“Manou, who was ten at the time, and his six-year-old sister, Chance, were tending to their family’s fields-in the eastern DRC- when the armed men arrived. Some of them attempted to sexually assault Manou who was wearing a dress. When they realized he was a boy, they started hitting him. Meanwhile, the other men were raping Chance. When their mother found them, Chance’s lower limbs were paralyzed and Manou was suffering the effects of his beating: he had been severely injured and later developed a serious infection in the abdominal region” (ICRC, Children in War).
Quite unfortunately, the heart wrenching story of Manou and Chance is not unique. According to Graca Machel, it is widely accepted that in conflict, children are not bystanders, but targets. They are murdered, raped, maimed, tortured, starved, subject to lack of control and chaos, and exposed to violence (Impact of War on Children). The effect of exposure to conflict on children is devastating and has far-reaching consequences, the bulk of which are not physical, but psycho-social. Since 2009, for example, the Boko Haram insurgency has taken a significantly drastic toll on the physical, psychological, socio-economic and mental health of children in the North-eastern states of Nigeria, as well as neighboring countries of Chad, Cameroun, and Niger.
In a statement issued April 13, 2018, The United Nations Children Education Fund disclosed that over 1,000 children have been abducted by the Boko Haram terrorist group since 2013, including the 276 school girls kidnapped from their dormitories in Chibok, Borno State in 2014. While some of these kidnapped children have either been returned or escaped from captivity, others are still being forcibly held and worse still, others, like Leah Sharibu, have lost their lives. According to reports captured by International organizations such as UNICEF and the ICRC, children involved directly in the Boko Haram insurgency have been forcibly used as child soldiers, suicide bombers, messengers, cooks, sex slaves and for domestic purposes-such as preparing of food and washing of clothes.
Children who lose their parents in the spontaneous terrorist attacks are left to fend for themselves and may be victims of forced labor and sexual exploitation. Girls suffer the most. In addition to being forcibly married to the terrorists, girls who become pregnant through rape are faced with ostracism for carrying the “children of terrorist,” and are saddled with the additional burden of catering for their children. According to Bad Blood: Perceptions of children born of conflict-related sexual violence and women and girls associated with Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, a report produced by International Alert and UNICEF in 2016 revealed that women and girls subjected to the most horrific experiences by the terrorists were seen as tainted, dismissed by community leaders as “Boko Haram wives,” “Sambisa women,” or “Annoba”-which translates as “plague.” On their return or escape from captivity, many face marginalization, discrimination, and rejection by family and community members due to social and cultural norms related to sexual violence. With little or no system for support, these girls are left with little option than to resort to sex trade to make ends meet.
However, while the physical implications of the Boko Haram insurgency is fairly articulated in research literature, the psychosocial implications remain unexplored. Shahar et al. explain that studies have revealed that children exposed to violence are more prone to stress and a long range of psychological problems (“Terrorism- Related Perceived Stress, Adolescent Depression and Social Support From Friends“). Schauer and Elbert argue that trauma can disrupt a child’s overall cognitive, moral, and personality development, interpersonal relationships, and coping abilities (“The Psychological Impact of Child Soldiering“). According to Gupta, particularly, children who grow up in an atmosphere of violence may grow to perceive violence as an effective way to resolve differences (“Psychosocial assessment of displaced children exposed to war related violence in Sierra Leone”). This may have destructive consequences on long-term societal stability. A study carried out in 2006 revealed that children who have been recruited as child soldiers have a higher propensity for continuing cycles of violence (Burke, Children and War: Cycles of Violence). Girls exposed to sexual, psychological, and physical violence may also suffer mental distress.
The recent kidnapping of 110 children from their school dormitory in Dapchi, Nigeria has proved that children are indeed targets in the Boko Haram insurgency. No doubt, the Nigerian Government has been leading the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria and neighboring countries to curtail this menace and ensure that children are protected in and from conflict. The return of 105 out of 110 Dapchi girls by the terrorists is a testament to President Buhari’s administration to the protection of children in conflict. Nevertheless, the Federal Government has acutely failed in setting up effective rehabilitation programs to cater for the physical, psychological, and mental health of the children affected by the Boko Haram. In the first instance, very little has been done to document the psychosocial experiences of children involved in the insurgency. Government interference usually ends with the rescue of kidnapped children and the resettling into communities or camps. Scoping exercises have shown that Internally Displaced Camps (IDP), which house a large number of such children, are devoid of Government-led assistance or interference. IDPs in Nigeria rely heavily on international organizations, such as UN, Mercy Corps, and Save the Children, for the provision of their daily needs.
The Nigerian Government must step up to augment the efforts of international organizations and display a willingness and capacity to alleviate the plight of children affected by the insurgency. Effective rehabilitation programs must be set up to provide succor for the children, creating an emotional and social environment to facilitate quick recovery from traumatic experiences and ensuring psychosocial and mental health. The rehabilitation programs must be meticulously designed and manned by passionate and experienced child protection experts with track record of excellence to ensure effectiveness. Anything short of this waters down the entire process. It is pertinent to state that proper rehabilitation would cost time and money. The Nigerian Government could partner with International Development Partners and donors to generate funds for the program and commit itself to its sustenance. Nigeria officials are quite notorious when it comes to proper management of funds. The Nigerian Government must work to ensure transparency and accountability to ensure the psychosocial and mental health of conflicted-affected children are not sacrificed on the altar of greed.