The wife of the vice-president of Nigeria, Oludolapo Osinbajo consoling one of the 21 released Chibok girls in Abuja. Photograph
Girls unwilling to return home may have been radicalised by Islamic militants or fear they will be labelled ‘Boko Haram wives’
More than a third of almost 300 female students abducted by Islamic militants from a school in Nigeria two-and-a-half years ago appear unwilling to leave their captors, a community leader has said.
Nigeria’s government is negotiating the release of 83 of about 190 girls from the the remote town of Chibok who are still held by Boko Haram in remote camps in the north-east of Africa’s most populous country. Twenty-one were freed last week as a “goodwill gesture” by the group.
The mass abduction in April 2014 prompted a global outcry, and an international campaign to #BringBackOurGirls, backed by celebrities including Michelle Obama.
“Any sign that there has been sexual contact with any man, and these men are Boko Haram, will cause a backlash. The likelihood they will return home is slim,” Segun said.
There have been frequent reports of stigma and discrimination directed at women who are released by, or escape from, Boko Haram. Campaigners have repeatedly raised concerns that the reaction of communities and relatives to released women might complicate negotiations, and exacerbate victims’ trauma.
Bitrus said the students freed last week in the first negotiated release between Nigeria’s government and Boko Haram should be educated abroad. The girls and their parents were reunited amid joyous scenes on Sunday.
“We would prefer that they are taken away from the community and this country because the stigmatisation is going to affect them for the rest of their lives,” Bitrus said. “Even someone believed to have been abused by Boko Haram would be seen in a bad light.”
On Sunday, a Boko Haram commander told local newspaper the Vanguard that about 90 of the students “had since become Boko Haram members, having been married off and radicalised ... as soon as they were captured over two years ago”.
Commanders of the group, which has waged a bloody insurgency for seven years, have also claimed that some girls were killed when Nigerian planes bombed their bases.
About 60 students who managed to escape in the immediate aftermath of the raid in 2014 faced taunts and insults in Chibok, their home town, since they were labelled “Boko Haram wives”, Bitrus told AP.
At least 20 such girls are being educated in the US.
Chibok is a small and conservative Christian enclave in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria where many parents are involved in translating the Bible into local languages and belong to the Nigerian branch of the Elgin, Illinois-based Church of the Brethren.
“Many had to leave Chibok because they were seen as Boko Haram wives, even if they didn’t even get to the Boko Haram camp. Some never even went back to Chibok and some left very shortly after returning,” said Segun.
One father of a newly freed girl, Emos Lawal, said his daughter was “praying that the rest of them have the chance to come out”.
The freed girls have told their parents they were separated into two groups early on in their captivity, when Boko Haram commanders gave them the choice of joining the extremists and embracing Islam, or becoming their slaves, Bitrus said.
The girls freed and those 104 whose release is being negotiated are believed to be in the group that rejected Islam and Boko Haram, he explained. The freed girls said they never saw the other girls again.
Few details have previously emerged of the ordeal of the abducted girls, many of whom are believed to have been taken as wives by extremists and systematically raped. Others have reportedly been forced to carry out demanding physical tasks.
Bitrus said, however, that though the freed girls were used as domestic workers and porters, they were not sexually abused. He said only one girl in the recently freed group was carrying a baby, and her parents have confirmed that she was pregnant when she was kidnapped.
This clashes with initial reports that many of the recently released girls had infant children.
An aid worker had told AP that he had seen the girls on their release and that all but three carried babies. Bitrus said that report was incorrect.
Previous negotiators in talks that failed also had corroborated that more than 100 of the girls did not want to return to their parents, Bitrus said.
A report by Mercy Corps, the US-based aid organisation, suggested that women play a significant role in the Boko Haram insurgency, at least in its early stages. Nearly half of the Boko Haram recruits interviewed for the study were women. Some had been abducted or forced to join the group, but not all.
Thousands of other women have been abducted by Boko Haram over recent years and many released. These have also faced systematic discrimination and stigma on their return, say experts.
Over the weekend, commanders from Boko Haram said the girls were freed to prove good faith and more will be released if demands for cash and an exchange of prisoners are met.
Nigeria’s government has denied reports the girls were swapped for four Boko Haram commanders, or that a large ransom was paid.