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By Seun DUROJAIYE
HALIMA Aminu returned home from school one sunny afternoon in June and collected a bowl filled with Alewan Madara from her mother, to sell. The 8-year-old still had her uniform on when she stepped out with the local candy made from milk, looking to sell her stock to other students who were making their way home after school. Just the previous day, she had sold out her bowl of the local candy and thought it was a lucky streak when an older man, Adamu* a trader approached her, requesting to buy the entire stock.
Aminu recalls that he asked her politely to deliver the bowl of candy to his shop, which was a few meters from her house. She obliged, oblivious to any sense of danger. When they got to the shop, the 21-year-old trader fondled and penetrated her private area with his fingers. After which he sent her back home, threatening to kill her if she told anyone.
Unaware of what had happened to her daughter, Aminu’s mother was happy that she had been able to sell all the candy.
Afraid of getting killed, Aminu kept quiet and returned to Adamu’s shop for three consecutive days. Over that time he moved from fondling to raping the little girl. He promised to take care of Aminu, making her believe he would provide financial assistance for her and her family.
“Most minors who fall victims of rape in this region (northern Nigeria) return to the abuser for many reasons, one of which is the belief that the abuser will provide financial support. Some others who might have suffered neglect crave the attention the abuser gives, even when it is a painful experience,” says ThankGod Ocheho, a mental health practitioner working with Sexual and Gender-Based Violence survivors like Aminu who are living in conflict zones.
Aminu’s mother, Maryam only realised something was wrong with her daughter on the fourth day.
“When she came back that day, she didn’t want to talk. She was in a terrible state. And when i asked her what was wrong, it was then she told me what had happened to her. She was afraid that Adamu would carry out his threat to kill her if she told anyone,” Maryam said.
Maryam went to the police station to report the assault on her daughter. But they refused to record the incident or take any action, saying it was a family dispute and advised her to settle it within the family.
“I believe Adamu bribed the police with money because they were pushing for us to settle the case. They told me to accept it as fate. My husband also supported them in this. As far as he was concerned, the rape had happened and we should leave the consequences to God!” an angry Maryam said.
Undeterred by the lack of support from the police and her husband, Maryam did not give up trying to get Adamu arrested and punished for raping her daughter.
She approached the Save The Child Initiative (STCI), a Sokoto-based Non-governmental Organisation (NGO), which took up the matter. The organisation filed a report with the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), before he was finally arrested and detained in a cell.
According to UNICEF, six out of every 10 children in Nigeria experience some form of violence. One in four girls and 10 per cent of boys have been victims of sexual violence. Of the children who reported violence, fewer than five out of a 100 received any form of support.
Nigeria is among the countries that reported a 30-50 percent average increase in Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) during the COVID-19 lockdown down period according to organisations such as the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT). The most recent data revealed that between March and April 2020 – the peak lockdown period in Nigeria – there was a 56 percent increase of reported Gender-based Violence (GBV) cases from 24 states across the country.
While cases of SGBV spiked during the lockdown period, victims seeking assistance had no access to support networks and exigent support services.
Rukayya Ibrahim Iyayi, a SGBV advisor with Connected Development (CODE) said that most states simply don’t have Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARC) and the few that do, shut them down immediately after the restrictions were implemented, leaving victims with no choice but to return home to their abusers.
“Most apparent was that the government didn’t prepare to tackle cases of SGBV during the lockdown period and most victims were stranded,” Iyayi submitted in an interview.
Access to centres where they can get affordable quality services is one of the biggest challenges that survivors of SGBV face. A brief by the United Nations (UN) women released in May last year, confirmed that survivors had little or no access to the few GBV referral centres. The centres that exist—mainly in urban areas, are underfunded and unable to deal with the demand for services from survivors.
At the most fundamental, the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act, the single law in place that transcends the criminal and penal code in guaranteeing justice, protecting the rights and properties of SGBV victims, is yet to be domesticated in 23 out of 36 states since it was enacted in 2015.
The consequence of this failure to implement the ACT sets the eradication of GBV many decades behind as there is no structure in place to protect and provide for victims and survivors, says Chioma Agwuegbo, founder of TechHer who started a Twitter campaign #StateofEmergencyGBV and offline demonstrations to raise awareness of the problem and to push all the 36 State governors to adopt a call to declare a state of emergency against rape and gender-based violence.
More concrete response comes in the form of the Spotlight Initiative a global, multi-year partnership between the European Union(EU) and the United Nations (UN) to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. The initiative has partnered with several civil society organisations (CSOs) in Nigeria who provide services to vulnerable women and girls and particularly those experiencing multiple forms of discrimination.
The CSOs are also partners in the IDeyWithHer campaign which has been using advocacy material developed by the UN in Nigeria on GBV during the COVID crisis to address the upsurge in gender-based violence, as well as on the state of emergency declared by state governments and stakeholders in response to the crisis of violence against women and girls.
With six programming pillars including; informing policy, building institutions, women protection and empowerment, the intervention has engaged a number of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to implement thematic areas of the programme in states across the six geopolitical zones.
The programme is being implemented in Lagos, Sokoto, Ebonyi, Adamawa, Cross River states and Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). It already boasts of 1,506,600 direct beneficiaries and 29,585,214 indirect beneficiaries in Nigeria alone.
NEEM Foundation is one of the partnered CSOs. The organization which primarily focuses on improving lives of those affected by insurgency in the northern region of Nigeria, employs basic education and psychological care tools to train, empower and care for victims/survivors of SGBV in Sokoto and Adamawa states. Both states are located in the northwest and northeast region of Nigeria, respectively. They have both recorded a significant measure of SGBV prevalence although the number of actual incidents are under-reported says Ibrahim due to cultural hindrances, discrimination and stigma which impedes collation of accurate data.
“Most SGBV cases are under-reported because of the stigma and delay in getting justice for victims. It is worse when the victim has to relive the terrifying moments over and over again in the courts or in the media, causing the stigma to linger for a longer period,” Ibrahim said.
A traditional lecture method is used to reach out to women and girls who are survivors or are at risk of SGBV. These classes are set up in local communities where the women and girls receive basic knowledge to communicate and understand English, as well as numeracy skills and becoming advocates in their own right, says Comfort Ene Abah, a second-chance educator at NEEM Foundation.
“I interact with over 200 women and girls daily in these classrooms and what I find most interesting is how they come together to help each other achieve a certain goal. They support and carry each other along in every class work and assignment. It motivates me,” Abah said.
Beneficiaries like Aminu are also provided with psychological care after undergoing the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress-Scale (DASS), a psychometric instrument used to assess the severity of symptoms related to depression, anxiety and stress – conditions common with victims of SGBV.
Since joining the programme, Maryam and her daughter have undergone a series of counseling sessions and reported an improvement in the way the young girl now relates with adults and peers, where she had formerly grown cold and shy.
However, as COVID-19 happened, it disrupted the programme that had registered 6,000 beneficiaries before the lockdown period, says Mustapha Alhassan, NEEM’s Head of Education and Inclusive Communities.
How the programme fared during COVID-19 lockdown period
Aisha Ahmad, a single mother of one and a victim of domestic violence, first heard of NEEM Foundation and the Spotlight Initiative in Sokoto, over the radio. Ahmad, 35, had suffered consistent physical torture and abuse from her husband for two years.
On one occasion, he had beaten her over an argument and locked her up in a room for several hours. They presented the case to the Hisbah Commission, a religious police force in northern Nigerian states responsible for the enforcement of Sharia law, and the commission helped the couple resolve their supposed differences.
“Despite that, he did not stop what he was doing to me. The beatings became worse until he divorced me,” Ahmad recounted in a hushed tone, as though reliving the abuse and expressing a sense of shame.
As a single mother with no skills or money, Ahmad reached out to the Spotlight Initiative and was immediately enrolled as a beneficiary. She has been attending counselling sessions three times in a week and is learning basic numeracy and literacy skills at Kashin Kadangare School but the counselling sessions and the literacy lessons came to an abrupt halt when the pandemic hit. These services and lessons have yet to resume nearly a year later.
“The COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of all schools. For the majority of our learners, they could not and still do not have access to the internet and could not afford e-learning platforms,” says Alhassan
A broadcast and tele-therapy solution
As COVID-19 disrupted learning for thousands of beneficiaries, NEEM Foundation adopted a new initiative to reach the women and girls at risk.The foundation distributed transistor radios to their registered beneficiaries to help them continue with their lessons which are aired in local languages to clusters of 10 women and girls in 10 communities across the state.
During one of the lessons, we found Ahmad seated on a large mat with nine other women, holding a pencil, as they all listened in for instructions on how to solve an exercise earlier announced by their teacher via a transistor radio. The station was tuned to Garkuwa FM, a broadcast programme which started airing radio lessons during the lockdown period in Sokoto.
“Over 1,000 beneficiaries were enrolled on the radio school programme and at least 4,000 women and girls benefited indirectly from the classes in neighbouring states,” Alhassan disclosed.
The radio school programme is not the first of its kind in Nigeria. Earlier, the Niger State government had adopted a similar approach to curb the adverse effect of COVID-19 on education. The Niger State Basic Universal Education Board (NSUBEB) started a radio programme, running for 30 minutes daily, airing all subjects for primary and secondary schools in the state. However, the state government in a report about the initiative said that it could not assess the number of beneficiaries of the programme.
For women and girls like Ahmad who needed counseling sessions, NEEM Foundation adopted a tele-therapy solution in which registered beneficiaries were able to talk via telephone with psychologists at least twice a week, depending on the need of the survivor.
Those without telephones were reached through mobile devices distributed to selected leads of the women’s cluster groups.
“It helped women and girls become their sister’s keeper,” Alhassan explained.
But the approach also had hiccups. Factors like poor network and availability of survivors to speak on the phone at specific times frustrated efforts, says Ocheho.
As much as the organization found ways to overcome challenges presented by the realities of COVID-19, the big question remains whether its approach of addressing vulnerability factors is an effective response to tackling SGBV, especially when in Nigeria, policies to protect the rights of women and girls exist only as paper tigers.
Does the approach help?
There are reports showing that empowering women directly addresses gender inequality – the driving factor of SGBV, according to the UN general assembly, which in 1993 recognised that violence against women is a manifestation of unequal power relations between men and women. And there are also studies showing that economic empowerment of women have resulted in increased GBV.
In a 2012 research report by Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC), it submitted that the connection between economic empowerment and violence against women is an inverted ‘U-shaped relationship’.
“Where women have long-established economic power, they tend to be at lower risk of violence. However, where women’s economic power is in transition, men are more likely to feel threatened by this, and there is often a (relatively) short-term spike in male violence against women,” the report reads in part.
An immediate advantage can be recognised when girls like Aminu and women like Ahmad are empowered to function and thrive in society. However, for this to be successful, the states have to domesticate the VAPP Act.
In the meantime, outreach programmes such as those being delivered through community radio stations are providing the much-needed support.
*This report was supported by the Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ).