Mrs. Chinyere Eyoh is the Executive Director Sexual Offences Awareness and Victims Rehabilitation Initiative (SOAR)initiative, and the FCT Coordinator of the network of civil societies against child trafficking and abuse. In this chat with ENE OSANG, the mother of four canvasses stringent punishment for perpetrators of child abuse in the country.
What is the SOAR initiative about?
SOAR Initiative is a non governmental organization that basically helps children who are sexually abused, and also empowers caregivers and parents on how to protect their children from being abused. We also provide care and support for those who have been abused.
I used to be a civil servant with Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) before I resigned two years ago to focus on the NGO full time.
I was a victim of sexual abuse for the first time when I was four years old by an uncle who came to visit. I never told my parents and two years later my father brought his younger brother to come live with us in Lagos state.
Again, this uncle started abusing me and it went on for about 7-8 years under my parents nose, and that is why I tell parents that it is not really a question of whether you work or stay at home; sexual abuse is a function of the information you have and how you protect your children because most times children are vulnerable to those who are supposed to protect them.
I understand first hand the pain that every victim go through and its not something I like remembering and that is why I am doing my best to helping victims.
How do you feel whenever you remember?
I have healed and that is why I am effective at what I do. I am no longer a victim, I have overcome it and the only passion for me is let it not happen to another child because so many people are not as fortunate as I am to have overcome so well and thriving in my husbands house who knows what happened to me and have not stigmatized or call me a useless woman, not all victims get this opportunity.
What makes victims of abuse not to speak out?
There are so many reasons firstly, the fear of not being believed, fear that when they tell they will be blamed. Parents sometimes don’t understand that the children are also confused because they don’t know if what is happening to them is abuse or its just uncle being nice.
Secondly, perpetrators always threaten the victims. I have met so many victims who tell me that their uncle is abusing but has threatened to kill if I tell anybody and they become afraid that something will happen to them or their parents, also because it has happened several times they don’t know how to begin to tell their parents so they just keep quite.
In my own case I have what I call the over sympathetic conscience like if I tell what my uncle was doing to me, they will chase him out of the house and everybody will say its because of me that he was chased out.
The stigmatisation makes parents not to take action in ensuring that the abuser don’t do it again, so these and many other factors are what make children vulnerable and make them keep quite when they are abused.
How would you describe the situation today?
We have an epidemic on our hands that if we all do not own up and government also do not take proactive steps it will get out of hand, which is already what it is now.
In 2014 the national population commission undertook a survey and realized that one in every four girls, and one in every 10 boys are sexually abused before age 18; that is the Violence Against Persons (VAP) research.
This result shows that this is an epidemic and unfortunately there is this sense of denial by victims and families of victims and because of that it encourages the perpetrators to continue. It has become bad as this because Nigerians are not talking.
How do you think the crime of abuse can stop?
There are series of things that needs to take place if this must stop, everybody playing their part, continuous sensitization, and victims needs to be assured that when you speak up your story is not sensationalized.
There need to be a reassurance to victims that their case will be handled confidentially and instead perpetrators should be exposed so they can know that there are consequences for their actions.
If Nigerians understands that this is a problem there would be much awareness, funding and energy should be put in creating awareness most especially in the grassroots where they don’t have enough information.
The law enforcement agencies also need sensitization and training because today in the juvenile welfare centers police officers don’t like being sent there because they feel no money there we don’t have people with professional skills handling that department and when cases are brought there girls who are almost 18years are being insulted if she is abused so a lot of training needs to be given to them. Parents should know that if you keep quite a larger monster will come up so all hands need to be on deck in order to curb this.
What are some challenges you experience running this NGO?
The most glaring is the issue of funds, also getting people who are genuinely willing to volunteer in doing this work without being paid is a challenge. Another challenge is the families of victims themselves not ready to open up. And with law enforcement agents, perpetrators conaive with the police and before you know it they are out free.
Would you say there are efficient laws that backs children/girls?
We have enough laws the problem is implementation. In 2014 also, the VAP law was passed atleast in the FCT, the Child Rights Act is there the problem is implementation.
Why do you think there is a footdragging in ensuring these laws are efficient?
Corruption is the major reason.
The issue of immorality and the issue of a girl not dressing proper are two parallel things so when men say they couldn’t control themselves when they see a woman dress indecently so what about the younger girls who are being abused?
What is your take on gender?
The way I see gender is everybody understanding their role and playing their part it is not women trying to take over the role of the men or the men feeling threatened of women taking their place. I have four girls and I thank God for my husband who has never bothered me for not having a boy so I believe I am blessed but there are so many men who have driven out their wives because of male child. It still boils down to sensitization and everybody playing their part.
That’s why I believe any woman who have political aspiration and is qualified should be given a chance, not favoured over a man because I believe in putting in place sound and capable people not giving undue advantage to a women just because she is a woman.
How would you access women in leadership?
Women in leadership positions are doing very well, and some do even better than the men. I believe more women should be given the opportunity to hold leadership positions.
Do you see this government side lining women?
Yes it is very obvious women have not been given their proper place in this government and that is why a lot of women activists are coming up even some men are demanding that women be considered. We are not second class citizens and I don’t think women has been given their pride of place in this government.
Do you see a Nigerian women becoming President some day?
I don’t think the way Nigeria is presently that a woman can support in a presidential ambition but there is room for improvement if work continues the way it is going, people are sensitized and more women proving themselves in the society, we may see some progress in that direction.
Who should be blamed for child abuse?
We have all failed because the traditional roll which I am also guilty of shuttling between work, NGO and church activities. In the light of economic realities where both parents have to work, there has been a lot of neglect of children taking place where house helps and other extended family members or neighbors are given the responsibility of rearing our children.
In doing that children are placed at risk and statistics have proven through research that majority of perpetrators of abuse and sexual abuse are people who are known to the child, have access to the girl and have the responsibility to live with the children. We have relegated our duties as primary caregivers of these children because we are trying to make ends meet.
Laxity in places where children are kept is another issue? How many children has a child protection policy? How many schools do background checks on their staff? Phedophiles are not only found in our homes but in school, children churches, sports clubs, etc.
It is very risky to have one person stay with your child after school because that person could be an abuser. We need to begin to put checks and balances to ensure safety of our children.
We must all own up that we have failed children.
What is the right steps to tackling this issue?
First, sensitization let our churches and mosque begin to reach this message. Let the children know that not all uncles are allowed to play with them, let them know that about their private parts, give training to those taking care of the children on how to recognize signs, how to counsel children and all of that.
Parents should also be sensitized to know that the money they are chasing after, if the child is abused that child may not be available to spend the money so a lot of sensitization, training, the mass media also needs to send out proper information and journalists also have to be trained not to expose a child just to make headline stories because its against the child’s rights
What are your achievements so far?
We have gone into about 21 schools since we started in 2011 and we have reached out to thousands of girls most recently the justice for all project we concluded earlier this year where we reached out to 11 schools and over 5000 girls were involved. We sensitized about 4100 girls to speak out and we held rallies in each schools with over 200 girls coming out to speak forth to say they have been abused and need help.
We have been able to take 303 girls from 11 of these schools and train them as peer educators and advocates in the schools. Girls club were established in the schools and we trained the initial members 25 each from the schools as peer educators and advocates to continue the work of sensitization in their schools.
We trained their guidance counselors, principals, education teachers to recognize signs of abuse, how to handle cases and help those traumatized so we made a lot of headway especially with the cases that came forth and it shows that we can get it right if things are done right.
All hands must be on deck to recognise the vulnerability of our children, we should be vigilant and close to our children so we can know when they have any problem.