Tirham, an Open Doors partner, whose name has been changed for security reasons, counsels Nigerian women and girls who have survived the trauma of being kidnapped and raped by Boko Haram. As government and religious leaders gather in London for a major conference on religious freedom violations, Tirham speaks to Christian Today about the terrifying reality for women and girls in Nigeria.
CT: What kind of threats are Christian women and girls in Nigeria facing right now?
Tirham: There have been attacks, kidnappings and murders. When women and girls are kidnapped and taken to camps, most of them are repeatedly raped and gang raped. When they return to their communities, their lives have been destroyed and it is therefore difficult for them to cope and reintegrate.
Sometimes because of the stigma, it’s hard for girls to get married, so they marry anyone who will take them. Some of them have to drop out of school because their parents sold almost everything to pay the ransom.
I know of a family who sold everything they owned and borrowed money from their community to ransom their two daughters. The girls were detained for three weeks and repeatedly raped. When they were released, the parents were unable to repay the debt and they felt so ashamed that they fled and the girls were left behind; he destroyed the family.
CT: Do women and girls live in fear of this happening to them?
Tirham: Yes, the fear is so strong and they live with it every day. They fear they will be next. I know a community that cannot even move freely in the city, they can only move at a certain time and in complete safety.
CT: And some girls are never released?
Tirham: Some girls are killed after being raped. Some are held as sex slaves or domestic slaves. Others are married to Boko Haram fighters and have children with them.
CT: How do you counsel survivors who have been released or managed to escape?
Tirham: We conduct trauma healing sessions that combine psychological counseling with biblical principles. We let them know that God still loves them no matter what happened to them, that they are not belittled but that God still appreciates them.
When they come to the centre, they show all the signs of trauma. They can’t sleep at night because they are so scared, they isolate themselves and some are suicidal. They don’t trust anyone anymore and feel so much hatred towards the perpetrators.
For five days, we accompany them and help them to talk about their pain because the first step in healing is to be able to talk about it and not to repress it. They learn about God’s forgiveness so they can forgive the perpetrators. Forgiveness is not so much about releasing the perpetrators from the consequences of what they have done, but rather about women having inner peace so that they have hope to move on.
CT: It must be a long process?
Tirham: Yes it is a process and it takes a long time so three months later the girls come back for a follow up to continue the healing.
CT: What type of action, if any, is the Nigerian government taking to end this violence against women and girls?
Tirham: Right now, I don’t see if they are doing much. Many people don’t even report kidnappings to the police anymore because it simply costs them more money for the police to investigate or prosecute the kidnappers. Instead, they are simply trying to find money to pay the kidnappers. Earlier this year, four pastors were abducted along with two of their wives and a child in Niger State. To this day, they are still with their captors. The kidnappers asked for money and the community collected the money to give them but they still refused to release them and one of the pastors was killed. The Nigerian government is therefore not doing enough.
CT: You’re in London for the UK government’s religious freedom ministerial meeting. What message are you bringing?
Tirham: We want people to be aware of what is happening in Nigeria and to pressure the Nigerian government to act to stop the carnage of murders, kidnappings and rapes.