with their education; to prepare them for the JAMB and get back to the university.
At what stage are they now on getting to write JAMB?
With discussion with the Minister of Women Affairs, they are going to write JAMB this year.
How do you see the shielding of the girls from the public by security officials, especially their relatives? Is it not infringing on their rights?
Certainly, UNFPA is following up, but that concern has been cleared by the Hon. Minister that the girls do have visitations from the parents and they themselves do go home to Chibok for visits. While rehabilitating the girls, one of the approaches is human right-based approach. UNFPA’s approach has been followed, making sure that they have access to health care, which is human right. It is their right to have access to health care; it is their right to have access to education. It is their right to have access to food, psycho-social support; all of these are their rights.
It is also their right to have security, protection from the state. But for the moment, I’m hopeful that the government is doing all it can in doing this the right way.
We know that kidnap of Chibok girls has been symbolic, but there are other thousands of girls and women that have undergone the same abduction and its consequential inhuman treatments. Is UNFPA expanding its services to some of these other group of people that were released?
In fact, before the release of the Chibok girls, UNFPA had been doing some humanitarian works in the northeast, and continues to do the work. The rehabilitation of other girls and women who went through similar trauma and were released, we believe that these girls should receive equal treatment in terms of having different sources of rehabilitation including psycho-social, medical, physical and livelihood supports. We do have programmes in the northeast that provide these services for those who were released and were not in Chibok. After all, we are United Nations Agency.
How worried is the UNFPA about the use of these girls as suicide bombers?
We condemn such inhuman act. The situation is pathetic because we have seen some children being used as suicide bombers, not necessarily those kidnapped and released. That is why the situation in the northeast still remains volatile. It doesn’t necessarily involve those who have been kidnapped and released, but we have seen cases where children, they could be girls or boys and even women, that are being used as suicide bombers. So, it is a concern to us because it is a security issue.
Are we expecting the usual family planning support offered by UNFPA for people of the northeast, despite challenges posed by suspension of funding by the US government?
As you are aware, the US government defunded UNFPA early this year. That means that UNFPA will not be receiving any funding from the US government. This basically is based on false information linking UNFPA to abortion. UNFPA does not support, fund, provide or has never supported abortion anywhere, either in Nigeria or any other country. We are hopeful that the US government will realise this and reconsider that type of decision. Certainly, it is going to affect, and it is affecting the way we scale up activities, either in Nigeria or in any other country.
We see that the population of people in the northeast has been reduced as a result of terrorists’ activity. Do you still apply the same model of family planning in other region of the country in the northeast?
Yes. UNFPA supports voluntary family planning, we do not limit. You can have 10 or 20 children, if you want. That means you decide the number of children you want and when you want them; that is what family planning is. So, the same model, is applicable in south, north, east and west.