Absence of sanctions fuels violence against women – Abiodun Baiyewu

The Executive Secretary of Global Rights, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), Abiodun Baiyewu, says Nigeria’s threshold for violence is very high. In this interview with BENJAMIN UMUTEME, she maintains that lack of punishment for perpetrators continues to fuel violence nationwide.

What do you make of the spate of violence against women and the girl-child in the country?

Well, our threshold for violence is generally high. So it’s not just against women and children, but it so happens that women form about 50 per cent of our population if you have children, so that is probably for about 80 per cent women and children probably for about 75 to 80 per cent of our population.

And so yes, the spate of violence is quite high that those groups are more susceptible or more vulnerable to violence. In the society; but the biggest problems generally, is threshold for violence in Nigeria is getting higher every year.

How can this be addressed?

There is no magic bullet to addressing sexual violence. I would really like us to address our propensity for violence as a country. Propensity for violence comes largely from impunity, people get away with being violent against other people and don’t get punished; so today you find somebody who is able to beat somebody up and is not arrested; a group attacks a community and then you say it is inter-communal or it is religious, and so everybody who participated in that attack is absolved on the grounds of religion or ethnicity, it’s just impunity.

Then you go to the home front, where all forms of domestic violence happens; where you have domestic servants who are under age children and when this kind of violence goes on it also begins to open the doors for other forms of violence like sexual violence.

The other part about sexual violence is that we don’t have the kind of laws and institutions that we need to curb sexual violence or domestic violence at that. And this is why I say it’s still very difficult to convict anyone of rape in Nigeria.  Rightly so, it should be beyond reasonable doubt before a person is convicted. At the same time, while there is no doubt and it’s still difficult to convict then there’s a problem. We don’t add the kind of forensic lab we need for a biological crimes like sexual violence and rape.

Police do not have a proper legal state. Apart from Lagos state, our police don’t have this kind of forensic lab to even take fingerprints. Hospitals don’t have rape kits or required to submit evidence when a person is raped.

Social orientation also makes it very difficult to report sexual violence because then we often blame victims instead of the perpetrators.

So, for instance, the sexual harassment scandal has broken out about what’s going on in Nigeria universities, which have gone on for decades in Nigeria and it had been reported, in fairness to the Nigerian media, they just didn’t take it seriously until the BBC reported it and because it is a foreigner, an international news media, suddenly we are all up in arms. However, if you listen carefully to the comments that have gone on about it, you will be disgusted with us as a people.

First of all, it is that the girls are to blame because of the clothes that they wear but then a lot of girls come out and tell you their stories; some were harassed even in their hijabs. Pregnant women in universities will tell you even in their pregnancy they were still sexually harassed at school.

There is also the assumption that, well, a number of girls also offer lecturer sexual favours in exchange for grades but the question is, have you ever heard of a case of a lecturer who reported a students for sexually trying to motivate him grades? So, that in itself shows the work thinking of our society.

When you say, oh yes what some girls do, but then for the number of girls who do not, but were also harassed or attacked, we need to think deeper about this.

When people say: Oh, it’s about dressing! Then, you ask yourself did miniskirts come today? They’ve been around for so long. And of course when there were communities like Coma, which until recently were not wearing clothes but the spate of sexual violence was very, very low.

The things we allow in our media, music videos, themselves incentivise the objectification of women’s body in a way that women are no longer seen as people but as sexual objects to be dealt with. That is why we have problem.

Our police are not empowered; I will say it again and again. You go to a police station to report rape and you might be upset with the police when they say things like, “There is no petrol in our vehicle. You need to give us money to buy.” More often than not even that officer may not have been paid in months; that station has not been funded in months, where are they going to get the things to work with, not to talk of preserving evidence when they don’t have forensic labs to take these things.

Gender specific violence, a lot of times happen within the context of power dynamics. So it will also be that the perpetrator is in a fiduciary position to the victim. For example, a relative, the older neighbour, the same thing for domestic violence.

If a child is violated at school or schools with a child hat violates her, and has to go back to the same home or school, we don’t have safe houses for such victims. I am reminded of a case in Ibadan, where a teenage girl had been sexually violated by her father and then had finally gotten tired and bold enough to report to an NGO which approached us and said this needs to go to social welfare; it needs to go to the police.

We facilitated the process and a few months later, we heard that unfortunately the child was removed from her and taken to juvenile centre. She has not committed a crime. She has no business in a juvenile centre.

Eventually, the father was released the child was released. They said they didn’t have enough evidence against the father. There was nowhere else for the child to go but to go back home with the father,

When the father started again, this child ran away from home and hasn’t returned again. That is a social safety net that we have failed to provide. And so you find a lot of children in her shoes have nowhere to go. So they will continue to suffer the abuse and they will continue to stay there.

A husband continually beats his wife, she has four children and there’s no safe house. So, perhaps she stays with the man till the day the man is arraigned in court for killing his wife. We haven’t done enough in terms of providing social safety nets.

Some states have enacted laws aimed at discouraging violence against women and children. Is it not step in the right direction?

There are a few states that have made meaningful progress but we have not made substantial progress. The meaningful progress states include Lagos with the Sexual and Domestic violence Rapid Response Team they call ‘Mirabelle Centres’. Let’s be reminded that Mirabelle Centre is a private initiative even though the state government gave them the Lagos State Teaching Hospital, but for a population of 19 million people one Mirabelle Centre is a joke. The centre cannot handle over 200 cases of sexual violence on daily basis, so the Mirabelle Centre can’t cope with that volume of victims.

Lagos also has a short code number that you can call in times of emergency. They are trying to train police officers in their stations and various formation.

The second state I would say that has made meaningful progress is Ekiti state where they’re trying to also develop a rapid response team like Lagos state. Ekiti has made meaningful progress, but they still have a long way to go.

The Federal capital territory (FCT) has made some progress; Kano also has passed the VAP Act. I think Ogun and Enugu states have a thermal centre which is the equivalent of a Mirabelle Centre in Lagos. But those centres are not sufficient.

Kaduna also has sexual violence referral centres. A few other states as well but these centres are largely run by NGOs and they are not adequately funded to deal with the volume of victims. Also, they cannot provide for example, safe houses that victims desperately need in the short term.

Where does your passion for protecting the vulnerable in the society come from?

First of all, the most vulnerable in any society is my business. Our job is to look out for the most vulnerable. Secondly, some of the most vulnerable in any society wear the face of a woman and when you think the fact that there is so much discrimination against girls and women in our world, even in 2019, I think that I will be particularly bothered not just because I am a woman.

I think I have better advantage than most women and girls in Nigeria, in terms of the opportunities I have had and the forms of social protection I have also enjoyed. So, basically my life’s mission is looking out for the most vulnerable.

So, what the nature of your work in this direction? 

Global Rights was established to build the capacity of civil society, organisations, and activists, and work with them side by side to ensure that the most vulnerable gets space at the table in the places of decision making.

Our mission hasn’t changed in the past 40 years. It’s successfully passed through from country to country working on cutting edge projects that will reduce the vulnerability of human beings to human rights violations that will protect the dignity and the rights of most vulnerable populations.

And you’ll find that some of the countries in which Global Rights has worked are some of the most disenfranchised in terms of population whether it is Ghana, Nigeria, Serra Leone, Ugandan, Burundi, Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan or in South Americas, you’ll find that they are some of the most difficult terrains in which to work.  We’re not afraid to confront injustice in any part of the world. That’s what our mission is and what the core of our mission will continue to be even if the methods to which we work continues to change.

Looking back, would you say it’s been rewarding?

It’s been very challenging but it’s also rewarding. It’s rewarding when you go into a community and you see that their life becomes better because of your work. It helps you sleep better at night.

It is rewarding because like in area of our para-legal work you could find a young girl who was about to be forced to get married instead, she goes to school and when you ask her what you want to be when you leaves school, and she says she wants to be a lawyer, you can’t beat the feeling that it brings. So, I think that it is very, very rewarding.

It’s very rewarding when you think of the roles that we’ve played in nation building; when you think of the roles that Global Rights has played in nation building, our election processes; when you think of the role it is playing in the mining sector.

It’s very rewarding when you think of the role, it’ playing in drawing attention and protecting the rights of civilians in areas of armed conflict. I think it’s rewarding to see that every step forward we’re making great strides.

What are you looking to accomplish as Global Rights and as an individual in the near future?

Global Rights will continue to grow in terms of the depth of its work and in terms of its territory as well. Hopefully we’ll be able to open our country offices in more countries across Africa.

We’ll continue to work on ensuring that the civic space is wide enough for all to play in. We’ll continue to work to ensure that the minerals of Africa serve the people of Africa and that people are treated with dignity and that the capacity of the most vulnerable communities are built to ensure that they have adequate protection.

As a person, I will continue to do exactly what I love, which is standing side by side and walking with the most vulnerable to ensure that they meet the nomenclature from being the most vulnerable to being helpers of the vulnerable.

What has been the most challenging project you’ve worked on?

The most challenging project is Global Rights itself and it still remains my most challenging project. In 2014 when I had the entire weight of organization thrown on my shoulders and when I thought about the organization’s very rich and strong history and how to ensure that the organization does not go down and how to continue fulfilling our critical mission was a challenging experience.

It has been very challenging but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything else. It’s been really challenging.

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