Sometimes, a change of clothes can make all the difference.
For young women who have survived kidnappings and rapes by Boko Haram in Nigeria, fresh clothing is critical to helping shed their status as victims and resume normal lives, survivors said on Tuesday.
Hauwa and Ya Kaka – identified for their protection only by their first names – were abducted four years ago in northeast Nigeria by militants who have waged an insurgency since 2009 to carve out an Islamic state.
They now act as advocates for Boko Haram captives and survivors.
The conflict has left at least 20,000 people dead and more than two million displaced. Last month, 110 more girls were taken by suspected Boko Haram militants in the town of Dapchi.
As captives, Hauwa and Ya Kaka said they were raped repeatedly, gave birth and eventually escaped.
But survivors are looked down upon, shunned and feared as potential bombers, they said.
Boko Haram has used dozens of children as suicide bombers, according to the UN children’s agency UNICEF.
Girls who escape Boko Haram are easily identifiable by their ragged appearance, they said, speaking through an interpreter on the margins of the United Nations’ session of the Commission on the Status of Women.
“Almost every displaced girl escaped with only a set of clothes,” Hauwa, 17, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“So the moment the girl is seen on the street unkempt, poorly dressed, they all know that she is a displaced person,” Hauwa said.
With new clothes, however, “they look like a normal girl,” said Ya Kaka, 18. “They have lost that bad identity.”
Ya Kaka said once she escaped, she begged in the streets, wearing her lone ragged dress.
The non-profit group Too Young to Wed gave her clothes and enrolled her in school, she said.
Too Young To Wed provides scholarships for survivors and sends some girls to tailoring schools where they learn to make clothes for other escapees, said Stephanie Sinclair, founder of the United States-based group.
Hauwa and Ya Kaka were kidnapped in 2014, the same year Boko Haram abducted about 270 schoolgirls in the Nigerian town of Chibok.
Ya Kaka was abducted with her sister, then age 5, and her brother, then age 6. She has not seen them since, she said.
Forced to sweep the Boko Haram compound naked, she was constantly raped, she said.
Also repeatedly raped, Hauwa was nine months pregnant when she decided to flee.
She slipped away and trekked for a week before giving birth to a daughter, who fell ill within days, she said.
“At first I thought she was sleeping. Later I realized her body was becoming so stiff,” she said. “I knew she died. So I dug a hole, buried the child and continued moving.”
Both young women now attend boarding school in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, and they say they want to become lawyers.