The Discreet Lives Of Women Living With HIV In Nigerian IDP Camps

  • To be infected with HIV as a displaced person in Northeast Nigeria is to find yourself in hot water. No thanks to the Boko Haram insurgency, essential health services are unavailable in the rural communities. Funding is not enough to accommodate the special needs of people living with the virus. And, many would rather die than share their status with fellow IDPs because of severe stigmatization.

Hajiya*, 30, was out of town when Boko Haram militants attacked Bama in 2014. By the time she returned, her husband, Alhaji Mali, had been killed and her children, four-year-old Hauwa and seven-year-old Sadiq, had been abducted and taken to the group’s forest hideout. Knowing she could not live with both tragedies, she tracked down the terrorists, surrendered herself, and spent the following two years and some months in their camp, hoping to escape eventually with her son and daughter.

Within those few, dreary years, Hajiya was forcefully married thrice to different Boko Haram fighters. She now believes this must be how she came to be infected with HIV, a sexually transmissible virus that attacks a person’s immune system, making them vulnerable to a host of diseases.

Since the infection currently has no effective cure, people who live with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) depend on a life-long treatment known as antiretroviral therapy to live healthy lives. The drugs, which reduce the viral blood in a person’s blood, have to be taken frequently and regularly, despite having a number of side effects.

A lot of progress has been made in curtailing the spread of the virus since the first case was locally detected in 1985. Nevertheless, as of 2019, about 1.8 million people in Nigeria were estimated to have the infection, placing it as the country with the world’s second-largest HIV epidemic. But Nigeria also has a huge problem of discrimination. About half of adults interviewed in 2018 said they would not buy fresh vegetables from a vendor if they knew he or she was HIV positive. They also do not believe children living with HIV should go to the same schools as those without the infection.

HIV-related stigma, a 2021 study showed, is equally pronounced in northeast Nigeria, especially Yobe and Borno states. In Borno, only 55 per cent of the respondents were willing to care for relatives living with HIV and could share food with infected persons, and only 49 per cent were willing to buy food from shopkeepers living with HIV.

This problem is exemplified in Hajiya’s story as well as the experiences of other women displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency, which has lingered for over 11 years.

Her husband’s murder and her children’s abduction were not random. Four of her late spouse’s brothers were Boko Haram members and led the kidnapping. Eight other children from the community were also abducted, the oldest being a 10-year-old boy and the child of Hajiya’s in-law. They were lured with the promise of getting gifts of Bobo, a popular flavoured milk drink, if they cooperated.

Her husband had taken a different path from his siblings. Rather than join the terror group, he worked for a vigilante unit, led by famous crime-fighter Ali Kwara. “When they came to Bama, they told him, ‘You are a disbeliever killing innocent Boko Haram; we have to kill you.’ And so they slit his throat,” Hajiya narrates in a low-pitched tone, her left hand drawing imaginary patterns in the mat before her.

How did Alhaji Mali’s brothers end up at the frontlines of Boko Haram’s war? According to Hajiya, they were studying at a Qur’anic school in Banki, Borno State, when the town was captured by Boko Haram. Three of them then followed the invaders to their hideout in Sambisa forest and took up arms. A fourth brother joined later. She adds that three of the siblings are now late.

Recalling her time in Boko Haram captivity, Hajiya says there was suffering but not as much as some people faced. One of the greatest sources of anguish for her was that she was forced to tie knots with members of the same group that killed her husband not long after his death.

“I was married three times. One cannot stay there without getting married,” she says.

She had come up with different excuses. First, she said she wanted to observe the ‘iddah, a waiting period during which Muslim women who had divorced or lost their husbands secluded themselves and refrained from remarrying. It lasts for four months and 10 days and, if the widow is pregnant, until she gives birth. But her protest was rejected because her “husband died an infidel and the waiting period does not apply.” She also complained that she was ill, but this only bought her a short respite.

“After some days, they brought someone and said I should marry him. I can then go to him for treatment,” she recalls the time she finally had to resign to fate.

“My new husband’s house was very strict and I couldn’t move around. I then married another husband and a third. My third husband was lenient. He allowed me to move and even took me to see his relatives in Basa, near Fulka. It was the first time I saw the main road. He later went to fight at Bita and got killed there.”

Having had the rare chance of visiting the city, she mastered the routes and returned to them as she escaped to Bama with Hauwa and Sadiq.


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