CONTRIBUTOR, JENNIFER UGWA
Abuja, Nigeria — In January 2018, Pauline*, 23, fled her village in Tse-Usenda, Guma Local Government, Benue State after Fulani militant herders attacked her community. She escaped along with her mother and younger siblings to Ikpaam, an unofficial camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) that’s currently home to more than 300 households.
Despite the government's vow to end insecurity for nearly a decade, clashes between farmers and herders have only escalated in Nigeria's middle belt region, especially in Benue: In April, more than 70 people were killed by insurgents for opposing herders' destruction of their farmlands, according to Samuel Ortom, governor of Benue. And the situation is no different in Koshebe, Borno State, where 83 rice farmers were killed by insurgents for the same.
The conflict has displaced more than 2.5 million people in Nigeria. According to the Christian Aid Emergency Humanitarian Relief Fund, Benue alone has more than 50,000 IDPs from attacks, which have led to the loss of almost 1,000 lives. Pauline's father was killed in the siege; her other relatives are presumed either dead or missing.
In the camp, Pauline and her family were helped by a man named Joseph, a man at least ten years her senior. He was able to help them get accommodation and access to food more quickly through his connections with the camp chairman.
"After that, it was as if everyone expected that I took him as my man in the camp," Pauline said.
Joseph solicited Pauline for sex in exchange for his services, which, in addition to food and shelter, also included protection from other men in the camp who could potentially victimize her and her family.
At first, Joseph did not force himself on her, but over time, that changed --- the abuse, Pauline said, soon became a regular occurrence.
Nigerian law specifies a minimum of 12 years imprisonment for rape offenses without the option of a fine. But Pauline had no idea of the provisions of this law nor did she even know of the law's existence. Even if she had, it is unlikely she would have sought redress, having no money to afford a lawyer and her mother and siblings as dependents.
Women make up more than 50 percent of the IDP population in Nigeria. And as they are forced to survive on less than ₦780 (US $1.90), their livelihoods are largely reliant on goodwill donations from charitable and government organizations. Consequently, due to overlapping vulnerabilities related to economic security and protection, many find themselves at risk of sexual and gender-based violence in the camps.
Pauline now has an 18-month-old child, for whom she acts as the sole custodial parent. At the time of this interview with the young mother, the boy's health --- which Pauline says is ailing --- is dependent on a father who barely acknowledges his existence and provides very little support to raise him.
"Many of us [women and girls] came to the camp without children, but if you look around, plenty got pregnant and are now mothers without partners," said Magdalene*, 19, a resident of Abagena IDP camp in Markurdi. Abagena is home to more than 8,000 IDPs, according to an official of the State Emergency Management Agency.
In 2017, Magdalene witnessed her father's death at the hands of bandits when they attacked her once-peaceful community in Torkula, Guma, in Benue State. After farmers complained about the destruction of their crops by roaming cattle encroaching on their fields, rogue herders attacked the village, killing her father, a farmer, in the process.
She can't say how many lost their lives, and news reports vary on the figures, but she still has panic attacks as soon as the day darkens.
Having been at the camp for the last four years, living among friends and peers who have been victims, Magdalene said the culture of silence instituted by the camp authorities has given rise to a generation of children born from rape.
Attempts to retrieve data on reports of rape, harassment, or other forms of sexual abuse in Abagena were denied by camp staff. Rather, Magdalene said, incidents are settled in hushed tones. Victims are often threatened to stay silent or risk eviction --- especially if the abuser is a camp official --- said Magdalene, given what she's heard of the experiences of women who've left the camp for that reason.
Ngunan Ioron Loho, founder of the Samuel Ioron Foundation (SIF) --- a nonprofit providing educational access and inclusion for girls in Benue's IDP camp --- told me that she has heard reports of abuse from women in Abagena, but the threat of possible retaliation from compromised officials was too great to report the abuse or go public with accusations.
"In the camp, the culture of *'Kwambe sa Kwambe' *(loosely translated to "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" in the Tiv language) applies," Loho said, especially when it comes to an IDP offering sex to officials in exchange for food or provisions.
Many women who become pregnant from rape, like Pauline, are left to shoulder the risks and responsibilities of raising a child alone. Abortion is illegal in Nigeria and carries a jail term of up to 14 years; the only exception to terminate a pregnancy is to save a mother's life under Section 297 of the country's criminal code.
"That a child was conceived through rape is a moral issue, not law," explained Abul Mahmud, a lawyer and rights advocate. "The penal code doesn't legalize abortion on the grounds of nature and circumstance and conception of a child."
"When it happens," Magdalene said, "we cannot tell anyone."
Rights activists say the absence of support structures from the government and law enforcement agencies for victims of sexual abuse impedes justice. Sexual and Assault Referral Centers (SARCs), which provide services to survivors of sexualized and gender-based violence, are not available in most states --- including Benue.
Speaking by phone, Funke Oladipo, director of the women's development department for the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs, admitted that the absence of SARC services in most states and districts acts as a disservice to rape victims, "a situation that is worse for women in IDP camps," she said.
Even with State Emergency Management Agency officials stationed in some camps, assistance for victims is insufficient when there are no other state structures to handle reports of abuse. The agency is mostly concerned with providing emergency intervention packages --- like food and shelter --- to displaced persons. Gender-specific care is more or less considered an afterthought.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, more than 3,600 rape cases were recorded across Nigeria --- and that could still be a gross undercount, given the lack of data on violence against women. Even before the pandemic hit, rape victims were less willing to report cases due to lack of faith in the country's snail-paced legal system. But during the lockdown, though mobile courts were operating, cases of abuse --- especially sexual and domestic abuse --- were deprioritized.
"If your partner beat you, the police will not bring you before the same court," said Dorothy Njemanze, director of the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation, a nonprofit organization also assisting victims of sexualized and gender-based violence. "We have fantastic laws, but only on paper."
The cases that did make it to court were often pulled by victims after threats from their abusers or coercion from family members, said Bridget Edokwe, a lawyer and member of the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Nigeria (FIDA). "So you can only imagine that the situation is worse for the IDPs living with their rapists."
With no access to justice or protection, it is hard to imagine that victims in the camps will receive any respite soon.
"Until society recognizes the human rights of women, sexualized and gender-based violence, unfortunately, may continue in closed quarters," said Edokwe.
Indeed, until succor comes, women like Pauline will remain vulnerable to the predatory desires of men, in the same place where they seek refuge.
*\ Names have been changed for their protection.