Standing on a corner just off Manhattan’s Times Square, Ya Kaka and Hauwa giggle over a street artist’s caricature. Colorful fabric peeks out from the bottoms of their oversized winter coats but still, the teenage girls blend in seamlessly, enjoying a moment of beautiful anonymity they’ve struggled to find since escaping captivity at the hands of Nigeria’s feared Islamist extremist group, Boko Haram.
“We never thought we would escape and [be here today],” Ya Kaka says as she reflects on her journey to America. She’s wearing a winter hat with the words “Washington, D.C.” circling the bottom and a puffy white pom-pom at the top. “I never thought I [would] survive.”
Ya Kaka and Hauwa—identified only by their first names for security reasons—didn’t know each other before or during their ordeals, but their shared horrors unite them in advocating for fellow survivors and those still held by Boko Haram. The journey brought them from the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri to Manhattan and Washington, D.C. Working with the nonprofit Too Young to Wed, the girls met with government and U.N. officials to raise awareness about the threat of Boko Haram and urge the international community to aid those affected.
“I know that I have left thousands in the bush and in the forest, and I know that I have left thousands on the streets of Maiduguri,” Ya Kaka says. “The best thing I can do to help is reach out [to the world].”
Two From Thousands
Boko Haram skyrocketed to global consciousness in 2014, when the group’s kidnapping of 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Nigeria, sparked a worldwide campaign and the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. But the group has been waging a brutal campaign in northeastern Nigeria since 2009, forcing 2.5 million people from their homes, killing more than 20,000 people, and abducting thousands—using the women and girls as child brides and sex slaves, their children forced to become the next wave of Boko Haram insurgents.
In February 2018, another mass kidnapping made news when a Boko Haram splinter group abducted 110 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi.
Ya Kaka was 15 when Boko Haram fighters attacked her village of Bama in 2014. She was kidnapped along with her younger brother, 6, and sister, 5; their whereabouts remain unknown.
Hauwa was 14 when the militants stormed her house looking for her older brother. When they couldn’t find him, they demanded her father hand Hauwa over as a bride. When her father refused, the insurgents killed him and Hauwa's stepmother before taking Hauwa away.
Both Hauwa and Ya Kaka were eventually brought to camps inside Nigeria’s dense Sambisa Forest, where they were forced to marry insurgents, raped repeatedly by their husbands and other men in the camps, and treated, as Ya Kaka says, “like ordinary slaves.”
Neither Ya Kaka nor Hauwa—now 19 and 18 respectively—are certain exactly how long they were held captive. Ya Kaka thinks she was held for more than a year while Hauwa estimates she was captive for at least nine months. Over the course of the ordeal, Ya Kaka says she missed her parents and yearned for a good meal. Hauwa, too, thought often of her family.
“I watched my father being killed, and the same thing with my stepmother,” Hauwa says. “[I often wondered] Where is my mother? Who will tell her this story? How will she feel?”
It was motherhood that spurred their miraculous escapes.
When women gave birth in Ya Kaka’s home village, they were exempted of some many of daily responsibilities, Ya Kaka explains. But that wasn’t the case at the militants’ camp, where she says she was treated poorly and had little food. After giving birth, Ya Kaka she knew she needed to find a way out. She found courage in three women who approached her with a plan to flee. “They said, ‘We should run, let’s run,’” Ya Kaka says. “And so [two or three days later], we ran.”
Hauwa, meanwhile, says she started to think of an escape plan as her body signaled she was getting closer to giving birth. She knew she couldn’t deliver a baby in the camp, she says. There was no one to help her, and no one to talk to.
“I was sure I would die,” Hauwa says. “I knew I needed to leave.”
A Second Tragedy
Both girls trekked for weeks in search of safety; their babies did not survive the journeys. Along the way, Ya Kaka and Hauwa learned that surviving doesn’t always bring freedom. Many girls who escape Boko Haram are unable to reunite with their parents or are left homeless and alone, wandering towns and cities with nothing but the tattered clothes on their backs and no means to integrate back into society. Experts call this a “second tragedy of stigmatization,” a reality that hit Hauwa when she finally reached the city of Maiduguri.
She says her unkempt clothes brought discrimination on the city streets, inciting others to call her names like “Boko Haram wife” and taunt her. Communities also tend to shun former captives, suspicious they might be suicide bombers or brainwashed by the insurgents. Ya Kaka faced similar stigmatization.
Both say Too Young To Wed helped them reestablish their lives, offering support and assistance to gain their footing by providing them with clothes and sending them to school.
"I was once a child being pampered by my parents. From there, I was reduced to nothing,” Ya Kaka explains. “Today ... I believe I’ll grow higher and higher.”
Searching for Support
Throughout the past few years Ya Kaka and Hauwa have transformed from survivor to advocate. They believe that by sharing their experiences, they can motivate people to act and provide much-needed assistance to save girls from the fate they endured. No one listens to their stories back home, Hauwa says, but in the States, things feel different. The girls say they were received warmly by the people they met, who sympathized with them and were proud of their journey they’ve taken.
For the girls, their message is simple: Something as small as a change of clothes can improve a survivor's reception in her community. Educational support is also important. If survivors have access to schools "they will figure out how to feed themselves,” Ya KaKa says. Too Young to Wed funds both Ya Kaka’s and Hauwa’s education. In addition to their advocacy work, the girls hope to become lawyers one day.
Until then, the latest kidnapping in Dapchi underscores the amount of work that still needs to be done, Ya Kaka says. Such events are just a fraction of the warfare tearing apart Nigeria, particularly northeastern Nigeria, and neighboring African countries.
“A lot of people are trapped,” Hauwa says. “Some will not come out alive.”
Throughout their time in the U.S., the girls were showered with words like inspiring, courageous and brave—words that shine a light on their power.
“[Hearing these things] makes us very strong,” Hauwa says. “It makes us talk more.”
Ya Kaka added, “We get our courage because we believe the world will come to our aid.”
Stephanie Sinclair founded Too Young to Wed in an effort to protect girls' rights and end child marriage. She photographed Ya Kaka and Hauwa during their trip to the United States.