If the United States is serious about Boko Haram and #BringBackOurGirls, President Trump’s administration should #BringBackFundingForGlobalWomen.
Saturday’s release of 82 of the so-called Chibok girls three years after nearly 300 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram is certainly a victory for Nigeria — for the tireless Nigerian #BringBackOurGirls advocates, for the families who have been waiting to have their daughters and sisters back, and of course for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who promised in 2015 to negotiate to free the girls.
For those who wondered whether Trump cares about Africa, we at least know he has an inkling of interest in Nigeria. Buhari was the first African president to have a phone call with Trump to discuss the war against Boko Haram. Earlier this year, Trump’s transition team reportedly asked the State Department why the Chibok girls had not been freed yet and why the United States was even bothering to help Nigeria in the fight against Boko Haram.
Members of the GOP have used the Chibok girls as political pawns. (Remember when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie blamed Hillary Clinton for the kidnappings?) Now, one effect of the girls’ release may be to reveal how the Trump administration’s policies hurt women and girls around the world who face violence in conflict zones. The Trump administration’s reinstatement of the so-called Mexico City policy, or global gag rule, which restricts U.S. aid to organizations that provide information about abortion or abortion access, will suffocate efforts to provide help to women freed from Boko Haram, including any future Chibok girls that are released.
Bringing back girls and women trapped by Boko Haram goes beyond releasing them from the grip of terrorists — the victims need to be nursed back to health and reintegrated into society. Boko Haram is estimated to have kidnapped around 2,000 women and girls. The sad truth is that many of these women and girls may have been raped repeatedly, infected with sexually transmitted diseases, beaten or even shot. Boko Haram leaders reportedly intentionally try to impregnate the women that they capture in order to produce a new generation that will adhere to the group’s ideology. Beyond the physical scars, former Boko Haram captives are in need of trauma counseling and mental-health care. The Nigerian government also requires the girls to go through de-radicalization camps for a period of time before releasing them into society.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which is the the U.N.’s reproductive health agency, was completely defunded by the Trump administration under the Kemp-Kasten amendment, which prohibits funding to any organization that the President says is providing coercive abortions or sterlizations, even though UNFPA denies that it provides abortions or sterilizations to women around the world. The UNFPA is tasked with providing lifesaving health care to pregnant women, particularly in conflict zones. In Nigeria, UNFPA works with women in Boko Haram-affected areas in the northeast of the country, including women and girls who have been freed by the group. The organization provides psycho-social support, shelter, bedding, doctors for health screenings (including for sexually transmitted diseases) and transportation for families to be reunited with newly freed women and girls. The most recently released Chibok girls are currently being treated in a facility in Abuja.
So far, more than 100 of the Chibok girls have been released. UNFPA treated 24 Chibok girls who were released in October and has initiated support to 81 of the recently released girls. Eugene Kongnyuy, UNFPA’s deputy representative in Nigeria, told me over the phone on Tuesday that the U.S. funding cuts have already hurt their ability to help kidnapped women and girls recover after being freed from Boko Haram. “We receive less funds, so our capacity to respond now is limited,” he said. “The United States used to contribute funding to our regular resources.” Kongnyuy continued: “This year we requested $1 million from the U.S. government for our gender-based violence program in the northeast, and initially it was approved. A few days ago, we were informed that the funding would not come. We could have used that money” to respond quicker to the needs of the recently released girls. Kongnyuy said that it cost around $300,000 to rehabilitate the 24 girls freed in October. He expects the costs for the recently released girls to be more than four times that amount.
Kongnyuy said he was reaching out to the UNFPA headquarters in New York to request more emergency funds. “We are happy that the Chibok girls were released,” Kongnyuy said. “But if more girls are released, we will be under pressure and without additional funding, we will not be able to cope. We really regret that the United States took this decision [to defund UNFPA] based on false information. UNFPA does not provide or fund abortions. I wish the [United States] could reconsider funding us.”