Helping Boko Haram’s Abandoned Harems


Aisha Bulama, forcefully married to a member of the dreaded Boko Haram sect, was later divorced and rejected by the society. Michael Olugbode writes that she and other women with similar ordeals could have remained as outcasts but for the psychosocial support provided by UNICEF

Aisha Bulama was a pretty girl from birth, she was a delight of everyone in her area in Bama and before she attained 15 years, suitors had started coming for her hand in marriage. Her father sensing that something urgently needed to be done before the situation became embarrassing, accepted the proposal of one of her numerous suitors and a day was planned for the engagement.

As the plan was on, little did they know that there was another plan being orchestrated by Bamai Bamassa, a son to the friend of Aisha’s father. He had shown interest in Aisha since they were children, but being the shy type, he was unable to indicate his interest in her to her on time. When he found out that Aisha was betrothed to someone else he used his association with the terrorist sect, Boko Haram to abduct her.

Bamassa’s proposal to get married to Aisha to her parents after the abduction, was rejected by Aisha and her parents who did not only felt shortchanged and dishonoured but felt that they would be breaking a commitment which they had freely entered into with Aminu Musa and his family to marry Aisha to them.

But after several threat to their lives, Aisha and her parents resolve were broken and they had to accept the proposal of Bamassa who paid the sum of N10,000 as dowry and the right to have Aisha as wife. One would have thought the story was ended and Aisha would have to live a happy life thereafter, but it was the beginning of a seeming unending sad story as she was reportedly being frequently battered by a husband who had taken to violence as a means to get everything done, just a little over a year into the marriage. So a month after the birth of their daughter, Amina, the marriage had completely broken down and the couple had to go their different ways.

But this is not the end of the tale for Aisha who had to face rejection from her family and the rest of the society until officials of United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) came to her rescue.

With tears in her eyes Aisha recounted her story: “I am Aisha Bulama, I am 16 years old and had a terrible experience which all started with my forceful abduction by members of the Boko Haram group. During their first major attack on Bama, they came to our house and I was one of those that were abducted by the insurgents. But this was not without resistance from my father. They took us to Bama Prison.

“The insurgents after my abduction later went to my father, they said they want to marry me off to one of them, but my father said no since I was betrothed to someone alse. After my father rejected their proposal, they came back to me to tell me what he said and asked if I was ready to marry one of them, I said no as I was not in love with any of them.

“It was at this stage, they threatened to kill my parents and throw them in the well at the prison just as they were doing to some others. After about five days with them, I was able to escape to my sister’s place somewhere within Bama, and when they discovered that I was gone, they went back to my father and threatened to kill him if I was not given back to them. He promised to get me from my hideout, which he did before he was spared. They took me back to the prison.

“After two weeks with them, I was able to escape again, I went to my Aunt’s place where I stayed for a week, after which I was allowed to go in company of people to Maiduguri, we were more than 15. On our way to Maiduguri, we were accosted close to Kawuri by a group of insurgents and we’re all taken back to Bama and once again to the prison. When the insurgents at the prison saw me, they wanted to kill me but one of them said I was not in my right senses and that could have been responsible for my trying to flee to Maiduguri.

“I was not able to escape anymore for I was placed under heavy watch, they separated the women from the young girls, they put the girls in different houses and married us all. They married 23 of us the same day. They took N10,000 to my father as the dowry. It was Bamai Bamassa, who became my husband that took the dowry to my father.

“Bamai was my father’s friend son and we have known for sometimes but I never knew he was a member of Boko Haram. We got settled together as couple first in Bama and after sometimes when the military came to liberate the town, we moved into Sambisa Forest. It was never pleasant staying with him, he used to batter me at the slightest provocation. He eventually divorced me after some time.

“One day, I told him I want to go to Bama to visit my sick parents but he said no, insisting that if I went I would not come back and rather escape to Maiduguri, we had an argument and he left the house but during his absence I was invited to attend to a neighbour who was in labour. When he came back and did not see me he was furious and when I explained when I came back, he said he was mindless if the woman in labour had died and that I should not have left the house without his permission. The argument degenerated and he divorced me, I had to stay with my friend within the Sambisa Forest and after sometime I went to Shuwari to stay with my grandmother and after two weeks I left for Bama.

“I have a baby girl, Amina and she was just barely a month old when I was divorced. When I got to Bama, I learnt that my parents were already in Maiduguri, and the youth vigilantes in Bama brought me to Maiduguri to look for them, that was about two months ago.

“When I was brought to my father, my brothers said they cannot stay with me for I have stayed with insurgents for so long and perhaps may not be trusted. My sister who was living elsewhere took me in, and since she was also an IDP in the host community, she only allowed me for just four days before she told me she cannot afford to fend for me and she decided to bring me into the Dalori camp. After sometime, my mother left my father to be with me at the camp, she said she could not do without me,” Bulama who was uncontrollable narrated her ordeal.

One of the psychosocial staff of UNICEF at the camp who had been on her case, said “it was really difficult for her to settle down at the camp as she was threatened by the Civilian JTF that they will kill her for being one of the wives of Boko Haram. She could not sleep as she was traumatised and we had to intervene and she was able to get over the situation and she is now relating well with people on the camp, She equally got into knitting of caps to assist herself financially.”

According to the psychosocial workers 62 wives of Boko Haram insurgents were brought from Walasa in Bama alone and have been engaged under the psychosocial support programme of UNICEF, which is done in conjunction with the Borno State Ministry of Women Affairs. In Dalori camp alone there are over 20 cases like Aisha who without the intervention it could have been hard to rehabilitate them from the trauma of early marriage to husbands who knew nothing other than violent agitation.

In a research titled: “Bad Blood”, perceptions of children born of conflict-related sexual violence and women and girls associated with Boko Haram in Northeast Nigeria, the report states that: “As these victims of conflict reach Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Maiduguri Metropolitan Council (MMC) or attempt to return to their villages of origin, many of them are suffering from acute mental distress resulting from sexual, psychological and physical violence suffered in captivity.

Yet, a significant proportion of them still face stigma and rejection from their communities. All women and girls who have experienced sexual violence during the conflict face stigmatisation from communities at large. However, the stigma and potential rejection from families and community members have been much more acute for those who are perceived to have been associated with JAS – as abductees, those living in JAS strongholds, or those who were ‘wives’ of JAS combatants either by choice or force.

“The rejection and re-victimisation of women, girls and their children, as well as their yet unborn babies, needs to be understood in the context of the ongoing insurgency. Many people view these women, girls and their children as a direct threat, fearing that they have been indoctrinated and radicalised by JAS. The recent increase in the use of female suicide bombers throughout Nigeria, including under 18 year olds, has also reinforced the widely held belief among many that women and girls exposed to JAS (whether by force or voluntarily) are contributing to the overall insecurity in the region. Some also believe that the children conceived as a result of sexual violence or sexual relations with JAS members will become the next generation of fighters, as they carry the violent characteristics of their biological fathers. Many perceive these victims of conflict as being partly responsible for the violence and losses suffered by entire communities during the insurgency. As a result, children and newborns as well as their mothers are being increasingly ostracised and are at risk of further violence.”

It is with the understanding of this and the need to reintegrate Aisha and many others in her situation that UNICEF with the support of other stakeholders, are working to reshape the lives of these unfortunate women. Thousands of women, girls and boys have had access to this scheme and are now doing well.