Abuja – At the age of 14, Hajja* and 275 of her classmates were kidnapped from her all-girls secondary boarding school in Chibok, Borno State in north-east Nigeria on 14 April 2014. Eventually she and 163 other girls were released or managed to escape, but the aftermath of the abduction left a trail of uncertainty and despair among the families of the abductees and the entire Chibok community.
Around the world, the tragedy caught the attention of prominent personalities including Michelle Obama who joined the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ movement advocating for the release of all the girls.
Five years later, little is known of the whereabouts or living conditions of the other 111 girls. Despite international efforts, their parents still wonder if their daughters are alive while other families now strive to support their rescued daughters’ return to normalcy.
According to a UNICEF report, since 2013, more than 3,500 children have been recruited and used by non-state armed groups in north-east Nigeria, warning that the exact figures are likely to be higher. In addition to these children, in 2018, 432 children were killed and maimed, 180 were abducted and 43 girls were sexually abused in the region, the report reads.
The tragedy in Chibok prompted the start of the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) programme in May 2014.
IOM initially trained Chibok community members to promote and enhance the well-being of the rescued girls. After initial research, local teams held their first workshop on psychosocial support in Bauchi, a more accessible state, alongside IOM psychosocial experts, representatives of the Government of nearby Borno State, the donor community and other key actors.
As time passed, it became clear that the release of the remaining abducted girls would take longer than expected, a challenge compounded by the escalation of violence and massive displacement in several north-east states that November.
Humanitarian access to and around Chibok is often hampered by security and infrastructure-related obstacles, so IOM created, trained and deployed three local psychosocial mobile teams to provide basic, regular psychosocial support to affected communities in their homes.
From June to September 2014, the MHPSS team and their partners visited the affected families to learn from the community’s understanding of psychosocial support, their existing coping mechanisms, such as community prayer sessions, the risks they still faced and the services they needed.
Teams then organized workshops for the parents of the abducted girls which provided a space for them to open up about their fears and concerns. Participants learned about stress management, loss and grief in ambiguous and uncertain times. Following the workshops, parents made commitments to build community support by conducting regular house visits, organizing prayers and sharing their skills with each other.
Later on, IOM organized three-day workshops for the rescued girls and their parents. The parents shared their concerns and reflected on their daughters’ reluctance to go back to school due to fear of being rejected by their classmates and teachers. The girls were encouraged to reflect on their fears, strengths and skills, and learn coping mechanisms to break the cycle of distress. The workshops also helped the girls strengthen ties with their parents and overcome their fears of returning to school.
“If I had known I would be abducted from secondary school, I would have never gone to primary school,” said Hajja at one of the workshops. “I now feel strong to hold on to my education and have hope for the future.”
As the situation in Chibok remained in the spotlight in Nigeria and beyond, IOM organized a training for journalists and reporters in November 2014 in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Twenty media professionals learned about the psychosocial effects of the news coverage of the abductions. They also learned how to carry out their work without causing harm, protect the confidentiality of the victims and avoid false narratives and stigmatization.
Despite the volatile situation, IOM is the only agency providing comprehensive psychosocial support activities in the Chibok area.
Five years since the implementation of the first project, IOM now provides MHPSS support to other communities affected by violence in north-east Nigeria, including students, young women, children and other individuals in need of protection.
These interventions ensure affected populations are first and foremost viewed as active participants in improving individual and collective well-being rather than passive recipients of aid. This translates into mutual support between families and other social groups in ways that encourage recovery and resilience.
Since 2014, more than 100,000 people have accessed life-changing services, thanks to the strong collaboration with key partners at national and state levels.
Today, PSS mobile teams operate resource centres in 12 locations in Borno, Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States. Eighteen teams composed of 114 members – including educators, health care workers, counselors and social workers – offer recreational activities for children and youth, which regularly involve artistic workshops, informal education for adults, counseling and support groups.
The Organization co-chairs the MHPSS sub-working group in north-east Nigeria with the Nigerian Ministry of Health, coordinating the MHPSS response and providing technical support and capacity building to national institutions and relevant actors.
Five years since the abductions paralyzed Chibok, the project’s approach has proven to empower the community to become drivers for their own care, and it has helped to expand MHPSS interventions to other areas in the north east.
By integrating psychosocial support into livelihood activities, IOM promotes positive coping mechanisms and resilience among the displaced population. These activities help people manage stress and increase self-esteem, providing beneficiaries with a sense of agency. Ten years into the crisis, these are essential components to build hope for 7.1 million people in need.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.