Rashidat Mohammed is the Principal Partner at the first female owned law firm in Sokoto state, Rashida Mohammed and Co. In this interview with ENE OSHABA, she speaks on advocacy for women and children as well as the challenges female lawyers face in Nigeria among others.
You were called to Bar in 2013 and four years after you opened the first female owned chamber in Sokoto. What informed the decision?
Yes, I am a private legal practitioner and I was called to bar in 2013. Afterwards I worked with my first principal for four years and later moved to another law firm where I worked for six months before opening my own law firm.
However, while I was still working for somebody I was searching for job because my mind wasn’t built towards private practice so I didn’t see myself as someone who will last long in private practice even though I have the zeal to speak for women the society does not really encourage one.
In the period of searching for job I came across series of gender based violence. In fact I am a victim and my rights has been violated several times and such experience made me wonder what the ordinary woman who doesn’t have a voice to speak or who is not educated go through if as a lawyer I could experience this.
I became worried about how to help women and girls and I decided that the only way I could help them was to be independent because while I was working under my principals I could hardly function on my own. I was being monitored and I had to seek permission before I could do certain things.
In 2016, I volunteered to work with Action Aid Council where we were trained to encourage girl child education and this took me to villages. Then I discovered that a lot of people were not informed about the importance of girl child education.
It was during one of our out-reach programme to villages that I was able to stop a girl getting into early marriage; even as we speak she is now a nurse. That was when I discovered that I couldn’t stop, that there was a lot to been done and for me to be able to do more I had to be independent.
Also, while working as a young female lawyer I was violated and that made me angry and I asked myself what my vision was? What do I want to achieve as a woman? That was what inspired me to open a law firm so I could have a means to advocate for women and children.
So my experience coupled with what I see other women and girls experience made me to open my own law firm.
So, how is the firm faring?
In my law firm I have two female and two male lawyers.
Basically, I advocate for women and children. I started by offering pro-bono services to women and girls and I still do that now.
I discovered that I am better off and even some of those men that were discriminating against me started looking for me to do certain things for them. They nominated me to represent NBA, MULAN, which are organisations headed by men; they also call me to do certain work for them and when issues come up and a woman was needed they would call me then I realised that the best way to go about it was to do things rightly so that those discriminating against you would come looking for you.
This also built my capacity and encouraged me to do more and so I decided to step up from doing free legal services to advocating for women and children, encouraging girl child education by going to more schools, villages to talk to girls, listen to women’s problems and try to proffer solutions.
The ones I can’t handle I connect with others who can, and that’s why I have a very good understanding with the Ministry of Women Affairs in Sokoto and they hardly do anything without involving me and even the local NGO’s also seek collaboration with my firm.
Save the child initiative propelled my appointment as their legal adviser and I’m also the legal adviser to Child protection. I’m also the legal desk officer of Ministry of Women Affairs most times when they have cases of Gender Based Violence it’s me they contact.
How are you faring in terms of funding?
It’s not been easy but I have been able to do what I am doing because I didn’t involve people at the initial stage. I made up my mind I was going to set up and I set up even many people doubted me, I got responses like can you do this, no woman has done this here in Sokoto where will you get money to pay and all sorts of questions.
I come from a humble background but I also know that that will not determine where I will be because my ability to make a difference depends on me and not on my background.
I have no regrets and as a matter of fact in Sokoto state there is no female lawyer that is recognised like me, I have received so many awards and in December I got a certificate of recognition from the office of the SA on Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to the Sokoto state government for being the best human rights defender.
Some people think I am being sponsored by NGOs but I do all my work with personal funds, whatever money I make I keep a percentage for the work I do. However, sometimes when there is a pressing case that needs funding I will contact some NGOs that I am their legal adviser and they support me the best way they can.
It’s challenging because I am not running an NGO but a law firm which is supposed to be purely business but because I have passion for humanity and the protection of the rights of women and children I concentrate more on this aspect.
Do male clients patronise your law firm?
Yes, I get patronage from clients though they are few of them who pay me, others even when they have money patronise me for pro-bono legal services but when I realise a client has money but wants free services just because I do that for those who can’t pay I turn the client down. A lot of people see me like that lawyer who is being paid by international NGOs to offer free legal services. It became worse after the Women Spotlight Initiative profiled me and the video is available online, so people think I get money from them or the European Union to do free services.
Doesn’t it bother you that you don’t get paid?
No, it doesn’t give me much concern because what I want to achieve is to be able to give hope to the vulnerable and that gives me joy. It’s a pleasant thing to see someone express happiness because I spoke for them.
Just recently a young girl was about to be married off early against her wish but I talked to the parents and they saw reasons with me and have gone ahead to get her admission into a secondary school and the girl’s mother who was insisting that the daughter be married came back to thank me and this made me happy.
What challenges do you encounter as a female legal practitioner?
My staff are complaining because I’m supposed to be paying them salary and I am not meeting up their expectations as staff but I had a meeting with them and we now have an understanding that if they can’t continue they have the right to leave. I appreciate them a lot because after the meeting they still decided to stay so I have understanding staff and we handle most of the cases brought to the firm together, they see me borrowing money to help these women and even go to the court for them and I am thankful for that understanding.
Tell us about your background and why you chose the legal profession?
When I was growing up I was a very outspoken child, my primary and secondary school days I always had interest and participated in debates and have always worked with my mum’s saying that life is not about what you have but what you can give. I remember her saying you must not be rich before you can help somebody and I grew up always wanting to help people, my mom is no more but that has been in me and the best way I taught I could achieve that was to study law which I did.
I used to be a science student and I participated in a drama where I acted as a lawyer who spoke for and defended people and since then I told myself I would be one. I didn’t tell my dad about my interest in law but while registering for WAEC I registered for art subjects but luckily I wrote WAEC and passed. When the results were out my dad was surprised to see art subjects and he wanted to go complain but I told him not to since I passed. He wanted me to be in health career but deep down I wanted law so I insisted I was ok with the WAEC results. I wrote JAMB about four times because I only wanted to study law but unfortunately I wasn’t offered admission so I applied for a diploma in law I got the admission, wrote JAMB again didn’t get law I went for advanced diploma in law and wrote JAMB again and I was offered admission in Islamic studies still I didn’t give up, I rather applied for a change of course and with my diploma results I was offered 200 level law.
Upon graduation I tried everything to get a government paid job so I can work and still take care of family because as a woman a lot is expected of me and private practice won’t give me that time but I couldn’t get a job. I encountered a lot of people trying to take advantage of me because I’m a woman searching for a job, I got tired and that was what inspired me to think outside the box and I’m happy today I’m also an employer of labour. It may not be much but I pay my secretary, administrative staff and I can also say I’m contributing my quota to national development since the four years I opened the law firm. I worked with two laws firms since graduation and the first I wasn’t paid, the second firm I was placed on salary but it wasn’t forthcoming and that was another reason I opened my own law firm.
Tell us your experience being a female lawyer?
It is very challenging because clients don’t have confidence in you, especially in the north where they feel there is a limit to how far a woman can go and men have that inferiority complex that how can they take their problems to a woman for solution when there are lots of male lawyers and that is why I said as a woman you must realize yourself. I have been in court several times, I have been at events where I speak and people are now getting comfortable with my capability. I have many clients now who always want me to handle their case in court even when I have makes lawyers in my firm.
Have you won any cases in your law firm?
Yes I have won two cases so far but you know in Nigeria the cases takes a long time and my law firm is still new. Cases can take three or four years before it ends . Again I focus more on advocacy than on litigation so I only go to court once In a while because I travel a lot and have much work to do.
I opened my law firm in 2018, the last election was 2019 when both APC and PDP were constituting their legal committee I was in my office when I received a letter from the APC to be part of their legal team and after two days another person called me from PDP that they wanted me to be part of their legal team but I told them I have already accepted to be part of APC. They tried to persuade me but I told them I’m after the work and not money which made me realized that if women distinguish themselves the men will look for you no matter how they discriminate against women.
What is your vision, where you hope to see yourself?
I want to be in a position where women and children will always look up to me, this is happening already in Sokoto state but I want to see myself recognised by the presidency and by national assembly where I will stand to speak for women and make laws that will benefit women because most of our laws are weak which is making women to suffer as a result of difficulties prosecuting GBV cases, I will like to change the narrative.
Do you think gender parity can be achieved in the legal profession?
It’s unfortunate that we only have few women who are SAN and as George but believe me women are working a lot and they are not sleeping over their rights it’s a gradual process and time would come when women would dominate the heirachy of the legal profession. Women should always support each other, speak up and work harder to get the support of men because those positions are not easy to attain.
Do you have any mentors in the legal profession?
Yes I do, when I started my career I was liasing with the first judge of Sokotp State, former Chief Judge (CJ) of Sokoto state Justice Aisha Dahiru and I’m also close to the present permanent secretary of the ministry of women affairs she is a lawyer, and as times goes on I got close to Professor Joy Ezeilo, Yemi Bamgbose and our FIDA Chairperson in Sokoto state. I align myself with big female lawyers for mentorship.
How do you also mentor younger female lawyers?
I have young female lawyers in my office and the best thing to do for any young lawyer is to get the person involved and what I do mostly is whenever I have an event I carry them along if I’m facilitating any session I deliberately ensure they take a session too. If I have any case in court I go with them to the court and deliberately leave the court and send her text message to handle the case, sometimes I may be at the court but would encourage her to handle the case because if they don’t show them how to, one day you must need someone to represent you and if they have never handled anything it will be difficult for them. I won’t forgive myself if one day my law firm will die or the advocacy stops just because I’m not there you must groom younger ones to help you when the need arise. While at a training, I got a call for an emergency pro-bono case and I called a younger lawyer at my office to go handle it because I can’t be there at that moment. This principle doesn’t apply only to the legal profession I have a mentorship program for undergraduates and I made myself so available for them to call at anytime and I don’t always wait for them to come to me, I go meet them sometimes.
There are many young girls who are shy and don’t like talking, I keep encouraging them and they are beginning to loosen up and picking interest even in the law profession.
Is it true that northern women are only seen and not heard?
I won’t affirm this statement because I’m from the north, I’m very outspoken and no one has stopped me. I know there are cultural constraints but islamically a woman is not restricted from expressing herself it only depends on how you go about it. We’re not competing with men we only make them understand that women rights are human rights and needs to be protected. Most women are not aware of their rights that’s why they are being dominated but today more women are getting aware and that’s why there is need for more awareness creation and sensitization because men especially in the villages don’t know that such laws exist.
Many women are not empowered and that’s why they can’t even speak up, women need to support each other every where take Politics for instance the men have been in positions and they carry other men along, women should also carry other women along and if a capable woman wants to contest a position we can rally round her, get funds to buy a form and support in every way to enable her win because even the current president people contributed money for him to win election. Women must realize themselves and work together.
Do you believe in gender equality and do you think it’s achievable in Nigeria especially in the north.
Yes I believe in gender equality and it can be achieved in Nigeria and in the north, though this may take sometime but now people are getting more aware and even religious leaders are beginning to support it.
What’s your take on the call for legislative advocacy which you are being trained for?
It’s a very timely call and I have realized that as a women and children advocate there are some basic tools I must be armed with in the course of advocacy. I have learnt the importance of communication skills and the need to network with like-minded people. When advocating for women and children I must do manyy research, have facts, data and know who or which legislature to meet to achieve your aim. As an advocate I must have persuasive ability because this is how you can get lawmakers to establish laws that will benefit women and children.
What’s your general advise to Nigeria on gender equality?
I want all Nigerians to know that gender equality is not calling for competition with men rather we want equality when it comes to opportunities. Men and women are unique in their own way and we must know that God has a purpose for creating us that way and there is no law either religious or common that encouraged Gender Based Violence (GBV) and we should know that we will be held accountable for our actions. A lot of children, girls and women are been abused yet much has not been done to ensure their safety or justice. Men and boys too are affected by GBV but women are more vulnerable and we must be careful not to ask questions that implies that women are at fault when there is a GBV rather we should support the victim to recover and reintegrate back to the society. Dressing is not the excuse for men to rape women because babies and underage children are victims of rape as well as women and girls on hijab. Stop stigmatizing rape victims and Nigeria must show commitment to ensuring justice for rape survivors. Security agencies must not terminate cases of rape that comes to them because I see no reason why a 44 year old man who took the innocence of a 4year old girl should still be allowed to roam the streets however the police needs better funding to work well, I have funded police several times to go arrest a rape suspect and that’s because when you report a case they demand for transportation else the case will die there. If the federal government is responsible for this, it should take responsibility so that things will work better in our country.