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Nigerian Bishops Try to Offer Hope to Women Raped by Boko Haram

Rally in support of kidnapped Nigerian girls, Union Square, NYC 2014

Michael Fleshman-cc

John Burger - published on 05/30/15

Church leaders reject abortion as part of solution

To perform abortions on women raped by terrorists would be to punish the innocent children conceived for the crimes of their fathers, said a bishop in Nigeria, responding to suggestions about how to care for former captives of Boko Haram.

A recent offensive by the Nigerian military in the north of the country led to the liberation of several hundred women and girls who had been abducted by the Islamist group. As previously reported, several of them were pregnant after having been sexually abused by their kidnappers. 

​Now there is debate about how best to help the pregnant women overcome the suffering brought on by rape and be reintegrated into their society. The Catholic bishops of the country are trying to convince the women, and the wider society, that abortion should not be part of the solution.

In a May 25 letter, the bishops offered the Church’s assistance: "The trauma of sexual assault and rape is enormous, and the Catholic Church in Nigeria in cooperation with all people of goodwill is ever prepared to provide every measure of support to accelerate the healing, rehabilitation and resettlement of the victims so that they can swiftly be reintegrated into the society," the letter said.

"We condemned in strong terms some misguided actions being canvassed by a cross section of persons and groups to the effect that mass abortion should be performed for the women," said Auxiliary Bishop Anselm Umoren of the Archdiocese of Abuja, in a message sent to Fides news agency.

"It is not tenable the suggestion that killing the babies conceived through rape by the terrorists is the most humane action to take in this instance," said Bishop Umoren, who serves as health committee chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria. "Since the babies are ignorant and innocent of the crimes against their mothers, it is unethical to punish them for the sins and offences of their erring fathers."

As former Gen. Muhammadu Buhari was inaugurated Nigeria’s new president Friday, the United States signaled its willingness to provide greater assistance in fighting Boko Haram, the New York Times reported. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who attended Buhari’s inauguration, also "was expected to underscore the need to rehabilitate the young women who have been raped, and often impregnated, by Boko Haram fighters," the Times said. "Mr. Buhari said during his inaugural speech that he was committed to ‘streamlining’ such programs."

Earlier in the month, the Times reported that Nigerian officials and relief workers describe the rape practice as a "deliberate strategy to dominate rural residents and possibly even create a new generation of Islamist militants in Nigeria."

Over 200 have so far been found to be pregnant, said the May 18 article, "but relief officials believe many more are bearing the unwanted children of Boko Haram militants."

“The sect leaders make a very conscious effort to impregnate the women,” said the Borno governor, Kashim Shettima. “Some of them, I was told, even pray before mating, offering supplications for God to make the products of what they are doing become children that will inherit their ideology.” …

Officials and relief workers here in Borno State, where Boko Haram was born and remains strongest, said the organized nature of Boko Haram’s sexual violence appeared to point to a deliberate self-perpetuation plan.

“It’s like they wanted to have their own siblings to take over from them,” said Abba Mohammed Bashir Shuwa, a senior state official in Maiduguri.

A relief official at the camp who is working closely with the abused women echoed that thought. “We are going to have another set of Boko Haram,” said the official, Hadiza Waziri. “Most of these women now, they don’t want these pregnancies. You cannot love the child.”

The Church may have a difficult time convincing the women to keep their "unwanted" children, then, especially with the presence of the United Nations Population Fund. The agency, whose website trumpets, "UNFPA: Delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted…," has been on the ground offering assistance.

"The United Nations Population Fund, with support from the Government of Japan, has been providing psychosocial support and sexual and reproductive health care to those affected by the insurgency," the UNFPA says on a section of its website regarding the released captives:

Dignity kits have been distributed to women and girls of childbearing age. These kits contain sanitary napkins, soap and other essential hygiene items. Reproductive health kits have also been provided to health workers in the affected areas, helping to support antenatal care and safe delivery for pregnant women.

And special care is provided to survivors of abduction. “The social, emotional and intellectual needs are addressed by a combination of psychosocial support activities, such as group and individual counselling, psycho-education, psychiatric referral and the provision of culturally appropriate dresses to all the women and girls to replace the torn and shabby dresses they wore for months throughout their captivity,” said Ratidzai Ndhlovu, UNFPA’s Representative in Nigeria.

But a spokesman for UNFPA in West Africa said abortion is not part of the agency’s response.

Answering a question whether UNFPA is offering to arrange abortions for any of the women, Hugues Kone said, "The response is clearly no." He also provided a statement that included this:

UNFPA does
not promote abortion as a method of family planning nor does it have any abortion related interventions in Nigeria. UNFPA supports voluntary family planning so that women and men can freely determine the number, timing and spacing of their children as well as prevent unwanted pregnancies—it is their human right to do so and to have the means to exercise that right. This helps reduce recourse to abortion. All UNFPA support abides by Nigeria’s laws.

Kone elaborated on the contents of the dignity kits being provided, saying they include condoms, as well as toothbrush and toothpaste, t-shirt, flip-flops, bucket, soap, pads and underwear for women, a towel and a sponge.

But Bishop Emmanuel Badejo, director of communications for the African Bishops, countered that the UNFPA "raised the alarm that most of the women rescued from Boko Haram were pregnant and sought to promote abortion as part of the care and concern to be shown to them."

"However, shortly afterwards it was found that only about six of the women were actually pregnant, but UNFPA is known to try to manipulate public opinion in this manner," Bishop Badejo said. 

As for the argument that women would reject these children because of their progeny, he said, "Human beings become what they become by nurture, not by nature, and there is nothing at all that to prove that any child fathered by a terrorist would become one."

"The Church would also advocate and provide careful and effective counseling and support for the women involved in this traumatic experience," he said. "Bishop Umoren knows what he is talking about."

But there are other agencies responding to the crisis as well, including the Catholic Caritas Foundation of Nigeria and dioceses and other faith-based organizations. The bishops in their letter urged impregnated women “to take solace and draw encouragement from the comfort that God has a purpose in their motherhood role for the innocent babies they now carry in their wombs.” They encouraged the women to “show maternal love for the Nigerian children they now bear.”

The bishops advocated the establishment of crisis pregnancy centers to help these pregnant women and other Nigerians.

“The children rescued from terror and abortion would be presented for adoption to the many generous Nigerians willing to accept abandoned, rejected or motherless and fatherless babies into their families,” they said.

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

AbortionBoko HaramIslamist MilitantsNigeria
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