Sexual and gender-based violence is rife in this area. Benue State, Nigeria.

Sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria

Violent clashes in northcentral Nigeria have forced tens of thousands of people from their homes in recent years. Many have settled in camps around Makurdi, the capital of Benue state. Living conditions in the camps are precarious, and daily life is a struggle, particularly for women. After receiving reports of alarming levels of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against women and girls in the camps, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is providing survivors with medical and psychological care. Some survivors have shared their stories.

Stories of sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria

“He promised me that he would give me money and asked me to meet him at a house outside the camp,” says Iyua, a mother of six who lives in Mbawa camp, 20 km north of the state capital Makurdi. Desperate to borrow money to buy food for her children, she had asked the man, who was an acquaintance, for help.

“When I arrived there, he said he would help me only if I had sex with him. I refused, but he physically forced me,” she says. Following the sexual assault, Iyua sought treatment at MSF’s clinic in the camp. This clinic provides care for survivors of sexual violence.

Malnutrition in northwest Nigeria. Nigeria news. Naija news. Nigeria border.

The humanitarian crisis in northwest Nigeria

Simba Trima, Country Representative for MSF in Nigeria, alerts on the humanitarian crisis in northwest Nigeria and the catastrophic scenario for 2024 amid humanitarian aid cuts and neglect from donors and organisations.
MSF/Georg Gassauer

Living conditions in Benue State, Nigeria

Benue State is an agricultural region in northcentral Nigeria, often known as Nigeria’s food basket. It is crossed by the country’s second-largest waterway, the Benue River. In recent years, insecurity in northern Nigeria has forced many herders to move south into the north-central region. At the same time, climate change and environmental degradation have reduced the availability of fertile land.

The enactment of a law in 2017 prohibiting open grazing led to the exodus of herders from Benue state who could not sustain their traditional way of life. This led to an intensification of armed clashes between herders and farmers. The resulting violence has displaced almost 400,000 people from their homes. According to the International Organization for Migration, many are settling in camps across Benue state.

Life in the camps is a struggle. Living conditions are precarious and unsanitary, and there are severe shortages of food, drinking water, and basic services, including healthcare. There are also alarming levels of sexual violence, aggravated by impoverishment, power imbalances between women and men, people’s limited means to earn a living, and the wider context of violence.

Sexual and gender-based violence in Benue State, Nigeria.
Makurdi town, near the rice fields. Makurdi, Benue, North Central Nigeria, December 2023.
Kasia Strek/MSF

The majority of perpetrators are intimate partners

According to MSF data, the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence are intimate partners of survivors. Sexual violence is also perpetrated by acquaintances and strangers, whether civilians or non-civilians. Often, the lone providers for their families, many women have no choice but to leave the camps in search of food and wood for fuel, exposing themselves to the risk of sexual violence.

Dooshima, a schoolgirl, was working on a farm one day when she was forced by her mother and sister to take a motorbike ride with men she did not know. “As we were approaching a village, a crowd of people started shouting, singing and cheering,” she says. “I recognised wedding songs.” At that moment, Dooshima realised her family had sold her into marriage. Such was her desperation that she remembers wondering if she had anything with her that she could use to kill herself.

After the wedding to a man 30 years her senior, Dooshima was locked up in a small house. She tried to escape but was recaptured and beaten. After three days of being kept prisoner, her husband came into the house and raped her. Dooshima ran away again and, this time, evaded capture.

MSF, Doctors Without Borders, Maternal Healthcare in Nigeria

Three women describe the challenges they faced to access healthcare in Nigeria

Three women describe the challenges they faced in accessing healthcare for their children in Gummi, Zamfara state, northwest Nigeria.
MSF/Alexandre Marcou

Reaching home, Dooshima found herself rejected by her family. “My mother did not want to see me ever again,” she says. “She took all my belongings, including my school uniform and books, and burnt everything”.

After seeking medical treatment from MSF, Dooshima discovered she was pregnant and decided to have an abortion.

Now, Dooshima is selling oranges to make enough money to replace the clothes her mother burned. She plans to learn to sew to earn enough to buy books and return to school. More than anything, she wants to continue her education. “I would like to become a doctor and save lives,” she says.

Sexual and gender-based violence in Benue State, Nigeria.
Burned uniforms, books, school results. Dooshima, who was sold for marriage and sexually assaulted, wants to continue her education above anything. She wants to first learn how to sew clothes, which she believes is a good business, and to earn enough money to buy books and go back to school.
Kasia Strek/MSF

Sexual and gender-based violence in refugee camps

Shiana moved to Mbawa camp five years ago with her older sister. She gave birth to two babies, but both died in early childhood. Since her early childhood, she has been living with a disability. “I was asleep when someone knocked on my door at night,” she says. “The man promised to bring me something to eat, then he forced the door of my tent, as the lock was broken, and insisted on having sex with me. I refused and tried to push him away, but he squeezed my arms and raped me.”

Shiana was sexually assaulted twice by men who forced their way into her tent, taking advantage of her physical disability. “Last night, again, a man came and tried to enter, but I woke up quickly enough and blocked the door from the inside; this happens regularly in the camp,” she says. Shiana has no means of earning money. She sometimes walks to a nearby market to pick up spilt grain from the ground, which she collects and sells.

MSF, Doctors Without Borders, Nigeria, Access to maternal healthcare

Access to Maternal Healthcare in Nigeria

In Jigawa state, Nigeria, MSF collaborates with the state Ministry of Health to provide comprehensive emergency obstetrics and newborn care in Jahun General Hospital.  

Sexual and gender-based violence on farms

A few tents away from Shiana lives Seember. Seember’s husband was a farmer who was killed in a night-time attack. “My husband was captured and shot when he tried to run out of the house,” she remembers. “He was lying dead on the ground when another man came and cut off his head with a machete.” Seember and her two children escaped and fled to Mbawa camp. In April 2023, she was working on a farm, harvesting crops with other women, when five men ambushed them. Three with guns and two with machetes. The men discussed whether to kill them but decided to rape them instead.

“When I saw these men arriving in the field, I felt anger,” she says. “I thought of my husband´s death and thought it was my turn to leave this world, but I refrained from defending myself against the perpetrators so that I could remain alive to take care of my children.”

The rape left Seember unable to walk unaided. A relative brought her to MSF’s clinic in Mbawa camp, where she received medical care and mental health support.

Seember says that she feels very lonely without her husband and that when she sits by herself, the disturbing memories come flooding back. Her teenage son Fanan does his best to comfort and distract her by making her laugh or plaiting her hair.

Image of a victim of SGBV in Nigeria. Sexual and gender-based violence in Benue State, Nigeria.
Seember has two kids; her oldest son, Fanan, is almost an adult. They came to the IDP camp after her husband was killed in an attack three years ago. The younger one is with her husband’s family to make it easier for her with the expenses.
Kasia Strek/MSF

Access to free healthcare for victims of rape

Iyua, Dooshima, Shiana and Seember are just four among thousands of women and girls living in camps in Benue state who have survived sexual violence. Without preventive action, MSF warns that the risks for women will continue to escalate.

“It is important to highlight that the social environment is not getting better,” says MSF project coordinator Resit Elcin. “There is a lack of livelihood options for displaced people, particularly for women, and protection and prevention efforts are barely in place. The situation is not improving.”

Women and girls need access to services, including safe housing and emergency shelter, legal assistance, and livelihood and financial support. Resit Elcin, MSF project coordinator

“Survivors of sexual violence, both in Benue state and across Nigeria, deserve access to free-of-charge and quality medical care and mental health support,” explains Resit. “Women and girls need access to services including safe housing and emergency shelter, legal assistance, and livelihood and financial support. The key to preventing sexual violence is to address people’s humanitarian needs and ensure that vulnerable people are safe within the camps.”

Medication for victims of sexual violence and gender-based violence in Benue State, Nigeria.
Medicine and drugs used to treat survivors of sexual and gender-based violence at the MSF Star clinic located in Mbawa IDP camp. The sooner survivors arrive in the clinic after being sexually assaulted, the sooner they can receive emergency care to prevent unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases (especially HIV) and other medical complications. They are also given pep, emergency contraception and vaccination against Hepatis B and Tetanus.
Kasia Strek/MSF

How we help survivors of sexual violence

“Humanitarian and development organisations, both local and international, must work alongside the Nigerian authorities to ensure that medical and psychological support is freely available to survivors of sexual violence in Benue state and, more broadly, to support displaced communities regain their dignity and control over their lives,” says Resit.

MSF launched an emergency response to assist displaced people in Benue state in 2018. We provide them with medical care, including sexual and reproductive healthcare and comprehensive care for survivors of sexual violence. In 2023, MSF teams in Benue treated more than 1,700 survivors of sexual violence.

*Names have been changed to protect patients’ identities.

**Throughout our intervention, MSF has primarily supported displaced farming communities and host communities surrounding the IDP camps. More must be done to understand the humanitarian health needs of herding communities and the impact of violence on their lives.