Her past sits as silhouette before her –like an apparition that scares even the elderly. Yet, to her, it is the eye of a child that fears a painted devil. She has grown. She has stepped out of the shadow –the silhouette that held back her persona. She has become fearless –far from that hapless teen in the vice-grip of trauma and threat. Funke Oguntuga represents hope, help and humanity. An Amazon in her own right, the former media aide to Senator Ganiyu Solomon is on a mission to unravel the stigma and make enigma of victims of sexual abuse. As a girl-child activist, she’s using her traumatic experience to help hapless youngsters in Nigeria through the Heart Minders Initiative, a non-governmental organization to help victims of sexual abuse get their lives back and seek justice. Funke Olaode examines the ideals and driving force of Oguntuga
Sweet sixteen. But that moment was soon shattered. Funke Oguntuga was left in a state of disenchantment –too young to defend herself. Today, however, she stands tall –defending herself and hundreds of other girls.
She was helpless, voiceless and fearful because of what the society might think about her ordeal. To the society, it is a stigma, to her family it is a reproach. Too young to defend herself, she suffered in silence or rather lived in perpetual fear of the opposite sex which creeps into her adult life. Funke Oguntuga was a boisterous young girl full of life until she experienced sexual violence at the age of 16 and lost her virginity. The Amazon has since conquered her fears. The beautiful mother of three studied Communication and Language Arts at the University of Ibadan with additional Masters of Arts from Leicester University in United Kingdom. She practised journalism with TheNews before moving to the banking sector, spending eight years. She ventured into politics before going back into her first love, writing.
The former media aide to Senator Ganiyu Solomon, Oguntuga is an executive director of Heart Minders Initiative, a non-governmental founded to help victims of sexual abuse to snap out of the stigma, get their lives back and seek justice.
Talking about her foray into floating an NGO, she said it was something that was borne out of passion to help heal the wounded hear and seek justice for sexual abuse victims.
“When I quit my banking career, I felt I wanted to start doing what I loved to do which is writing. So I opened a blog and I was just blogging from home and then freelancing for some media houses. From writing, I found out that I wanted to do something about relationship, love, and sex,” she reveals.
“I was still young in marriage and the fear about what does she even know about married life was there but I forged on by concentrating on youth and young adult. And most of the questions I was getting was about sex and sexual. So I started blogging more about relationship from where we found out that there is a gap in what is being taught in the school curriculum about sex and sexuality and what is really obtainable in the 21st century.”
Though passionate about writing, her past experience actually spurred her to do more beyond blogging.
“I started going to school on my own volition. I would just pick one or two persons and we will just go to school then teach sex education. From there we found out about rape, about sexual violence, about some of the things that teenagers were involved with that were not actually taught in school,” she says. “That was when I now said okay, I think we can do this as an NGO. I formed an NGO called Heart Minders Initiative and then opened a teenage club called the Treasured Things Club. So we wrote to the ministry of education and got permission to teach sex education officially under the District 4. I am a victim of sexual violence when I was sixteen, but it wasn’t a problem for me because it was never something that I thought was a problem. By the time we moved to schools, I began to get repeated cases of rape from teenagers, I didn’t know it was this prevalent, I didn’t know people were going through it, I just thought it was a one off as it was me, I didn’t know it was that bad.”
To Oguntuga, sexual abuse does not only cause emotional and psychological torture to its victims, it can be a permanent scare.
She explains, “Having experienced sexual abuse in my teenage years I carried it to my adult life. You know the first two years of my marriage was really bad, because I wasn’t just enjoying it and I didn’t know that my problem then was because I have not gotten closure to what happened to me as a teenager because it took my virginity. It was at that point that I knew that I needed to see a therapist, and then I went through the process.”
She says further, “And it was good because I found out that it wasn’t my marriage that was bad, it was me that wasn’t getting the right vibes from my marriage. And from then onwards, it became better for me. So, I needed to make sure that teenagers who have experienced abuse of any form got to speak to someone and they got better for it. And that was how Heart Minders Initiative became a full fledge registered NGO.”
More than healing emotional and psychological wounds, her organization seek justice for abuse victims.
“I know that we wanted to save lives, we wanted to a sane and healthier society. So, from then onward, we started something that we called Sensitization walk Against Rape and Sexual Abuse, every year. It was called Heart Minders Action against Rape and Sexual Abuse (HAAROSA),” she states. “We did the fifth in the series just four weeks ago (June 26) where we went to Oshodi to sensitise about sexual arrestment. So it was then we said okay, for every calendar year for all that happened under the initiative we will start a sensitization walk which usually is in February. But this year we had to do it in June because of the elections.”
Her organization has different programmes under the initiative. For instance, there’s ‘Talk About Abuse to Liberate the Kids’ –TALK. This is specifically for teenagers in secondary school.
The aim of TALK, according to Oguntuga, is to make sure that organization breaks the silence of rape.
“We go to school, and we talk to them about abuse, all the symptoms of abuse, how they can protect themselves, whom to call in case their parents don’t believe them or they don’t want to listen, we do all that. And then we now make a call, if anybody that if anybody here has gone through abuse come and let’s talk to you,” she says.
“And the first time we did it, we were shocked; father abusing daughter, uncle, nieces, nephews and in-laws. And from there we got the ones that we can quickly intervene, where we can say okay, we will call the domestic violence response team of Lagos, to say okay we have a girl that is currently going through abuse that we need to pull from the house. They have all the resources, they have a shelter, we don’t have a shelter, so what they do is once come from an NGO, they take it up but we had told them that we still want to maintain the area where we give the child therapy. So that is what we do and then they will take it up from there.”
Recently, her NGO took a bold step while it organized an awareness programme in Oshodi area with a theme, ‘Walk Against Rape’. It was a successful programme that paraded the famous MC Oluomo and other stakeholders.
“It is our annual sensitization walk, we do it every year and the turnout has been massive, we have over 500 people, and it was a shutdown. The aim is to sensitise the conductors, motor boys about sexual harassment at motor parks. So we contacted MC Oluomo and said, we are coming to Oshodi, and it will be better if this message is coming from him,” she adds.
“It was a massive and at the end of the day, MC Oluomo dropped his number for the market women and said any time it happened after today they should call his number, report to him and he will now call Funke (referring to me) and Funke will now call the Lagos State government. And we all agreed that, that is the best way to make sure that it stopped.”
Rape is prevalent with four out of five girls being sexually abused. Oguntuga is of the view that by collective efforts the narrative can be changed.
“Actually, it is embedded in our culture. We are just a set of people who believe whatever I cannot get I can take it. So, that is why some people will say they don’t even want to hear about marital rape. So, it does not exist. They reason: ‘if the person is my wife, I can have sex with her any time I want’,” Oguntuga explains.
“But what they don’t understand is that once it is not consensual, it is rape – once you force you way. I don’t even understand how anyone enjoys sex that is not consensual. So it is rape once the person does not consent to it. So, what we can do about rape culture is to begin from our home to raise boys who understand that ‘no’ means ‘no’. What somebody does not give to you, you shouldn’t take it by force. Because it is not easy to teach adults that have already grown but we can raise new generation of boys who understands consent and who knows how to treat girl’s right. Who understand respect?”
Then, she adds: “For me as a person I believe that sensitization will do a lot, I am not one of those who want to wait for it to happen, I believe that we can help a lot of situations, we can fix situation by sensitizing people so that they know, that as a mother you don’t completely trust someone and say, okay this person is my neighbour, I can leave my daughter with this person. In those days when we were growing up community parenting is one of the things that really stood out for us.
“But then I believe strongly that one of the things that we can use to stop the idea of rape so much these days is to make sure that we don’t trust people with our children and believe that they cannot do such. Statistics has it that about 57% of rape is from people that are known to you. If a sexual abuse happens to an ordinary fellow, it is treated with kid gloves while celebrities get all the attention in the case of the wife of popular musician, Busola Dakolo. Can it solve the problem?”
That might not totally solve the problem but it will help a lot.
“As advocates, many times we talk to celebrities to help us organize action against rape. If a celebrity is now coming out to say I am also a victim, I think it will go a long way to help us at least to even make people who are dying in silence to come out. Because to me this is one of the major reasons for mental health issues, when people don’t want to speak out, they are dying in silence,” she thinks.
“We are not saying you must come out by force, because as a victim nobody forced me to come out to talk. You have to allow a victim of rape to speak at a time that is convenient for to them, because you don’t know what they are going through. so once they are in that place where they want to speak, once they get somebody to talk to in a safe and non-judgmental environment it goes a long way to help us curb mental health issues. So this person is coming saying it as he or she wants to speak it, and then it is our duty as citizens to believe them and not stigmatize them. Because when you don’t believe them, when you shut them down you are causing another mental issue. So it is very imperative that we even employ the services of celebrities to help us galvanize action against.”
While lack of funding to carry out many projects or lack of commitment of the victims of rape to press charges against the accused have been a challenge, Oguntuga said she would not get discouraged on her mission.
Raped at 16, Oguntuga suffered in silence for several years, mother to three adorable kids and on a mission to heal wounds and seek justice for the oppressed and voiceless and it’s not out of place to wonder if she’s found fulfilment.
“Oh, yes!” Oguntuga lets out.
“Because I found out that in all those things that I have been doing even when I was a journalist, the role I was playing when I was in the bank, the role I am playing now, it is all in service, service to humanity. When I was in the bank I remember getting award three consecutive times as the best customers’ service person of the year. That is because whatever I do I always believe that there is always a service aspect to it. So, right now too whatever I am doing I believe it is about service, it is about being able to play my role to make Nigeria a better place,” she discloses.