Photo credits: Ene Ijato Abba
Tarred roads lined with thick forests that stretch thin into dusty and muddied paths lead into villages and a small town on the fringe of Niger state.
From the heaps and ridges occupying significant portions of land, it is clear that these are farming communities. The streets are busy with trucks transporting sacks of onions, millet, maize, and piles of yam. Women and girls occupy the trunk of some trucks too in their t-shirts, similarly tied scarves, and wrappers held at their waists. Some of them sit on and squeeze into spaces between grain sacks.
This is a town that has had its fair share of attacks by bandits, who once came unexpectedly at 1 pm while the sun shone brightly. They chased indigenes from their homes and places of work into bushes and left some dead.
The people say they live in trepidation but do not know how to abandon their homes and means of sustenance to move to villages where they will have to start anew and be treated as outcasts. “It is how internally displaced persons are treated,” they say. They claim the attacks are not bad enough to force them out of their homes.
Insecurity in Northern Nigeria continues to be a problem for many communities and has led to severe casualties, including death, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), and displacement. For displaced persons, this has affected their stability regarding education, mental and physical well-being, food, and general security.
Data as of October 2022 from the North-Central and North-West regions of the country reports 1,087,875 Internally Displaced Persons in 180,307 households due to insurgency, criminal, and inter-communal violence. 56 per cent of this number are women, with 31 per cent below eighteen years.
Insecurity in Niger State
In Niger state, the issue of insurgency, criminal, and inter-communal violence has been an ongoing issue spanning thirteen years. The first prominent attack was recorded in 2011 with the bombing of a church in Madala, a community in Suleja Niger State. Since then, many communities have been attacked by bandits across the state.
According to the Niger State Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), these communities that have been affected by banditry and insurgency in Niger state are from three senatorial zones in fourteen Local Government Areas (LGAs) in the state that include Rafi, Shiroro, Bosso, Munya, Paikoro, Mariga, Kontogora, Magama, Mashegu, Wushishi, Rijau, Borgu, Lapai, and Lavun. Six of these LGAs do not have IDP camps and displaced persons take refuge in neighboring communities.
As of December 2021, It is recorded that 151,380 persons have been displaced in the state. They comprise 14,994 women, 4,992 men, 30,584 children, 4,466 pregnant women, 5,811 breastfeeding moms, and 712 elderly people. These numbers fluctuate as there are people who return to their villages when they believe it is safer and people who are newly displaced.
It is notable that of these numbers the vast majority are women and girls. This is why it is vital to examine the impact of this form of extreme violence, and displacement on their lives, especially their health, and rights.
Effects of Insecurity on Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) of displaced Adolescent Girls and Young Women (AGYW)
When communities are attacked, AGYW experience various forms of violence.
They face the risk of being used as bargaining chips for a truce for peace by community leaders who enter negotiations with the bandits and the insurgents. These agreements are never honored by the bandits and the insurgents who came back, raid the communities, and abduct more AGYW.
The toll of such raids on the mental and emotional health of the AGYW is immense as they are also witnesses and survivors of gruesome killings of family members, rapes, and kidnappings. Some girls have become pregnant without access to counseling services, emergency contraception, and safe abortion and post-abortion care.
Many AGYW who have experienced these issues suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health challenges.
Furthermore, within IDP camps and host communities, displaced AGYW who make up the majority of the displaced population also face additional risks of SGBV with camp guards, service providers, intimate partners, and other community members.
SGBV Baseline Report From Three IDPs in Niger State
The International Center for Sexual Reproductive Rights (INCRESE) conducted a baseline survey in three IDP camps across Niger State. This informed the curriculum and programming of an SGBV intervention to provide Psychosocial Support Services (PSS) and build the resilience of AGYW in IDPs and host communities.
In Gwada and Kuta, both towns in Shiroro Local Government Area of the state lie IDP camps that house the constant influx of displaced persons from neighboring villages. INCRESE conducted its baseline survey in three of these IDP camps, collecting data using Key Informant Interviews (KIIs), In-Depth Interviews (IDIs), Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), and direct observations.
The key informants included healthcare workers, officials from the Ministry of Education, and community leaders. IDIs were conducted with persons with disabilities, sex workers, and sexual minorities. AGYW of three different age groups (ages 10-14 years old, 15-18 years old, and 19-25 years old) were engaged in the FGDs.
From these interviews and discussions, the realities of living in IDP camps and host communities for AGYW were examined. This explored how they were adjusting to their current living situations, including the violence experienced, discriminatory cultural practices and community policies, and existing SRHR knowledge and interventions.
“Suffering brings us here because we are here as refugees who were forced out of our homes
because of gunmen. Not able to have enough food. The shelter is poor, we don’t know what to do since we are running for safety and we don’t have a choice so we manage.” A young girl lamented during one of the FGDs.
Complaints of inadequate and unsanitary living conditions, trauma from violence witnessed and experienced, fear of stigmatization, child, forced and early marriage, inability to farm and earn income, coercion into sex work, discrimination, and verbal abuse from members of host communities, and IDP camp members were mentioned during the FGDs.
Discriminatory cultural practices in the community that stigmatizes victims and survivors of sexual violence remain prevalent.
“When girls are raped, the family hides it and do not even consider seeking justice because they want to protect her dignity for the future, so she can have a husband.” says a community leader.
Many girls are also refused access to education and have never been to school.
Knowledge of SRHR and SGBV is inadequate, with some camps having limited access to the Family Life and HIV Education curriculum (FLHE) and some never having seen or heard about it before.
These findings showed that SGBV is predominant in these IDP camps and there are very little to no SRHR interventions available to address these challenges.
AGYW Learn SRHR and Life Competency Skills
It is about ten o’clock in the morning as three INCRESE staff and three peer educators walk through the gates of an IDP camp for one of their bi-monthly sessions. Boldly written on a dusty brown wall covered with cracks and chipped paint is a quote.
“A girl can be who and what she wants to be.” An artistically painted image of a young girl in a doctor’s uniform smudged brown with dust lies beside the words.
A swing set, slide, merry-go-round, and make-shift see-saw made from damaged car tires center the yard as the playground of the primary school now also home to many displaced persons who cling to the shelter it provides and accompanying support promised by the government that was scarcely provided. Chickens frolic the grounds chased by sweaty and scantily clad children, their faces smeared with dust. The group greet the congregation of mostly aged women working away at melon seeds and tending to pots on local stoves that perched along the way to the classroom where Hausa and Gbagyi words could be heard heavy in the air as it poured into the open yard.
As the group arrives at the classroom, they smile at the young women and girls sitting on wooden benches and desks. Engaging in pleasantries, they talk about simple things like the weather, a fruiting mango tree, and a participant’s baby that had started teething.
Through the class facilitated by a peer educator Sa’adatu Sabashi, the girls are enraptured with their lessons on human anatomy and teenage pregnancy. The facilitator says some words in English and then explains it in the local languages afterward.
Using fictional scenarios and storytelling, she engages the girls so that they understand the topics from a personalized perspective and internalize the lessons easily. Afterward, they are asked questions on the topics taken and their understanding is evaluated through oral quizzes. They are then allowed to ask questions and seek clarification on the topics discussed and on general issues that they are curious about.
For seven months, this is how AGYW in IDPs and host communities are taught about their SRHR. They were also routinely provided counseling and support for basic needs.
This project was concluded with sensitization activities within the IDP camps and host communities that enlightened community members on various SGBV issues to promote SRHR practices among all stakeholders.
Several successes were recorded such as access to educational enrollment at schools within the IDP camps for girls, improved knowledge of SRHR and SGBV in the IDP camp and host communities, and establishment of reporting channels for SGBV cases in the IDP camps.
The AGYW who were participants of the mentorship program also gained vital skills to self-advocate and carried out photo-voice advocacy.
The combined result of insurgency, criminal, and inter-communal violence continues to critically affect the stability of communities in Northern Nigeria. The survivors of this extreme form of violence have become vulnerable to various forms of SGBV.
Access to healthcare, especially sexual reproductive healthcare services has become even more scarce creating more vulnerability for displaced women and girls. AGYW who are the most affected lose their agency and capacity to self-determine and self-actualize.
There is a lot that needs to be done for the SRHR of girls and young women who are fighting for a chance at survival as they are forced to live in IDP camps and host communities, completely disconnected from their way of life and any sense of stability. Ensuring that they have access to SRHR information and services, is crucial, and a start.