The We Rise Initiative recently held an event in Lagos called Hear Me Too, as part of a 16-day United Nations campaign against gender-based violence, reports Demola Ojo

The We Rise Initiative is an African Non-Governmental Organisation that is committed to empowering African women to rise above the oppression of the twenty-first century and the stigma attached to feminism.

According to Co-founder Laila Johson-Salami, “A lot of our work is designed to ensure that people know they can get access to the things that they need. We focus on consultation.

“A lot of young women come to us and say this is what is happening in my university campus or in my home and ask how to go about it and we link them up with the right people.

“We often turn to the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team, the Mirabel Centre and so on, to show people they have options to get the help they need.

“Beyond that, we focus on a lot of education and enlightenment by holding events like this, getting people to speak up and getting people to learn from other people as well.”

Hear Me Too guest speakers included notable GBV activists like Dr. Kemi Dasilva-Ibru of Women At Risk International Foundation (WARIF), Toyin Falaiye of Jewels Hive Initiative, Paul Ukonu of the 300 Project, Temidayo Seriki of the Man Up Initiative and Temilade Openiyi, an artiste who goes by the stage name Tems.

The venue of the event – the Sao Cafe, Lekki – has cheerful colours: bright paintings, innovative African art, mural on a vintage car… But the mood in the room was sober. Little wonder, considering the harrowing accounts and depressing statistics shared during the course of the day.

“I’ve been warned, I’ve been told to go back to my country, which is here by the way,” said Mrs Da Silva-Ibru, recounting how communities don’t just try to silence victims of sexual abuse, but also those trying to help them.

Bemoaning the culture of victim blaming, she revealed that about 10,000 women are violated every day in Nigeria. “The youngest I’ve treated is two years but the youngest age on record is six months.”

Distressing Recollections

Some of the participants shared their stories. Some wrote in.

i) I have gone through sexual assault. I was much younger and it was with a bunch of my brother’s friends. I was about eight. I couldn’t tell my mum because when I tried to, she really didn’t pay attention.

For the assault to stop, I had to stand up for myself. The only               reason a lot of people abuse you is because they think you won’t fight back.

It happened at school but because they had well-to-do parents, nothing much was done apart from apologies. I was between 8 and 11, while they were between 14 and 17.

ii) I was raped by a neighbour when I was about eight. He was a teenager then. Another neighbour – after hearing my screams – came through, beat the boy, cleaned me up and told me not to tell anyone.

iii) My aunt’s husband – also my guardian – who was a soldier serially assaulted me for six years in the sitting room while she was sleeping in the room from when I was about eleven. He stopped when I threatened him with a knife and told him I’d kill myself.

When she finally found out, she told her friends, who told her not to tell anybody because it was a taboo. They took me to a church and I had to go through deliverance. I was so sad because it seemed I was the one that did something wrong. From that day, she decided to sleep in the same room with me. But she never confronted him.

Healing Wounds

According to Toyin Falaiye of Jewels Hive, she realised over time that victims of abuse sometimes stay mute because they have nowhere to run to, thus the need for a physical centre to serve as shelter.

She also warned against the danger of quack therapists who use their job as a cover to prey on sexual violence victims by also abusing them sexually.

As part of her submission, Tems preached forgiveness. She however reiterated that this doesn’t mean perpetrators should not be brought to justice. “Forgiveness is for you because you have to let go to be fully healed,” she advised.

“I don’t have an organisation, I just try to do what I can as an individual. What I do is try and reach out to people like me,” she explained.

“Around my estate a lot of young women, most under 20, are married. I have conversations with them. They live like slaves. Some are hairdressers and they hardly keep 10 per cent of the money they make. The bulk, they give to their husbands.”

Her past experience has shaped her professional life. “I’m an independent artiste and I’m not trying to be signed to a record label. The reason is a lot of female artistes have to do a lot of things to move forward.

“I don’t believe in that, so I’m trying to be the example. I believe lot of young girls my age are confused. I know a lot of 18 year olds and it’s like women exist for the sake of men.”

She wondered why young women actively strive to gain a man’s attention and when they get it, stay even in the face of abuse.

“You don’t need somebody, you’re somebody. You don’t need to put up an image, you don’t need to be someone else.” she affirmed.

Salami-Johnson, as moderator added: “Financial abuse is oftentimes left out of the picture but it is real. There are so many women who work hard but don’t seem to get ahead because they’re technically enslaved by someone else.”

The 22-year-old graduate of Politics and International Relations from the University of Westminster is a broadcast journalist who works on TV and radio in Nigeria, and also writes for the Financial Times and the Commonwealth Youth Council.

She told THISDAY what motivates her. “As a survivor of abuse as well, it’s a topic that has always been dear to me. I believe it’s one of the most prevalent and heinous acts in Nigeria today and you cannot look around you and see so many women and men going through the same thing, telling very similar stories, and sit back and do absolutely nothing.

“So if I can lend my time and voice to a 16-day annual campaign against this particular issue and encourage it more in Nigeria, I definitely will. I’m not losing out on anything but I may be saving someone’s life.”

Commending participants at the dialogue she continued, “What they have done is a very necessary ripple effect and encouraging a lot of victims to know that it’s okay to speak up against the unfortunate incidence or incidences that occurred.”

Words for Men

A notable aspect of Hear Me Too was the challenge thrown to men and changing narratives. According to Temidayo Seriki, “Men need to change. In a patriarchal society like Nigeria, things will never change unless the men change.”

Paul Ukono, a photographer by trade, explained how he became an activist by accident. Now though, he devotes majority of his time to the cause. The 300 project now has a shelter in Lagos.

“Human trafficking is real and sexual exploitation is real. Speaking up is not just about the victims but also the people who know about it.

“I’m a child of God but one of the biggest problems are the religious centres,” he submitted.

He also challenged educational institutions. “We went to a school for an outreach and the principal said no, because 80 per cent of the children there were possibly trafficked.”

He questioned why about 90 per cent of participants at Hear Me Too were women. “The women know about it (sexual abuse) but we need to speak to the men.

“Try and talk to your brothers, husbands, cousins and male friends to attend events like this,” he advised.

The role of parents and schools in shaping kid’s during their formative years was also stressed. It was suggested that “Boys going out to play while girls stay at home and learn how to cook” is one of the underlying reasons for gender inequality and a narrative that needs to change.

Advice to Survivors

Johnson-Salami was keen to pass on soothing words to those who have undergone some form of gender based violence or the other. “My advice would be the same advice my mother always gave me, which is that it’s completely okay to feel. You are going to go through stages.

“You go through a phase where you don’t want to speak to anyone and you don’t want anyone to know your story. You go through phases where you start to get anxious, paranoid and mental illness starts to creep in.

“And then you would go through phases of healing, and being able to have the courage to speak out on what has happened to you.

“My advice is to take it day by day, moment by moment, and know that your story is never going to be another person’s story. Your experience is never going to be another person’s experience so you can only do what works for you.

“You have to feel. If you don’t feel those emotions, all you’re going to do is bundle them inside you and it’s only going to hurt you more. It is okay to cry, it is okay to scream, it is okay to not want to speak to anyone and shut yourself away from the world. Do not listen to what anyone tells you otherwise. Just go through your emotions and feel.”

Dissuasive Legislation

It is a fact, unfortunately, that most perpetrators of sexual abuse are never caught. Worse still, those caught are seldom prosecuted. Dr Da Silva-Ibru revealed that only 14 per cent of perpetrators are being prosecuted in Nigeria. “We’re looking at a situation where majority of abusers are getting away with their actions,” said Johnson-Salami.

“The only way this is going to change is with the necessary policies being enacted into government. This starts with us changing our laws. We made a step when we changed our rape laws.

“Once upon a time, our rape laws only applied to women so if a man was abused, there was no law applicable to go before a court.”

She seeks further policy changes even while commending Lagos State for introducing a 25-year jail term for sexual and domestic violence and Edo State for its human trafficking task force.

“We’re seeing little things being done state by state but are we seeing enough? Definitely not.

“We need more people pushing more policies to see the necessary change. But even with those policies, we won’t see the necessary change if we as a citizenry don’t act on those policies.”