Image: Human Rights Watch / The Independent


The reported rescue of 234 young women from a Boko Haram stronghold by Nigerian security forces recently raises hopes for hundreds of others still being held captive by the Islamist terrorist group. The latter seem to include the 230 schoolgirls kidnapped from their school in the town of Chibok in April 2014. Those freed, however, still face daunting challenges resulting from the trauma of captivity, which, for many, included rape.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported last week that 214 women and girls in the displacement camps in Borno State were “visibly pregnant and receiving support” from the UN agency. While the UN cannot say how many of these women are former abductees, some of those rescued have already reported that they were raped or forced into marriage under threat of being sold into slavery. It is reasonable to assume that the terrorists of Boko Haram did not spare many of their young, largely Christian captives the brutal treatment regularly meted out to women in war zones.

After all they have suffered, how can these deeply wronged and wounded mothers best be helped?

The UNFPA is providing medical and pre-natal care and counselling to such women, as well as support to family and community members, and this is essential help of first resort. But in the UN’s Western hinterland, where victims of sexual violence are regarded as prime candidates for an abortion, some are advocating this remedy for the African victims as well. After all, to give birth to a child conceived in rape would make the child a lifelong reminder of the horror of her conception, and represent a kind of victory for male power. That is no doubt what some rape victims feel, and there is no shortage of organisations that reinforce this view.

Under the particularly traumatic circumstances of Boko Haram’s former captives, we might expect African women to feel the same. Authorities might have their own reasons for some kind of pre-emptive action among women not already visibly pregnant to be warranted. (And the role of UNFPA, best known for its zeal in preventing births, in this situation does not inspire total confidence on that score.)

The Governor of Borno, Kashim Shettima, has expressed alarm about the children of Boko Haram fathers and called for a special monitoring programme of the mothers to identify paternity:

“I am seriously worried with the fact that most women tend to hate and abandon children they deliver from rape. Now, the problem is that these children could go to the streets unattended to, they then lack access to food, health care and education. The result is that they could indeed inherit their fathers’ (ideology) somehow.”

Shettima’s fears highlight a problem that hardly exists in peaceful developed countries, but is significant in the conflict-ridden regions of Africa – the stigma of bearing the child of a hated enemy. Human Rights Watch researcher Mausi Segun, who has interviewed many girls and women who escaped from Boko Haram, told AP that even “Chibok girls” who escaped from the terrorists within the first couple of days of capture felt “deeply, deeply shamed” and “were being discriminated against because of close contact with Boko Haram and stigmatised.” They all came under the “slur”.

(That this would be the case in Christian communities, and in an African extended family culture that seems to have welcomed Aids orphans as far as possible, is disappointing and disturbing, although the breakdown of community and family bonds in areas of conflict has to be taken into account.)

Social stigma and rejection only increase the suffering of mothers who may find themselves unmarriageable, facing a long struggle to support their child and eventually the lonely task of revealing to them the sort of individual their father was. If these women cannot find support in their own families and communities, they urgently need support from government or voluntary agencies.

All this makes the view that “it would be better had this child never been born” seem humane. And yet there is evidence that, at least in the long run, this is not how all victims of rape think of their children. On the contrary, a study of Tutsi mothers who conceived during the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago has found that, for most, their children had given them a reason to live again after the nightmare of the genocide.

In a report on the study published last year in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, “How Motherhood Triumphs Over Trauma Among Mothers With Children From Genocidal Rape in Rwanda”, Odeth Kantengwa writes that, although the mothers experienced challenges in raising their children, especially in the early years, and felt the lack of expert and social support when faced with disclosing paternity to the children, motherhood played a positive role for many of them.

Even though raising children born of rape was closely related to revisiting mothers’ genocidal rape memories and facing with emotional distress, mothers kept saying “what happened to me is over,” referring to ways of putting their experiences of genocide-rape in the past.

Mothers who do not live with their children born of rape in their newly established families after genocide reported being disturbed since they were constantly burdened by imagining that no one is there to care for the children born of rape. Martha said, “I am ever troubled with and sometimes I find no meaning for my life without caring for my child from rape.”

Sadly, both the women and their children born from rape tended to face ongoing stigmatisation, even from husbands who had promised to help them take care of these children – at least financially — but then failed to do so. A woman called Lori said: “I feel my son is the only reason that keeps me to live on, work hard, and earn a living for my child, so that if I die, I’ll leave him with something because I do not want him to beg from anyone. I also think that I survived to teach him to work.”

Stressing the need these women have for psychotherapy and counselling, as well as group sharing facilitated by NGOs, Kantengwa concludes that, “Motherhood can liberate and transform women survivors of genocidal rape, especially if they have the right support systems.”

For those of us who will never face terrorism or civil war, let alone abduction and rape, the experience of the Boko Haram captives is almost unimaginable. So we should also recognise our limitations when it comes to the question of what would be best for women in such situations. Motherhood, even when it begins in the worst possible circumstances, can be a positive and healing thing, as the Rwanda study suggests. Its lessons should be applied in our own societies where the standard remedy for conception after rape is itself a form of stigmatisation.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet