MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, Feb 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
C hanging her son's nappy, a wry smile flickered across Aisha's
face as she recalled the power she wielded as the wife of a
leading Boko Haram commander, living in the jihadists' forest
stronghold in northeast Nigeria.
"I had many slaves - they did everything for me," the
25-year-old said, explaining how women and girls kidnapped by
the Islamist militants washed, cooked and babysat for her during
the three years she spent in their base in the vast Sambisa
"Even the men respected me because I was Mamman Nur's wife.
They could not look me in the eye," Aisha said in a state safe
house in Maiduguri, where she has lived for almost a year since
being captured by the Nigerian army in a raid in Sambisa.
Aisha is among around 70 women and children undergoing a
deradicalisation programme - led by psychologists and Islamic
teachers - designed to challenge the teachings they received and
beliefs they adopted while under the control of Boko Haram.
Thousands of girls and women have been abducted by the group
since it began its insurgency in 2009 - most notably the more
than 200 Chibok girls snatched from their school in April 2014 -
with many used as cooks, sex slaves, and even suicide bombers.
Yet some of these women, like Aisha, gained respect,
influence and standing within Boko Haram, which has waged a
bloody campaign to create an Islamic state in the northeast.
Seduced by this power, and relieved to escape the domestic
drudgery of their everyday lives, these women can prove tougher
than men to deradicalise and reintegrate into their communities,
according to the Neem Foundation, which runs the programme.
With more women likely to be freed from Boko Haram or
widowed as Nigeria's military strives to defeat the militants,
experts say insults, rejection and even violence towards them as
they return to their communities could hinder efforts to repair
the social fabric of a region splintered by Boko Haram.
"There is a possibility of violence (when these women go
home) because they were married to Boko Haram militants," Fatima
Akilu, the head of Neem, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"There is still a lot of anger and resentment from
communities that have been traumatised for years, and subjected
to atrocities by the group," she added.
While other women huddled around the communal television in
the safe house in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state,
22-year-old Halima recalled the 'beautiful home' built by her
Boko Haram husband in the Sambisa, and the easy life she
Trucks arrived regularly with food and clothes, a hospital
staffed with doctors and nurses tended to the ill, and Halima
was given her own room in the house she shared with her husband.
"Anything I requested, I got," said Halima, sitting under a
tree in the yard and lazily picking her toenails.
Life in the Sambisa for women like Halima was a far cry from
the deep-rooted patriarchy in the mainly Muslim northeast, where
rates of child marriage, literacy among girls, and women in
positions of power are far worse than in the rest of Nigeria.
The escape from reality, and taste of freedom and autonomy
afforded to the wives of Boko Haram militants, highlights the
challenge facing Neem to deradicalise the women.
Many are not ready to relinquish their newfound power.
Despite being kidnapped by Boko Haram when they attacked her
town of Banki four years ago, Aisha was not forced to marry Nur,
the suspected mastermind of a suicide bomb attack on U.N.
headquarters in Abuja in 2011 that killed 23 people.
Aisha was courted for months and showered with gifts by Nur,
who has a $160,000 state bounty on his head, before agreeing to
become his fourth wife. When she told Nur to divorce his second
wife - because she did not like her - he did so right away.
After arriving at the safe house, Aisha complained about
being separated from Nur, and asked the staff how they would
feel if they were suddenly deprived after years of regular sex.
"That's when she threatened that she would soon rape one of
the male staff," said one of the support staff. "For almost two
weeks, the men didn't come to work ... they were all afraid."
The aim of Neem's programme is to change the mindset of the
women and girls, make them think more rationally, and challenge
the beliefs instilled in them over several years by Boko Haram.
Neem employs psychologists who treat trauma and provide
counselling, while Islamic teachers discuss religious and
ideological beliefs, and challenge interpretations of the Koran.
The women and girls in the safe house were subjected to nine
straight hours of Koranic teaching a day by Boko Haram during
their time in captivity in the Sambisa forest, Akilu said.
"You can treat a person's emotional state ... but if you
don't change the way they think and just release them into
society, you perpetrate a vicious cycle," said Akilu, who used
to run a state deradicalisation program for Boko Haram members.
Akilu said she had seen huge improvements over the past nine
months in the women and girls in the safe house, with most now
believing that the actions of their former husbands were wrong.
"I laugh at what he (Nur) was saying," said Aisha. "I now
realise that he is not doing the right thing."
However, with the nine-month-long deradicalisation programme
drawing to a close, the staff at Neem were anxious about how the
women and girls would be received upon their return home.
Female former Boko Haram captives, and their children born
to the militants, often face mistrust and persecution from their
communities, who fear they will radicalise others or carry out
violence, said the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF).
But Aisha is not worried about rejection or stigma. Her only
fear is returning to an ordinary life - one without power.
"Only when you get married to a rich man, or a man of
authority, can you get that kind of power," she said. "But if I
am single yet have plenty of money of my own, I will be fine."
(Reporting By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Editing by Kieran
Guilbert and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights,
climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)