Growing mental health services for children who have survived Nigeria’s Islamist insurgency can help prevent future violence, aid agencies said Monday, although huge needs remain unmet.
In Niger’s Diffa region, about 250,000 people have fled fighting around Lake Chad where Islamist group Boko Haram has been waging attacks since 2009, according to the United Nations.
Two-thirds are children, many of whom have witnessed extreme violence and have no way to process their anger and trauma, said medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).
“We have many children who tell us, ‘When I grow up I’m going to revenge myself,'” said Yacouba Harouna, MSF’s supervisor of mental health activities in Diffa.
“This is why we say, better to act early than late.”
Boko Haram has targeted schools and abducted more than 1,000 children since 2013, according to the U.N. children’s agency, including, most notably, the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014.
MSF works primarily with Nigerian refugees between the ages of 7 and 14 in Diffa, some of whom were kidnapped, said Harouna. Art and drama help them release their emotions, he said.
Many draw pictures of people being slaughtered or in combat.
The aid group expanded its work with children last year, carrying out 700 consultations between March and June. Children now make up 35 percent of its mental health patients in Diffa, but it is the only agency providing these services in the area and is nowhere near reaching everyone in need, Harouna said.
“Child protection and children’s support in conflict zones is already underfunded … and psychosocial support even less,” said Natalie Turgut, a policy and advocacy adviser for War Child, a U.K.-based charity for children affected by war.
The area is neglected because it requires more specific skills and training than other types of aid, but is just as important, she said.
“If this isn’t prioritized, it means that conflicts will continue,” Turgut said.