Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi is the Executive Director of Stand to End Rape Initiative, an NGO that provides support services to survivors of sexual violence. She also leads policy advocacy and behavioural change communication towards issues of sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria. Upon her return to Nigeria recently from the UK post-Commonwealth event, nothing prepared her for the brutish way her next few weeks would turn. As a responsible citizen, she self-isolated and last month she tested positive to COVID-19. She had to inform those she came in close contact with to get tested.
Already lined up in her kitty were interviews, a contract worth millions, and a fantastic consultancy job to boot. She lost them all! Just this week, she was declared free of the virus after gruelling days of pain, uncertainty and fear of the unknown. Although she lost golden opportunities due to her health circumstances, Osowobi has boldly declared herself a ‘Survivayo’, a coinage of her name and survivor and we couldn’t agree more. The reason is simple- life has thrown her so many lemons and she has taken it in her strides, emerging victorious each time.
In an earlier interview with MARY NNAH, Osowobi, now in her late twenties and also a rape survivor, who defied stigma, revealed that her mission for the past five years has been to break the culture of silence on sexual violence as well as build capacity of institutions to prevent and respond to cases of sexual and gender-based violence
You were named by Time Magazine in 2019 as one of the 100 people shaping the future. How did that make you feel?
At first I was surprised as to how people who are not within my continent were actually following my work and perceived the impact of what we were doing and want to celebrate that. I was also excited because this means that we can put our work in more global space. And that people can get to know more about Stand to End Rape (STER) Initiative and what we do and we can receive support. When I got the news, it was a good thing but it was also a responsibility because it meant that now that the world is aware of my work. I have to do much more, I can’t let people down because a lot of people are now looking up to me.
I don’t really know what I did to deserve the recognition. I’m just doing what I love to do and doing my life’s purpose. I am just ensuring that any woman who experiences violence does not have to keep quiet about it and that she can receive help. I am also ensuring that my own children and even the generation of now don’t have to experience it. So, I can’t say that this is one thig that I have done to deserve it. I just know that for almost six years now, I have just been in my corner doing my work with all the people working at STER Initiative. We are just contributing to a better society. So, if the world feels we should be celebrated for that work, yes, we are grateful.
I felt more excited for the fact that someone such as Barrack Obama to actually tweet that he is proud to see me on that list, is amazing, I can’t really explain how I feel. It means that the world is watching what we do. And besides, I am an Obama Foundation leader. What that means is that Barack Obama has a foundation that recognises the potentials of young Africans who are creating change, building businesses that are impacting lives, innovating, and just young people doing great stuff. I am one of the 200 people in Africa who were chosen in 2018 as an Obama leader.
What informed your decision to go into advocacy on issues of sexual and gender based violence?
I had sort of experienced sexual violence myself and I read a lot of stories online about violations that happened but I couldn’t see any information about how the survivors in those cases got through the whole experience. The name of the abuser was always protected. So, it was like the society was protecting the abusers and shaming the abused. So, I started writing about what sexual violence is and how our inaction and actions have actually contributed to it. I realised that it was not just enough to be writing, so I started providing direct support to survivors, engaging in community outreaches, campaigns and speaking to people on how they can use their platforms to create awareness on such violence and then help us change the gender norms that contribute to violence against women and girls. That’s how I started.
I used to run a blog at a time I was living in New York and because there was time difference, I felt that even if I tried to tweet at my own time, Nigerians might be in traffic or sleeping at that time, so I decided to be writing a lot of contents on my blog. I will wake early in the morning or stay up at midnight and publish and the go to bed and when I wake up, I will see a lot of comments and people saying, “This and this happened to me”, and all that. Or, “Can you tell me more about this situation? And that was how I was pushing my contents, using my blog and a lot of twitter engagements. I was tweeting a lot with my own personal account at a time, using the hashtag #StandtoEndRape and a lot of people were just retweeting and asking questions because it was very new at that time and we still had a lot of culture of silence on the social media then. I was using my content to break that silence and helping people to unlearn and learn new things. And I eventually established my NGO in 2014. So, the interest started from my rape experience during my NYSC.
Now, what exactly is rape or sexual violence, as you call it? A lot of women can’t really draw the line and so they don’t even bother to pursue a case of rape even when they are victims
We have the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act, though it is only applicable in a few states in Nigeria. That Act kind of expands on the definition of the criminal and penal code.
A person is said to raped if he or she penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with any part of his or her body or anything else without the consent of the other person. Before the criminal and penal code, we can only prove rape through the vigina but we cannot prove it through the anus, which meant that men cannot be raped by that definition but this kind of expands what rape is. The fact that someone violates your body sexually without your consent is a rape; even if they used an object in your mouth, vagina or anywhere against your consent, is rape. There is something called “Rape and Beg” where people be like, “please, please, let me just touch the tip” and you are like “No, no” only for the person to go ahead and use his sexual organ or anything to touch the tip of the vagina; that’s sexually violating your body; that’s rape! But because our culture sort of have normalised the behaviours, so some things do not count as rape. You are in a relationship with someone or married to someone and the person says no to any sexual contact and you feel that because we are married or that I am dating you, I have the right. No! Every human being has autonomy, whether in a marriage or a single people. That you are married does not take out your human right. So, a lot of women do not even understand what rape is in the context of even within a marriage or even within a relationship. It is just basically anyone at all, whether woman or man taking your body without your consent. In which case, a married woman can be raped by her husband.
To what extent have you taken your work?
We have done a couple of events outside Nigeria because we are trying to get the global space to look into violence against women and girls but again, our target audience have always been Nigerians and so a lot of our works have been in Nigeria in terms of policy advocacy. We were part of the youth group that was pushing for the passage of the VAPP Act. It was a bill at a time but now that it has been passed into law, it is an act. We have also been leading advocacy on the sexual harassment in the tertiary educational prohibition bill; we have also supported other civil society organisations to push for the gender and equal opportunity bill, though that has been rejected a number of times but we are constantly working with different stakeholders to push for policies that better the lives of Nigerians because when a policy is in place, whether you are man or woman, you get to benefit from the outcome. So, we work across the country even though we are physically based only in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt.
What has been the impact of your work so far?
The impact has been great. If you look at six years ago, you could hardly find people on social media come up and say I have been raped and mothers reporting the cases of raping of their children. Everyone wanted to keep it quiet and protect their family names. But today you have mothers reaching out and fathers reporting cases of rape. We are breaking the culture of silence on sexual violence and that is a big shift from six years ago when we started our work. Now, people can openly say it anywhere that they have been raped. We are moving gradually to a place where we can now have mothers holding their own sons accountable for rape. So, the impact for us is one survivor who is able to come forward and say I have been raped and they can get help. They don’t have to die in silence.
What has been the most challenging thing you face trying to achieve your aims?
A lot cultural beliefs, a lot of people still try to shut cases down, a lot of bias by the police and lack of effective mechanisms. Our criminal justice is still very weak; working with police has been the bitter-sweet experience; sweet because we have had great police officers who use their capacity to further protect the rights of survivors. Bitter because we have some police officers who have seen it as a business opportunity to negotiate for out of court settlements and to ask Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) for money for mobilisation, money to seek the Directorate of the Public Prosecution advice; like every step of the process they request for money.
Another challenge is that it is a legal frame work and as you know the onus to prove rape is on the victim. And a case against rape is a case against the state. The state has to stand in court on behalf of the survivor and that is a bit problematic because survivors should be able to choose who represents them in court but instead, the state gives them a prosecutor and if he shows in court or does not, nobody is able to hold them accountable. But if the survivors or CSOs were able to get lawyers to represent clients in court directly, that would really help the system. And even where they have lawyers, if cases are taking up to two to three years for us to get justice, of course every survivor will get tired. If you have to go to court almost every day for one or two years, of course you can close such cases and because court runs on week days, survivors who are gainfully employed have to take time off work every time to go to court and some employers are really not kind enough to give you all that time. So, they want to just drop out. So there have been a bit of cultural barriers in terms of our works and social barriers as well. How many states have a shelter for rape survivors? How many states have centres for rape crises? How many states have a place where survivors can get safe abortions? Some survivors do not want to carry children born from rape. They do not want to live with that scar for the rest of their lives and nurture children whom they would hate. Nobody ever wants to experience that but society forces them to do that. They would be like, “You are pregnant, and that’s it. It is against our culture and religion to do abortion”. But they do not care about the metal wellbeing of this person and most of these people go and access unsaved abortions that lead to death. How many more young people do we want to lose as a result of unsaved abortion? There is a lot that we have to deal with; women who want to leave their abusive homes but there are no shelter to put them. So, you have to get accommodation for them and landlords would say without husband we cannot give you accommodation. So in every step of the way, there is a problem that is waiting but we have been able to manage through in the past six years, even though it has been very difficult.
How exactly do you get funding?
Our greatest sure of funding actually comes from Nigerians who constantly support the work that we do either with their skill or otherwise because not everything is money. So, financing can be someone who is a professional accountant. If we have to outsource, it will cost us much but if a professional accountant is volunteering their skills and time that saves us a lot of money. So, a lot of Nigerians have been donating their resources, time and skills and we have been getting grants as well to help us do a lot of pilot projects. In 2016/2017, we did a pilot project where we trained 100 healthcare providers from government hospitals and primary healthcare centres in Lagos State. We taught them on sexual violence response and how to attend to survivors of sexual violence who perhaps want to test for HIV or are living with HIV. That was an interesting project because it helped us build the capacity of government institutions to respond to these cases because most survivors want to go to hospitals to get supports but maybe the rape crisis centre which is in Yaba is too far from them but if we are able to train health personnel at primary health centres within their locations, survivors can easily walk in there to receive support. So we have been running a lot of interesting projects that can create systemic change and we have been getting funding for them.
How would you describe the moments you spend with survivors?
For me, it is a moment of self-awareness and truth- truth that our work is yielding this kind of change where survivors can reach out to us to receive help. And it is self-awareness because we are grateful that these survivors trust us to help them. But sometimes, it is also self-awareness that I have to relieve my own experience every time a survivor comes to our ward. Every time they share their stories, it takes me back memory lane. But for me, it is one of the greatest feelings that I have – that as a team of young people, we are able to help the next woman, girl, boy and man. It gives us so much joy that they can ask for little support and we can provide it; they want medical help and they can’t afford it, we would pay for it; that they want educational support, they can’t afford it but we are there to help them. That for us is everything that our work is all about.
What’s the most memorable moment for you?
One of the memorable cases for me is the case of a young woman who was constantly abused by her uncle who was responsible for her education. So, someone had reached out to us on twitter to take up the case. We took up the case, even though the survivor was uninterested in taking action against her uncle, we were able to remove her from that situation, helped her further her education to the university. We were paying her tuition fee and then she graduated, sent us a voice note appreciating us and told us she was getting married and that we should come for her marriage ceremony. Cases like that just make you very happy that you have changed somebody’s life and that she didn’t have to continually experience the violence. She finished from university and proceeded to do her NYSC.
Another thing that is memorable for me is when we provide support to survivors and then they come back to the organisation and say I want to volunteer to work with you, that’s one of those things money can’t buy. It is one of the greatest feelings for us.
What’s your advice to women out there?
You really don’t have to remain in any abusive environment or home. You are important and highly valued so if you are experiencing any form of sexual or gender-based violence; there are CSOs that are out there to support you all the way to ensure that you live a life free of violence and you can achieve your goals and dreams without having to go through pains. Just speak out. You owe it to yourself and to no one, whenever you are able to share your story or even to say I need help. There is absolutely freedom in asking for help. There is no shame and no self-guilt.