By Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD (Executive Director, Public Interest Directorate, American Psychological Association)
The world is justifiably horrified at the abduction and trafficking of nearly 300 schoolgirls by the terrorist group Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria. It is critical that the world understand the psychological impact of this terrorist act on the girls and their families. I reached out to psychologists with expertise in trauma, trafficking, international psychology, and the psychology of women and girls for their thoughts on how to respond to this crisis:
Clearly this experience must be incredibly traumatic for the girls and their families. What mental health needs must be met?
The parents of the Nigerian school girls who were abducted by the Boko Haram will not only require mental health support while they wait for the outcome of the abduction of their daughters, but also after the girls come home. The families are likely to be experiencing stress-related symptoms that are disruptive and disturbing. They will need to know that their reactions are normal reactions to an abnormal set of circumstances. Therefore, they could benefit from psychoeducation and support in coping with their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Finally, culturally congruent work will require that we coordinate our efforts with Nigerian psychologists, as well as faith-based leaders and indigenous healers if we wish to effectively support the families of the missing girls.
BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, PhD, LP, CAC/BP (Executive Director, African American Child Wellness Institute & Founder)
What can be done to help parents of other schoolgirls make their daughters feel safe?
Parents in Chibok, Nigeria and other parts of the region may understandably feel afraid for their children’s safety. Steps that may help could include creating a safety plan with their daughters about what to do if something happens that makes them feel uncomfortable at school. The plan could include helping their daughters to identify the difference between general worry and distress about a specific warning sign. The plan could also identify the safe adults that their children should try to connect with. Finally, the plan could give the children strategies for what to do if they are separated (taken) from the school. The girls should know that their safety is important, that the adults in their lives are concerned about them, and that they will work as hard as they can to protect them. The parents can also help their daughters recover from any prior difficult/traumatic experiences, including the vicarious trauma of the other girls being taken. Parents should talk with their daughters about what happened, get them appropriate counseling, and/or help them to express their feelings in various ways.
Thema Bryant-Davis, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University)
What does this event and its aftermath say about the value placed on the education of women and girls?
Unfortunately, the global impact of the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls was overlooked until the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign launched. It focused attention on how devastating these mass kidnappings are for the girls, their families, their communities, and their nation. This attention reminds us that it is critical to have systems in place to provide girls with safe access to school and educational opportunities for their healthy development. This cannot be ignored as we work to improve the lives of young people globally.
Norweeta Milburn, PhD (Director of Research and Evaluation, UCLA Nathanson Family Resilience Center)
UPDATE: In a recently published article, APA’s UN Team discusses the value of educating girls around the world in spite of gender-based violence.
How can psychologists assist the global efforts to address this issue?
In addressing any issue internationally, especially a human rights issue such as the recent kidnapping of girls from school in Nigeria, it is best for psychologists to arm themselves with information. Psychologists need to be informed about global agencies and the actions they take, about the relation between domestic and global organizations, and about the history and context of broad international movements to address issues such as violence against women and girls. However, before acting through professional activities or advocacy, psychologists should understand and reflect on their best role – as a learning partner and peer. They should also take steps to learn the culture, history and local efforts to address human rights issues, including the involvement of local psychologists.
Psychologists can assist the global efforts to address this issue by:
contributing to the research literature or to demonstration projects on the formative role of education as the best possible tool for empowerment and for national development,
contributing to the research on tools for change,
ensuring that practicing psychologists are mindful of the history brought to therapy by clients from communities where there has been strong political change, trauma, injustice and human rights violations,
incorporating a human rights, international perspective into all professional activities, especially teaching,
making contact with local human rights and psychology groups and offering toolkits for materials, teaching and advocacy,
partnering with domestic and global organizations to advocate for the provision of adequate mental health services internationally,
advocating for the U.S. Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act,
advocating for the U.S. Senate to ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,
advocating for policies that support victims of human trafficking,
advocating for the United States to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other human rights treaties,
advocating for U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding for education for women and girls,
advocating that all countries that have signed international treaties are held accountable for following them, and
supporting the protection of basic human rights for all people worldwide.
Merry Bullock, PhD (Senior Director, APA Office on International Affairs) with input from APA’s UN/NGO Representatives
How does this event speak to the larger issue of the global trafficking of women and girls?
The kidnapping is tragic in many ways. There is the obvious horror and grief experienced by the girls and their families – evident from the stories of those who escaped, and evident from all we know about the impact of hostage situations, violence and coercion, and threats that these children are experiencing. That it has belatedly gained the attention of the world highlights another tragedy, however. We are failing – as a global community – to prevent thousands of children from experiencing what these girls have experienced and what they are being threatened with: the loss of all security, all freedom, all rights and control over their own lives and bodies. Thousands of children are trafficked and exploited by adults in household servitude, in slave labor and military service, in sexual exploitation, in forced marriage. It is by no means a tragedy unique to Nigeria, as it happens in rural and urban communities throughout the world, including the United States.
Deborah Hume, PhD (Associate Teaching Professor, University of Missouri-Columbia)
Nancy Sidun, PsyD, ABPP, ATR (Supervising Clinical Psychologist, Kaiser Permanente-Hawaii)
The situation in Nigeria reflects the local and global underpinnings of human trafficking. The large scale of this event –nearly 300 school-aged girls kidnapped– and the outcries for help from the girls’ families have moved us around this particular event, as we should be moved. However, I hope we do not stop there. I hope this event will also help us recognize that the human rights of women and girls are being violated every day and in multiple ways around the world. The problem is not human trafficking but rather everything that fuels human trafficking. Human trafficking is nothing but the opportunist crime that preys on societies where female participation is severed by rampant acts of violence, reduced education and job opportunities leading to poverty, and social and government structures that in a plethora of ways espouse the idea that women and girls are somehow less than. Together, these issues contribute to the type of objectification that makes women and girls particularly vulnerable to human trafficking. This is what happened in Nigeria and it is the same formula that is making so many —too many— of our U.S. women and girls the victims of comparable atrocities.
Michelle Contreras, PsyD (Adjunct Faculty, Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology)
Many of us watching this horror unfold in Nigeria feel powerless. What can we do to help?
This event reminds us that violence against women and girls is a global health crisis and a human rights violation that contributes to political and economic instability. We must work to end the abhorrent, widespread prevalence of gender-based violence around the world. You can take action by sending a message to Congress to support U.S. engagement to #BringBackOurGirls and to encourage Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act.
There are other international efforts that the U.S. can support. The U.S. Agency for International Development can provide greater funding for education for women and girls. And the U.S. Senate can move to ratify the UN’s Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Nadine Kaslow, PhD, ABPP (Professor and Vice-Chair, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University)
As we raise awareness around this horrific action in order to ensure the safe and rapid return of these girls to their families, we need to remember that this is not an isolated event. Girls’ and women’s human rights are routinely trampled and degraded around the world. Their fundamental rights to healthcare, safety, education, and religious freedom are often constrained or eliminated altogether. We must all fight to ensure that girls and women everywhere including here in the United States get to exercise the human rights they are entitled to.
APA tip sheet – Children and Trauma: Tips for Mental Health Professionals
Image credit: Flickr