Surviving sexual violence in the camps of Benue, Nigeria

Women share their stories of surviving sexual violence amid conflict and displacement.

An open hand holding a whistle for protection from sexual violence in Nigeria.

Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

Violent clashes in north-central 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, where living conditions in camps are precarious and daily life is a struggle, particularly for women. 

After receiving reports of alarming levels of sexual violence against women and girls in the camps, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are providing survivors with medical and psychological care. Some survivors* have shared their stories.

A survivor of sexual violence sits behind a mosquito net in her tent in Mbawa camp for displaced people in Nigeria.
At MSF's clinic, Iyua received emergency care to prevent HIV and antibiotics for sexually transmitted infections, vaccination for tetanus and hepatitis B, and mental health support after surviving sexual violence. Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

“He promised me that he would give me money and asked me to meet him at a house outside the camp,” said Iyua, a mother of six who lives in Mbawa camp, about 12 miles 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,” Iyua said. Following the sexual assault, Iyua sought treatment at MSF’s clinic in the camp, which provides care for survivors of sexual violence.

People work in a rice mill located at the entrance to Makurdi town
People sift through grains at a rice mill in Makurdi, the capital of Benue state, which is known as Nigeria's food basket. Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

Roots of a crisis

Benue state is an agricultural region known as Nigeria’s food basket and 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, while climate change and environmental degradation have reduced the availability of fertile land. 

The enactment of a law in 2017 prohibiting open grazing led to an exodus of herders from Benue state who could not sustain their traditional way of life, leading 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, with many settling in camps across Benue state.

Children sort through a basket full of oranges in a displacement camp in Nigeria.
A hair comb used to braid women's hair in a camp in Nigeria.
A resident of Mbawa camp sorts through a bowl of grain

Women in the camps make money by selling produce like oranges and grains and braiding hair. Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

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

According to MSF data, the majority of perpetrators of sexual violence are intimate partners, but sexual violence is also perpetrated by acquaintances and strangers. 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.

People roast cow skin on a hill by the Benue River in Nigeria.
People roast cow skin on a pile of rubbish and ashes by the Benue River to prepare it for making a local dish called Kpomo. Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

Dooshima’s forced marriage

Dooshima, a schoolgirl, was working on a farm one day when she was forced by her mother and sister to take a motorcycle ride with men she did not know.

“As we were approaching a village, a crowd of people started shouting, singing, and cheering,” Dooshima said. “I recognized wedding songs.” At that moment she realized she had been sold by her family into marriage. Such was her desperation that she remembers wondering if she had anything with her that she could use to kill herself.

Profile of a woman wearing an earring that says "beauty" in Nigeria.

Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

"My mother did not want to see me ever again. She took all my belongings, including my school uniform and books, and burned everything."

After having to marry a man 30 years her senior, Dooshima was locked up in a small house. She tried to escape but was recaptured and beaten. Three days later, her husband came and raped her. Dooshima ran away again and this time, she evaded capture

When she reached home, Dooshima found herself rejected by her family.

“My mother did not want to see me ever again,” she said. “She took all my belongings, including my school uniform and books, and burned everything.”

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

Now Dooshima sells oranges to make enough money to replace the clothes her mother burned. She plans to learn how to sew so that she can earn enough to buy books and go back to school. More than anything, she wants to continue her education. “I would like to become a doctor and save lives,” she said.

A young woman looks down an alley between tents in a displacement camp in Nigeria.
Shiana was sexually assaulted twice by men who forced themselves into the tent where she lives alone. Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

Shiana, a survivor with a disability

Shiana moved to Mbawa camp five years ago with her older sister. She gave birth to two babies, but both died. Since her early childhood, she has been living with a disability.

“I was asleep when someone knocked on my door at night,” she said. “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 said. Shiana has no means of earning money, but sometimes walks to a nearby market to pick up spilt grain from the ground, which she collects and sells.

Shiana's tent in Mbawa camp, Nigeria.
The lock on the door of Shiana’s tent is broken, making it easy for people to force their way in

The lock to Shiana's tent is broken. She says that some men walk around the camp looking for sex while people are sleeping. Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

Seember, the farmer’s widow

Shiana lives a few tents away from Seember, the widow of  a farmer who was killed in a nighttime attack. “My husband was captured and shot when he tried to run out of the house,” she remembered. “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 they were ambushed by five men—three with guns and two with machetes. The men discussed whether to kill them but decided to rape them instead.

Seember speaks with a neighbor inside their tent in a camp in Nigeria.

Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

“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.”

“When I saw these men arriving in the field, I felt anger,” she said. “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 braiding her hair.

Seember hugs her son.
Seember’s son Fanan braids his mother’s hair.

When Seember's oldest son, Fanan, sees her alone, he tries to make her laugh and braids her hair to distract from the memories of her assault. Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

The need for preventative action

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.”

The key to preventing sexual violence is to address people’s humanitarian needs and ensure that vulnerable people are safe within the camps.

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,” added 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.”

“Humanitarian and development organizations, 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 in regaining their dignity and control over their lives,” said Resit.

MSF staff prepare a medicine box to treat sexual violence patients at MSF's pharmacy in Mbawa camp, Nigeria.
At the MSF clinic’s pharmacy, Juliet Buluun (right), a clinical assistant, and Precious Ahil Doshima (left), a midwife, prepare a medicine box for sexual violence patients. Nigeria 2023 © Kasia Strek/MSF

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

MSF has primarily supported displaced farming communities and host communities surrounding camps for internally displaced people. More must be done to understand the humanitarian and health needs of herding communities, and the impact of violence on their lives.

* Names have been changed to protect patients’ identities