Society Gagging Girls, Women from Reporting Sexual Violence

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Dr. Kemi DaSilva-Ibru is a specialist obstetrician and gynecologist who tends towards Public Health from the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA. She has been in private practice in Lagos for over 10 years and dedicated a lot of her time working with non-governmental organisations and related agencies focusing on gender-based violence, rape and trafficking of young girls and women in Lagos communities by offering free medical support and counselling. She speaks with Azuka Ogujiuba about the reason for her foundation, the development and welfare of the girl child and women

Can we have an overview of Women at risk International Foundation?
The Women at Risk International Foundation; WARIF, is a non-profit organisation established by me in response to the high incidence of rape, sexual violence and human trafficking of children, young girls and women in various communities across the country. The foundation serves to address this concern through the implementation of target-oriented initiatives which are measurable, impactful and sustainable in addressing this problem.

What is the most vulnerable age group?
It has been noted that young girls under the age of 18 appear to be the most vulnerable group as the highest incidence of sexual assault and violence is associated with this age group.

Do you have adults that seek care?
We have a significant number of women over the age of 18 up to the elderly that are seen and treated at our sexual assault referral centre – The WARIF Centre in Yaba. These are women that are either married, in relationships or single, from varied social-economic and educational backgrounds as well as different religious affiliations.

What are the experiences of some survivors?
We have had survivors of different ages treated at the WARIF Centre – some are young children of varying ages, as young as two. The narrative often reveals the perpetrator as being a family member or a person of authority such as a teacher and the places these acts occur as usually places considered as safe havens by these children such as their homes or at school.

How does your organisation help these survivors?
The young children, girls and women in need of our services are seen at the WARIF Centre – the sexual assault referral centre run by the foundation in Yaba, Lagos. The Centre is open six days a week from 8.00am to 5.00pm including all public holidays; it is a warm, safe and friendly environment with qualified full-time medical personnel and counselors who address the necessary forensic examinations, tests and medical treatment of all clients seen. Counseling for psychological trauma and social welfare needs of all young girls and women are also addressed. All services are offered free of charge. The Centre also offers a 24-hour confidential helpline where qualified, experienced counselors are available round the clock to address concerns and encourage callers to visit the WARIF Centre at no cost.

Is the trend of this abuse reducing or increasing?
The foundation implements a series of initiatives to address this problem and cases that are seen vary and are addressed accordingly. The number of cases seen at the WARIF Centre varies from month to month and currently the average is about five clients seen weekly. This number spikes considerably following our outreach programmes that are carried out in secondary school settings as children are educated on the issues of gender-based violence through the WARIF Educational School Programme; WESP. I cannot necessarily say there is an increase in our communities but I can say without a doubt that this is a major problem that has existed for a very long time. The available UNICEF 2014 data on violence against children in Nigeria confirmed that one in four females reported experiencing sexual violence in childhood with approximately 70 per cent reporting more than one incident.
With more organisations such as WARIF working in this health space and facilities like the WARIF Centre being made available to offer free care and services to survivors of rape and sexual abuse there is currently a much needed spotlight that has been placed on the prevailing problem. Consequently, there is more dialogue about the issue of gender based violence. I would also add that an increased awareness and better reporting of these cases by the media has contributed to this and with the advent of social media, more and more survivors have more platforms to speak out from and this should be encouraged.

Are law enforcement agents helping out?
The Lagos State Government has set up a Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) made up of a select number of ministries and related regulatory organisations such as Law Enforcement to address all aspects of sexual and domestic violence in the State. As a member of this regulatory body, WARIF works hand in hand with other qualified representatives to reduce the number of these cases in Lagos State. I believe this unprecedented level of collaboration created by the Lagos State Government among all professionals all working towards ending Sexual and Gender Based Violence is seeing positive results. The Police Force are also sensitising more police officers to tackle this problem and have available now in some police stations, Gender desks with trained sensitised officers available to address these cases. This must be encouraged and emulated in all police stations across the country.

What is the best approach to breaking the silence on sexual violence in Nigeria?
When survivors go through traumatic sexual encounters, the society we live in does not encourage or empower women to speak out about the atrocities that they have had to endure. They are made to feel ashamed and guilty. We need to change this existing status quo in Nigeria where sexual violence and rape is concerned and encourage this dialogue. Survivors need to be reassured that they are not alone and the crime committed against them is not their fault. They need the support of their families, communities, law enforcement and organisations like WARIF. Society labels survivors and ‘victim blame’ by questioning their choices, in their clothing for example, instead of addressing the crime for what it is. We need to send out this important message that the act of consensual physical relations can and should only be condoned with the full consent of the woman who is above the age of 18 and not under the threat of violence or if she is incapacitated or unconscious. This, I believe, will start to break the shroud of silence that surrounds sexual violence in Nigeria.

What do you counsel parents and care givers to do on protecting vulnerable children?
WARIF works very closely with young secondary school children through the WARIF Educational School Programme. This is an initiative that was implemented in a select number of government schools in Lagos State targeted at 13 to 16-year-olds of both sexes and sought to establish the prevalence of sexual assault and rape as well as to change the behavior pattern of the children affected. With the program, affected children and parents are taught to address the issue of child sexual violence through recognition of the signs, speaking out and knowing where to seek assistance. Parents, care givers and teachers are encouraged to listen and believe their children when they come to them with these concerns, to recognise these heinous acts as a crime and report it to law enforcement regardless of whether the perpetrator is a family member and to come to organisations like WARIF to seek treatment, counseling and assistance for the affected children.

What legislations should be put in place to check sexual violence in Nigeria?
The laws addressing rape as a crime already exist in the Criminal Code of 1990 in the southern part of Nigeria; as well as in the Penal Code in the North, stating the penalty for rape as life imprisonment. This law pertaining to rape and sexual violence in Nigeria has recently been amended with the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAAP) Act 2015 which expanded the law to include gang rape and rape of a man as well as the introduction of a sex offender registry for all perpetrators convicted. What we need to see is a more vigorous implementation leading to more convictions so as to ensure that all perpetrators are brought to justice. However, the issue of marital or spousal rape being recognised as a crime remains a grey area from a legal stand point and needs to be clearly articulated in our criminal justice system as a crime.