Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi is a gender equality advocate as well as Sexual and Gender-based Violence Prevention and Response expert. At the 2020 Commonwealth Day Service with the Queen of England, she was appointed Commonwealth Official Flag-bearer to lead the Procession of Her Majesty. In recognition of her incredible work on advancing gender equality, Osowobi was named the Commonwealth Young Person for 2019 and recognised as one of TIME’s 100 NEXT Honourees. To institutionalise this support mechanism and structure, she works with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to enjoin the Nigerian government to pass laws that protect the rights of women such as the Violence against Persons Prohibition Bill (VAPP), Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill and the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions Prohibition Bill. To push for the passage of the Sexual Harassment Bill, she partnered with the BBC to carry out the #SexforGrades documentary. In her official capacity as the Executive Director of Stand to End Rape initiative (STER), she leads the advocacy for gender equality and pushing for an end to Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) while providing psychological support for survivors in Nigeria. Over the last five years, she has led projects centred on eliminating the prevalence of SGBV, economic empowerment for survivors and teaching boys and men their role in ending SGBV and promoting gender equality. She has served as a resource person to United Nations Population Fund and United Nations Children’s Fund Nigeria.
In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she spoke on her efforts to end SGBV in Nigeria, how the country can end sexual harassment and violence against women, the need for schools and religious centres to integrate consent and gender equality into the curriculum and her interest in politics.
The media has been awash with several heartbreaking stories of the rape and murder of several women and girls recently; as an advocate in this space, how does this make you feel?
I’m appalled by the number of cases of rape and/or murder in recent times. I’m extremely concerned that almost everyday, Nigerian women and girls are raped and blatantly killed by men. While it is great that these cases made it online, this reflects a fraction of daily happenings in communities and cases that go unreported and silenced. As an advocate, this issue once again provides an opportunity to intensify advocacy, increase awareness for social and behavioural change and call for a state of emergency on SGBV in Nigeria. By doing this, we can review existing laws and service provisions, demand for structures and systems to protect women and girls such as the Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs). For example, only 12 states have adopted VAPP, while several northern states are yet to adopt the Child Rights Act (CRA). These laws are important instruments to serve as deterrent to prospective abusers and create adequate support for victims and survivors.
What does STER do and how is it impacting change?
Stand to End Rape Initiative (STER) is a leading youth-led organisation that is advancing gender equality and end to SGBV by pushing for policy advocacy, facilitating prevention of sexual violence through awareness-raising and providing holistic psychosocial support to survivors of SGBV. We work with communities to develop homegrown solutions by working with families of survivors to provide survivor-centred interventions. STER, over the years, has been doing the following:
-Advocacy: Pushing for policies that protect and defend the rights and wellbeing of Nigerian women and girls. We work with other CSOs to engage stakeholders and lobby legislators to push the agenda of women and girls forward;
-Awareness: Creative campaigns aimed at changing knowledge, attitudes and practices that contribute to SGBV and highlight its impact on its victims and survivors, and share this across different communication channels;
-Prevention: To influence knowledge and behaviours around SGBV, STER conceptualises and implements strategic programmes with the aim to prevent the incidence and prevalence of sexual violence while promoting gender equality. One of such programmes is the Consent Education Programme where we engage men and boys within formal and informal settings on consent and gender equality to curb attitudes and practices perpetrated by men around SGBV;
-Support: STER provides survivor-centred interventions to victims and survivors, which include facilitating emergency medical support, litigation support, mental health therapy and other specific support required. We support the Nigerian Police with prosecution process. Through these initiatives, STER is setting a course for SGBV prevention while ensuring that those who have experienced one form of SGBV or another can receive adequate support. We believe in Access, Justice and Change.
What made you go into gender advocacy?
My interest in gender advocacy stemmed from personal experiences around me as well as the injustice I daily see women and girls being subjected to. Issues of sexual violence, domestic violence, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), widowhood rites, segregation based on gender, among other issues, came across to me as some of the greatest injustices anyone could experience. I knew it was not enough just being angry about it, but I also had a responsibility to contribute towards shifting the norm.
How best can we end sexual harassment and violence against women?
It is by implementing policies around this issue, reforming the police and other law enforcement agencies and facilitating adequate support services for women and girls. To achieve a world completely free of sexual violence, there must be a social re-engineering of sexual norms and acceptable behaviours, intensifying human-designed awareness-raising to cause behavioural change, stripping gatekeepers of their privileges and powers, destruction of the culture of silence and impunity, establishment of adequate response systems to issues of GBV, holding our criminal justice system accountable and implementation/overhaul of policies limiting women and girls.
Several advocacy groups have accused the police of being a cog in the wheel of progress, do you share this sentiment?
As referenced above, we work with the police to facilitate prosecution of these cases and I share in the sentiments of several advocacy groups who have called them to account for being a major roadblock in securing justice for women and girls. From seeking “mobilisation funds” to arrest perpetrators, investigate cases of SGBV and facilitate prosecution, the police have extensively forced women into silence. In 2019, same police unlawfully raided, arrested and raped women in Abuja using sachet water, which is the most despicable injustice to be perpetrated by a body that ought to protect and defend the rights of women. Recently, the police killed 16-year-old Tina Ezekwe, among other crimes that cannot be listed here. Nonetheless, there are some notable officers who put the trust Nigerians place in them to good use and facilitate justice for women.
What more can the government do to curb this menace once and for all?
Government has not covered the basics in preventing or addressing this scourge, so it is difficult to say what “more” can they do? There are a number of steps government can take to curb this menace, but I will highlight three immediate actions. First, government must improve its awareness-raising initiatives targeted at changing people’s behaviours towards SGBV. Imagine how effective continuous statements and actions from the key figures like the president, ministers, state government officials, traditional and religious leaders will go in shaping people’s behaviour? These are stakeholders that people listen to and their voices count in this space. Can we also imagine having a responsive and fully empowered Ministry of Women Affairs in all states effectively facilitating community engagements (not directed at women only) and improving its capacity to respond to sexual and gender-based violence cases?
Second, government must pass and enforce laws on SGBV in Nigeria to prevent and respond to SGBV like the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill and the Sexual Harassment Bill presently in the National Assembly. Several state governments in Nigeria have not adopted the VAPP and CRA till date. SGBV is a public health challenge and there is need to ensure there are adequate mechanisms in place to address it. If states fail to adopt VAPP, how can they feel the need to make provisions for the response systems stipulated the law such as SARCs? It may interest you to know that majority of the SARCs currently in Nigeria are funded by donors. Please who are we kidding that government is serious about ending this menace when key aspects of the change chain rest upon its shoulders?
How best can we help survivors of sexual assault?
Survivors of sexual assault require our support, understanding and a system that truly abhors perpetrators. We can help them move forward by taking necessary action towards their recovery whether it be justice, mental health support, safe spaces and empowerment, among other needs. We can start by advocating basic needs and revoking laws that limit survivors from accessing specific and important services e.g. abortion services. Women should rightly be able to determine what happens with their bodies after a rape experience. I have seen young girls who got pregnant as a result of rape and could not bear the pain of keeping such pregnancies; but due to the laws limiting safe abortion, they were forced to explore other options. We need to look at Nigeria’s figure of deaths caused by unsafe abortions. We need to repeal Section 230, which states that “any person who unlawfully supplies to or procures for any person any thing whatsoever, knowing that it is intended to be unlawfully used to procure the miscarriage of a woman, whether she is or is not with child, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for three years.” If we indeed are keen on helping survivors, we cannot keep up with the performative statements, but should rather provide holistic support and lead advocacies that are beneficial to the lives and well being of survivors.
Securing conviction for sexual assault and rape is very difficult in Nigeria; how can we improve on this?
It is evident that majority of sexual assault and violence cases do not make it to court due to societal, socio-economic factors, lackadaisical attitudes of police officers and the length of prosecution processes. Cases that do make it to court are thrown out due to lack of evidence. In recent times, a number of cases have received justice. I fully understand the need for evidence, but it is imperative to take dynamics into account. For example, for cases of sexual harassment or groping, it is difficult to document evidence, except there was a premonition that it would happen. For rape, it may be easier to retrieve evidence through medical examination if there are available SARCs and trained government hospitals and Primary Health Centres. Domestic violence cases could be ascertained through physical scars etc. These issues, among others, contribute to the low conviction cases recorded so far. With improved systems in place to seek redress, we can improve convictions. The sex offenders’ register is a platform that is helping to collate information on convicted cases and this is populated with more cases.
Some advocates are calling for school curriculum to include SGBV studies; do you think this is necessary?
The spectrum of SGBV is broad, but there are key elements that should be focused on. Consent and gender equality are the underlying factors that can eliminate SGBV and, as such, teaching this to children and young people is key strategy in addressing this issue. This is not just a necessity; it should actually be ingrained into teachings in Sunday schools in churches, Ile kewu in mosques and in homes. Equipping the younger generation with adequate information is the greatest form of prevention. For example, people have had concerns and pushed against young people being taught about safe sex and protection, which enables them make informed and safe choices. Censoring what information should be provided is a great damage to addressing SGBV.
Unfortunately, if we fail to provide the necessary information, young people source their information from other means such as their peers, who necessarily lack the requisite information and, as such, they consume wrong information and imbibe negative practices some of which contribute to the illegal actions they take. It genuinely makes me wonder how we trust adolescents and young people to get information from their peers instead of CSOs who are experienced and trained in administering accurate information. A mutually beneficial way forward is to explore a ‘train the trainers’ approach where teachers, parents and people within religious institutions are trained by CSOs and the trainers in turn teach this in schools, churches, mosques, home settings etc. Even games, debating clubs, press clubs and other extra curricular activities can be used as means to teach this.
Do you think we need harsher laws for convicted rapists or better implementation of already existing laws?
As a gender advocate, I believe in effectively implementing existing policies such as the VAPP and CRA. This is where our advocacy should lie. I have seen several groups call for harsher and more stringent laws on SGBV. While I share in their resentment, Nigeria has adequate laws to address this issue and we just need to push for better enforcement. Overtime, we can initiate processes to amend these laws to address emerging issues.
How do you carry your message to women in hard-to-reach areas and those with limited access to mobile phones and internet?
Our approach at STER is to reach everyone, both online and offline. Through our various community-driven initiatives such as awareness campaigns and community engagements, we are able to reach and engage women and girls in remote areas. One of such key areas is during our project development where we visit communities to carry out needs assessment and work with the target audience in developing programmes and services that are tailored towards their needs.
Two in five children will experience sexual assault before the age of five; how can we change this?
Changing the risk factors is highly dependent on focusing on prevention at individual, relationship, community and societal levels. At the individual level, we must encourage sex education where children can identify their body parts and also understand that no one has a right to touching them inappropriately. This applies for both children-to-children and children-to-adults. While the onus of preventing violence perpetrated by adults does not lie with children, unfortunately, safety tips such as biting and kicking may help. Helping children identify what sexual assault entails and banning violent acts they exhibit is key in changing the norms that condone violence among children. At the risk of over-flogging this, it is imperative that at community and societal levels, we hold ourselves accountable. We cannot claim to be concerned with reducing or eliminating violence against children and fail to adopt laws that protect the rights of children e.g the CRA.
We cannot be serious about eliminating this crime and continue to treat violence against children as a “family matter” or foster “out-of-court settlement” or support “pleas” from abusers and their families. We can change this by collectively agreeing that no one is above the law and all offenders should face the consequences of their actions. We also must ensure that prompt response services are available, so that children who are exposed can access effective emergency care.
What challenges have you faced in your advocacy?
I have been faced with numerous challenges in my work, but we have been able to achieve some success. I have highlighted some challenges earlier and would put the spotlight on:
-Lack of a coordinated national SGBV response: When SGBV response is not coordinated, CSOs, in turn, begin to replace government in its role to provide support services and there are bound to be gaps in the support survivors receive. We are not law enforcement agencies and require collaboration with all the agencies established to respond to this issue. There are times we have reached out to agencies for support but the cases are abandoned on our desks based on the reason that “they do not have the capacity.” Numerous states lack a functional safe space and empowerment programme for women. If a woman is experiencing domestic violence and the abuser is her financial sponsor, and there are no spaces to accept them, it feels as though we failed them. We are then forced to explore alternative means of support even for issues outside our scope of work.
-Ineffective laws and enforcement agencies: We cannot adequately prosecute cases when some states refuse to pass and enforce laws applicable to SGBV. I remember a police officer telling me, “we are not magicians,” in response to my request for the police adequately handling SGBV cases.
-Funding: It is no news that SGBV response is super expensive and NGOs like STER constantly have to raise fund or seek grants to implement programmes and provide services. If we had some structures in place, STER will need fewer resources to function.
Would you say social media has helped in drawing attention to SGBV?
Social media is a powerful tool in expressing, mobilising and demanding action. When I started, I understood that the first tasks was to use it to enlighten people and make it a safe space for survivors to share their stories without fear. This is exactly what I did. Today, this platform has been instrumental in deconstructing rape culture, correcting wrong narratives around consent and gender equality and, most importantly, used to report cases of SGBV and easily connect with service providers. In the past six years, social media has helped to bring to the fore cases from the grassroots that could have been abandoned or silenced. In addition, several SGBV-related movements have morphed from social media to contribute to demanding an end to SGBV in Nigeria.
What is your passion, what drives you?
I am driven by my vision to see a future where SGBV is eliminated, and this is what I am passionately working towards. I am driven by the need to close the gaps in achieving gender equality in Nigeria. As a young woman, I have seen too many issues that limit the rights of women to exist and I’m keen on seeing every woman fully achieve her potential.
If you could influence change for Nigerian women, what’s the first thing you would do?
Deconstructing patriarchal norms that empower men to excessively exert power over women is the change I am keen on making. If I had the power to, the first thing I would give women is more economic and political access to shape their future. Just check those making laws for us, you can tell their interest is heavily vested in the policies that make it through.
Life is very overwhelming, how do you stay in control and make everything work?
The dream works if the team works. I have been blessed with the most amazing team, which makes the work easy. Collaborating with other likeminded organisations is also a key strategy that enables us work much better. I also prioritise my mental health and wellbeing, watching as many movies as I can to relax. As an advocate, it is so easy to be passionate and forget about one’s health, and this happened to me once. Today, I am ensuring to work as much as I rest. This makes it easy for me to stay in control and make everything work.
What are your future plans, personally and for STER?
My future plan is to stay alive and continue to work to advance women’s rights in Nigeria. Well, I must also confirm my interest in the political space, as I am interested in the legislature.
As an organisation, STER is improving its capacity to build capacity of institutions to prevent and respond to SGBV as well as intensify our programmes across Nigeria and Africa.
What else do you have for women reading this?
We are not safe until all women are safe. Women are not playing feed for exertion of power and dominance; we are equal citizens and have a place in social, cultural, religious and political spaces. We must pull down those walls because if we do not, survivors are further silenced and traumatised. Women and girls have experienced so much violence, and if the universe that ought to protect us won’t change, we will fight for our own rights and win.
To every survivor out there, it was never your fault. We stand with you and I am here for you.