Justice For Abuja Women

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The victory of Njemanje and others at the court is a wake-up call to act within the law

We feel vindicated by last Thursday’s judgment of the ECOWAS Court which imposed a fine of N18 million on the federal government for violating the rights of three Nigerian women who were in 2011 labelled prostitutes. Dorothy Njemanze, a popular actress, Justina Etim and Amarachi Jessyford are to be paid the sum of N6 million each as compensation for the humiliation and inhuman treatment to which they were subjected in the course of their arbitrary arrest six years ago. While we applaud the judgment on an issue in which we had earlier intervened, we also reiterate our call on the Abuja authorities to end the barbaric practice that criminalises our women and girls.

In April 2011, Njemanze parked her car and was walking towards her brother’s house one evening when she was roughly shoved towards a parked van by someone in a ‘Man-o-War’ uniform. She was assaulted and beaten up for no just cause. No matter how hard she tried to identify herself as an actress, they refused to let her go. Branded as a prostitute, Njemanze was eventually thrown inside the van just because she happened to be taking an evening walk in the city of Abuja.

Similar real life but incredible stories have been told by women standing in front of their residences or offices: from law school students, bankers to employees of a telecom company attending a colleague’s birthday party. According to many survivors of this ordeal, after being harassed, the women were then ‘arrested’, molested, and subsequently detained in a choked cell in Area 11. No phone calls to family and friends were permitted, and no lawyers could be alerted.

Prolonged humiliation and torture followed, and finally, a ‘confession’ was obtained under duress, along with a public statement denouncing prostitution. This option was reserved for the lucky few, those who were able to ‘cooperate’ and were therefore allowed to ‘financially negotiate’ an exit. Otherwise, they were reportedly transferred to a ‘rehabilitation’ camp for the purpose of ‘reformation’, located at Arco Estate, Sabon Lugbe, operated by a curious NGO called the Society Against Prostitution and Child Labour in Nigeria (SAPCLN).

That all this could be happening in a city intended to be Nigeria’s convergence point for commerce, business, innovation, ingenuity, creativity and social development beggar belief. After all, Abuja was conceived not for some Talibans but rather as a place where the human rights of all residents would be safeguarded. Unfortunately, the rights of women and girls are frequently trampled upon by the tyrannical activities of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board Task Force.

Indeed, for several years now, women in the Federal Capital Territory have been assaulted, intimidated and incarcerated by this all-powerful task force on the pretext that that they have a mandate to ‘eradicate commercial sex workers in Abuja’. These so-called enforcers of the law are unidentifiable (wearing neither uniforms nor badges) and they lurk around the street corners in Abuja. A woman needs only be out in the evening, no matter the reason, for her to be arrested, humiliated and detained.

As we stated in an earlier editorial, there is no justification for these despicable acts of violence and intimidation against ordinary law abiding citizens. Indeed, there are clear and definite constitutional provisions that entrench the rights of women to their dignity, liberty, privacy, freedom of movement and expression. Unfortunately, these ‘law-enforcement’ personnel have refused to acknowledge these fundamental guarantees. As far as they know, women have no business being outside after dark.

Strident attempts have been made to draw attention to these atrocities and outrageous violations of the constitutional rights of women. The Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, in conjunction with the National Human Rights Commission, has written to the Honourable Minister of the FCT on the issue while court cases have been filed by many survivors with the means to do so. Yet the intimidation, arrests and unlawful detentions continue unbated.
We hope the recent judgment will help to curb this most outrageous and criminal practice in the FCT.

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There are clear and definite constitutional provisions that entrench the rights of women to their dignity, liberty, privacy, freedom of movement and expression