Finding strength amid the horror

Finding strength amid the horror

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Brian Feagans

How access to healthcare and family planning is helping Hadiza regain control after losing so much

Hadiza Mohammed knew it was time to act when the chief of her Nigerian village did the unthinkable: He left the only town he has ever known. Boko Haram’s brutal attacks were getting closer and closer, the leader said.

But leaving would be extremely difficult for Hadiza and her husband. They had nine children under 12 years old. And because the threat of Boko Haram had made it more dangerous to farm, food was running low and the family had been skipping meals for months. They were emaciated. 

Then, the night she had feared arrived. Boko Haram fighters stormed the village, killing most of the men and raping many of the women and girls. 

Hadiza’s husband was slaughtered. But Hadiza and her children managed to escape. 

Scampering through the bush for hours took its toll, draining what little energy they had. The soreness was unbearable, Hadiza said. “Our legs were so swollen." Two of her children, ages 5 and 7, were struggling the most, and had trouble keeping up. Then they could walk no more. Two days into the journey, they both died. 

“The women we were with, they dug a hole and buried my children right there,” Hadiza said. “Then we had to keep going.”

Hadiza arrived at a camp for displaced families near Maiduguri, Nigeria, three days later, clutching her 6-month-old son, who was severely malnourished. Camp staff tried to help, but it was too late: Hadiza lost a third child.

Hadiza is among the women and girls bearing the brunt of the conflict in Northeast Nigeria. They account for 55 percent of the nearly 2 million people displaced by the conflict. Those women and girls who haven’t found refuge are often abducted by Boko Haram militants. Some are sexually abused. Others are deployed as suicide bombers or used as bargaining tools with the Nigerian government.

That’s why, two and a half years after fleeing to Maiduguri, Hadiza said there’s no way she could go back home. She’s struggling to rebuild her life with her six remaining children. They live in a rented room on the outskirts of city, where Hadiza knits caps and sells charcoal to support the family.

Recently, a vegetable vendor she has gotten to know at the market wondered out loud what she would say if he asked for her hand in marriage. “I told him I would only say ‘yes’ if he agreed there would be no more children.” The man agreed, and they married shortly after.

Hadiza began buying birth control pills, but that added another expense she could hardly afford. Then Hadiza heard about new program from CARE, which started working in Northeast Nigeria earlier this year, with a goal of making sexual and reproductive health services available to nearly 350,000 women and girls. 

CARE is providing critical maternal health services in seven hard-to-reach communities deep into Borno state, many of them only accessible by helicopter because the roads are too dangerous. CARE also is supporting eight health facilities in and around Maiduguri, including the clinic Hadiza recently visited. 

Family planning services are at the heart of CARE’s response — they saves lives, just like clean water, shelter and food. Death from pregnancy and childbirth, already the leading cause of mortality for women of reproductive age globally, is an even greater risk in humanitarian crises. Helping mothers with healthy timing and spacing of births promotes their children’s health too. 

Hadiza knows this well. And, after consulting with clinic staff, she was relieved to learn that the clinic provided free hormonal arm implants that provide birth control for at least five years. She received the implant in October.

Hadiza said she’s still uncertain what the future holds. Her daily worries are many. But getting pregnant is no longer one of them. 

Hadiza Mohammed had to flee her village in Northeast Nigeria’s Borneo State after Boko Haram stormed it one night and began killing all the men. Photo: Brian Feagans/CARE