1,096 days. 26,304 hours. 1,578,240 minutes. It’s been one thousand and ninety-six days since 276 girls were kidnapped from Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram. One thousand and ninety-six days since hundreds of parents have last seen their daughters and since over 190 girls have known freedom. Captivity is waking up everyday in darkness, while knowing that others are experiencing light.
Bring Back Our Girls.
For 3 years, we’ve marched, campaigned, petitioned foreign governments, fought for visibility, and tried to remain relevant while shouting #BringBackOurGirls. Everyone knows we need them back, but what happens when they are returned? What do we do then?
Across the globe we see a certain blueprint for when people return home from war or captivity. First, there’s fanfare. Celebratory marches, meetings with important people – celebrities, government officials, possibly the president–interviews with news stations, endless publications, and well-wishes coming in from around the world. This can keep going for several days to even a few months. But then the excitement of victory dies down and silence takes over. While everyone else has the luxury of returning to their daily lives, survivors and their loved ones must begin to unpack the difficult events and create a “new normal.” However, unlike some other tragedies, this was an event that changed a nation. Therefore, the nation must be involved in the healing process.
The psychological impact of trauma has a more powerful and longer lasting impact than the physical trauma. Some physical scars can heal on their own. Meanwhile the scars we cannot see, the thoughts we cannot hear, and the emotions we cannot feel cannot be healed by time alone.
The two most harmful things to recovery from a traumatic event are shame and blame. When Boko Haram kidnapped our girls, the leader boasted about the girls becoming sex slaves, because according them, girls as young as 9 years old were ripe for marriage and sexual activity. Our society places such an emphasis on sexual purity for young girls and women that any deviation from this can cause social distance and shame. Many people will see these young girls as having lost their innocence, purity, and virginity. However, losing your virginity implies choice, and captives cannot choose. There has to be a conscious effort to change this idea that they are damaged and unclean, because this type of belief leads to shame. We place a shame that never theirs to carry upon their heads, creating scars that are hard to heal. Blame and shame must be placed in the only rightful place there is, upon Boko Haram.
Intertwined within the healing process is the grieving process. We must allow our girls to grieve. Grieve the time that was lost. Grieve the relationships that were changed. Grieve the exact path they thought their lives were going to take. Grief is painful. This type of tragedy may never make sense. For our girls it may feel that the grieving will continue forever and the truth is, things will not be the same. However, grieving doesn’t mean just processing loss, it also involves making meaning and creating a new life. No matter how much time it takes.
The single biggest predictor of a child’s recovery from a traumatic event is parental support. In a country where community is so important the need for support extends outside of just parents to the entire society. We have to let go of ill-informed beliefs and prejudices that ostracize victims. Instead we must create an open and supportive atmosphere. This entails providing education on the effects of trauma, depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic-stress disorder for everyone. Providing psychological resources such as counseling, individual and/or group for both our girls and their loved ones. Creating opportunities for additional social support through churches, mosques, schools, and community events. Giving comprehensive medical care and parenting support for those who have had children by their captors. We need infrastructure that will allow our girls and their families to continue to receive help and support beyond the initial few months of returning.
Being kidnapped, raped, forced to change your faith, and kept from your family is traumatic. It is the type of trauma that can feel overwhelming and as though recovery is impossible. Trauma shouldn’t walk behind you, causing you to continuously look back; it shouldn’t walk in front of you, predicting your future; instead trauma should walk beside you, because while it is a part of you, it is not you. Our girls’ identities and futures are so much more than the traumatic event they have gone through and it is important that we remember this.
What was stolen can be recovered and renewed.
81 of our girls have returned. What we do now, will shape a generation.
Uche Ukuku, Ph.D
Uche is currently a postdoctoral psychology fellow working with children. When she takes off her counselor cape, Uche is a die-hard college football fan (Go Dawgs), lover of all things Nigerian (especially goat meat and dancing), writer, unpaid comedian, crafter, but most importantly a daughter, sister, and friend.