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Rape Victim Faces Uncertain Path To Justice In Nigeria’s Adamawa

In conflict-torn Adamawa, another crisis is brewing: under-reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). This article highlights the story of a survivor, too young to grasp the impact of the harm done to her.

In the stillness of the Boko Haram war-ravaged town of Madagali in Adamawa state, northeastern Nigeria, a young girl was sexually abused. Even though she was born in Maiduguri in neighbouring Borno State, Ummi and her family had to relocate in 2021 to Madagali as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency. In the wake of the insurgency, the community lay in ruins, yet it was the most viable option. 

With no money and the struggles of starting life afresh after being displaced, her family moved back to her father’s family house, where they lived with other relatives, including uncles, aunts, and cousins. Speaking to HumAngle, eight-year-old Ummi* said, “Mallam ensured we always said our prayers and taught us how to read the Quran,” referring to her father’s brother, who stayed in one of the rooms on the outskirts of the house.

“I was walking into our part of the house. I passed his room, and he stopped me to ask if I had said my prayers. I told him I was on my way to do that,” she quietly recounted what had happened to her on March 3.

“The next thing I knew, he pulled me into his room, placed me on his bed, and forced himself on me. After a while, he stood up and left the room, leaving me in pain,” she continued, reflecting in a way that showed her ignorance of the gravity of what had happened to her.

“I stood up and went into the house crying. When my mother asked what had happened to me, ‘Is it not Mallam that put me on his bed and forced himself on me? Now my stomach is aching, and I feel pains around my waist, I said in response to her question.” 

According to Mirabel Centre, an organisation working with victims of sexual violence,  70 per cent of survivors of sexual violence are children. SGBV and, specifically, cases of sexual violence have become predominant in conflict and humanitarian situations. Similarly, a 2020 UNICEF report asserts that in the northeastern states affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, at least 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys have experienced sexual violence, while the World Health Organization (2018) states that in 70-85 per cent of child sexual abuse cases, the perpetrator is a family member or someone close to the family.

Ummi’s father shared his account of the incident: “I was at work when her brother came to inform me about what had unfolded and that Mallam had escaped from the house. I came back to the house and met her crying and lying down in pain. I was very angry and went straight to the Bulama to tell him what had transpired. I told him to tell Mallam never to show his face in the house again, or I would take matters into my hands.” 

Abdulazeez Njidda, the Bulama (a title bestowed upon the ward leader in the community who settles communal disputes and tries to maintain peace) spoke to HumAngle. “This is a recurring pattern in the community. I get reports often about Sexual Gender-Based Violence, and I try my best to support the families in seeking justice, but most often, we don’t want it to escalate, so we try to manage it within the community,” he noted.

Illustration of a person sitting with knees drawn to chest, head down, in a contemplative or sad pose.
Illustration: Kingsley Chibueze/HumAngle

The culture of silence and shame has allowed the under-reporting of child violations to persist. Like in Ummi’s case, the International Rescue Commission has noted that in the northeastern region of Nigeria, “child sexual abuse is often seen as a private matter, and reporting it may be considered a breach of family honour.” Furthermore, Amnesty International opines that “the culture of silence and stigma around child sexual abuse in Nigeria allows perpetrators to go unpunished and victims to suffer in silence”.

Ummi’s father commented that the family kept pressuring him to let go of the issue and uphold the family’s honour. He then let sleeping dogs lie. “After all, there was not much I could do to change what had already happened,” he noted softly. But a visit from a friend in the military convinced him to report the case and get justice. With help from his friend, he filed a case against Mallam. He has since been detained in police custody in the state capital.

However, Ummi’s struggle did not end with the act. She was taken to the primary healthcare centre on the day of the incident but was only given antibiotics and painkillers by the medical centre after her examination. The pain did not stop; it only got worse.

“My stomach, private parts, and waist continued to ache until I couldn’t eat or drink anymore because I would be in unbearable pain whenever I went to the toilet,” Ummi stated. 

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) (2020), “Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often experience physical symptoms like chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, and pelvic pain.” All of which became a constant reminder to Ummi of her traumatic experience.

Constrained by his meagre earnings as a labourer, her father could do little to ease her pain until he had saved up enough money to afford a trip with Ummi to Mubi, a neighbouring urban town. 

“Ummi is doing very well now after our trip to Mubi, where she received good medical attention. The doctor asked that she be re-examined after two weeks, but I didn’t have the resources to return to Mubi and see the doctor again. I am not concerned because she is healthier now and has resumed her previous activities without any complaints or pain,” Ummi’s father told HumAngle during the interview.

The prevalence of sexual violence on children, particularly in conflict-affected areas, is a gnawing problem, with little attention being given to it.  This often makes the hands of justice slow and forces survivors to grapple with the trauma and whittle away under the weight of cultural norms that perpetuate silence.

* This story was produced under the HumAngle accountability fellowship.

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