Returning Chibok girls and the challenges of psychosocial rehabilitation

The heart-warming news of the return of some of the abducted Chibok girls after nearly two years in captivity was a very welcome relief and good news amidst the sea of socio-economic hardships across the nation. The warm embrace of the Federal Government as well as the jubilations have been all well and good.

But if we pause for a minute, we will realise that beyond the abducted Chibok girls, we are actually dealing with a human tragedy of monumental proportions in our society. The Boko Haram scourge has resulted in the kidnapping of several groups of girls as well as the killing of school boys such as the Federal Government College BuniYadi episode. It is estimated that between 500 and over a thousand girls may have been kidnapped by the insurgents. But, what is unclear is the availability of a systematic psychosocial intervention plan for survivors, victims and their families.

Indeed, we have also been witnessing several episodes of kidnapping across the length and breadth of the country, with children and the elderly being seen as particularly vulnerable and unlikely to display significant resistance. So, how exactly should families, the society and the government deal with the emotional and psychological reactions to the nightmare of kidnapping? How should the returning Chibok girls be rehabilitated, especially psycho-social rehabilitation?

Reduce publicity and enhance privacy: While it is understandable that the government would want to provide photo evidence that the girls have been truly returned and re-united – especially against the back drop of initial denials about whether any abduction even took place in the first place. However, having established that point, the girls need to be allowed some private time to process and come to terms with their circumstances. I sincerely hope that the ongoing media blitz will soon be stopped and every Tom, Dick and Harry would not be organising photo-op meetings under the pretense of ‘hosting the girls’. I sincerely hope that the Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) hierarchy or whoever is in charge should give consideration to giving them room to feel normal and to breathe again…away from the public eye. Indeed, one stark example of ill-advised media insensitivity was by an international reporter for a global news network who was shoving a microphone into their faces and asking questions while they were being ushered into a hall. This principle applies, even for individuals who have been kidnapped and eventually return back home. While our communal instinct is for all well-wishers to throng the place and rejoice with the families, it is ill-advised. And at the very least, should be curtailed.

Ensure comprehensive medical check-up: Being held in captivity comes with health challenges. From under-nourishment to the possibility of infections – a comprehensive physical check-up is crucial.

Psychological therapies: The range of adverse and often traumatic experiences that the returned girls must have gone through is likely to have left emotional scars that may be deep-seated, and may result in life-long impairment and disability. The least of these emotional scars is a reluctance to ever trust another human being again. They may also be going through emotional turmoil, with feelings such as guilt (‘survivor guilt’); shame and embarrassment (my parents and family members – everyone now knows that I was married off and have returned with a baby); suicidal ideas (maybe I should have died, so that I will be saved from the humiliation and taunts); misinterpreting looks as reflecting that everyone is whispering behind their backs; as teenagers, wondering if they will ever be able to live a normal life, get married and have a career e.t.c. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) such as recurrent nightmares, getting easily startled and frightened, avoiding any reminders of where and what they have gone through, memory flashbacks e.t.c. are also likely to be common.

Family members too – especially parents may also be wracked by guilt and a sense of failure that they were helpless and could not protect their daughter from such negative experiences. Siblings too will also have concerns and worries, and be unsure how to react or behave. Thus, the entire family needs psychological help to navigate all of these uncertainties and worries.

Social rehabilitation: It may be best to relocate the returnees away from their normal home environment – even if it is a temporary relocation, where they can avoid daily reminders of what transpired. For example, I imagine it will be traumatic to see on a daily basis, parents and family members of other girls still in captivity or whose death they witnessed. Or walking by the school where they were abducted. Social resettlement in different communities without advertising their identities such that they are not stigmatized and can attempt to start picking up the pieces of their life should be strongly encouraged. An individualized plan to help each and every one of them based on an objective assessment of their strengths should also be prepared. And the society needs to help them re-integrate as seamlessly as possible without making them feel awkward or different.