Children harmed by armed groups require comprehensive support to live normal lives
In times of emergency, children experience trauma that can irreversibly harm their life chances. In northeastern Nigeria, over 12,000 children have been killed or wounded during the conflict since 2009, and 1.7 million people remain displaced.
Thousands of children have been recruited, abducted or held by non-state armed groups. The violence suffered by captive children includes sexual violence, physical abuse, and a range of long-term psychological traumas. Perhaps worst of all is the use of children to carry improvised explosive devices: between January 2014 and October 2017, 162 children (42 boys and 120 girls) were used as bombers by Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, more commonly known as Boko Haram.
The ordeal of abducted and recruited children does not come to an end upon release, however. Communities are fearful of returnees and stigma prevents their reintegration into society. Nigeria’s Federal and State Ministries of Women and Social Affairs, in partnership with a range of international and civil society organisations, have built a framework to facilitate children’s return to their families and mitigate the effects of their traumatic experience.
UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection, Milen Kidane, outlined some of the challenges facing returnees: “Because of their association with armed groups, communities have a hard time accepting them. This is particularly true for girls who were impregnated while in captivity, and their children.” As revealed by a 2016 report by UNICEF and International Alert, undertaken in collaboration with the Borno State Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, many community members believe children born of Boko Haram fighters have “bad blood” and are fated to join the insurgent cause in the future.
“The reintegration process is lengthy and at times challenging, because many communities fear their children have been radicalised or brainwashed. Trust is no longer there,” said Kidane.
In response, government and civil service organisations have developed a multi-sectoral plan of action covering the entire reintegration process.
“It all starts with identifying children who have been associated with armed groups and informing communities of the risks these groups pose,” said Kidane. A public awareness campaign on how to safeguard children and mitigate risks of radicalisation is well under way. A simultaneous effort to develop inter-community networks ensures that any missing children are reported and logged.
For children returning from time with armed groups whether Boko Haram or the armed civilian groups founded to combat them – a range of services is provided. Psychosocial and medical support is available in urban centres such as Maiduguri in Borno State, while “catch-up courses” are available for those who have been out of school for significant periods of time. For those whose parents have not died in the fighting, family tracing and reintegration services are offered to unaccompanied children, many of whom now live in camps.
Older children can also benefit from classes on vocational skills ranging from hatmaking to basic mechanics, which can help them to carve out livelihoods.
Working across multiple organisations and sectors poses challenges, however. “Like any programme in which there are several actors involved, you need to have streamlined communication, the smooth exchange of information, and protocols for the handling of sensitive data.”
Over time, however, the division of responsibilities has come naturally to the various partners. “Each organisation complements another: for example, only the Ministry has the mandate to provide certain kinds of social services, so there isn’t too much overlap,” Kidane added.
As part of broader efforts at peacekeeping and capacity building in northeastern Nigeria, the project is but one moving part among many. By uniting government, civil society, international actors and local partners, children suffering through violent times can have hope for the future.