One of the messages people circulate on social media and across the popular messaging platform WhatsApp is “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. The message is used to encourage people to remain determined in the face of challenges and if possible, find ways to turn the challenge into triumph.
But for Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, it is more than just a message, it is her personal experience. She says that during the 2011 general elections, she was doing her youth service and served as an adhoc staff in Rivers State. She had an experience of sexual violence there for refusing to receive a bribe to engage in electoral malpractice in the Local Government where she was assigned to serve as an INEC staff.
Osowobi said she thankfully had the support of her immediate family after the experience. She left the country to do her Masters in International Relations with a focus on Gender and Human Rights Law where she gained more understanding and improved her capacity in gender related matters. Combined with her first degree in Development Studies, she returned to Nigeria to help in closing the gap on various forms of gender-based violence especially the one she lived through — rape.
According to Osowobi, her experience and the society’s response brought her to the realisation of how far reaching the problem of rape is and the critical need to join in shifting the needle on the ugly trend. “My experience was a turning moment because it showed me Nigeria had a dearth of efforts when it comes to response and prevention of gender-based violence,” she said.
A widespread but silent problem
Rape is an alarmingly pervasive problem in Nigeria. Imagine you meet four young girls during your work day. According to a 2015 report by the United Nations Children Education Fund (UNICEF), one out of those four girls will experience sexual violence before they turn 18. This is a disturbing statistic for Nigeria. Between January and June 2018, the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) attended to 874 clients through their USSD code for domestic and sexual violence, *6820#. Out of the total clients, 801 of the callers were women, and 17 were sexual abuse cases, 20 were child abuse cases while the rest were domestic violence cases.
A culture of silence where the victim is sometimes blamed instead of defended fuels the problem. But 2019 proved to be a significant year in the fight against rape with important conversations happening around the topic. From the #ArewaMeToo movement that started in Northern Nigeria, to the release of the BBC documentary, #SexForGrades, which exposed sexual exploitation in higher education institutions, to the launch of the Sexual Offenders Register by the Federal Government and partners.
But for Osowobi and other organisations working to end this practice, getting to this point took intentional effort to speak out and challenge the status quo. Currently, she leads over 182 young people working with Stand to End Rape Initiative (STER), an organisation she founded to mitigate the problem of sexual violence in Nigeria.
An unpopular fight
Fighting rape culture isn’t a fight everyone wants to pick, simply because it isn’t easy. But Osowobi decided to pick this fight because she says for her “it became personal. Sometimes the pain in you inspires the passion to find a solution or look at existing solutions and find ways to improve them”.
So, in 2013 she started writing about sexual violence for two main reasons. First, to begin a conversation about sexual violence is because silence around the topic has meant a lot of abuses are being ignored. Her second reason was because those who have experienced sexual violence, but don’t always have a platform to speak up and get help. “Survivors are thrown under the bus and even blamed for putting themselves in positions leading to the rape while the perpetrators aren’t chastised,” Osowobi said.
Once she started putting out content, her writing resonated with people as she got feedback from others who shared personal stories and experiences with sexual violence. She realised it shouldn’t end with just creating a conversation or enlightening more people. So, in 2014 she founded STER to advocate against sexual and gender-based violence and to provide support to survivors. When she started working actively in the space with her team, the problems became more glaring, but they also saw potential opportunities to proffer better solutions.
They decided to delve into policy advocacy and behavioural change communication in communities and organisations. They also started building the capacity of some government institutions such as hospitals because of the important role they play in providing care and justice for survivors.
They joined various coalitions formed to advocate for various policies, and this enabled the STER team to contribute their knowledge and skills to push for policies aimed at ending sexual violence. One of such is the #Choice4Life social media advocacy that pushed for presidential assent for the Violence against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Bill in 2015. Social media played and still plays a significant role in their work, especially in the area of advocacy.
In addition, going to the grassroots and speaking to community gatekeepers like traditional and religious leaders and even men proved effective when she started with a team of around 20 members. Another thing that worked for them, Osowobi said was “being very genuine about our intentions when we reached out to any group of people”. This helped them get through to survivors and develop trust.
Osowobi said she mostly used personal funds saved from her time working outside Nigeria during her study days to start up STER, adding that funding was a major challenge when she started. Her first grant came from AIDS Healthcare Foundation in 2016 for a project that built the capacity of healthcare providers to manage cases of sexual violence. The project has now transitioned to equipping health providers to screen for mental health issues in survivors. The United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) supported her initial efforts to become an advocate for sexual abuse survivors by providing skill training. But beyond grants, Osowobi said, “Nigerians were the biggest donors”. They had people doing monthly direct debits of amounts ranging from N1,000 to N50,000 to STER and this has been transformational for their work.
Making impact across Nigeria
STER’s work has gone beyond Lagos to have an active presence in Port Harcourt and Abuja, and a few activities happen in Ibadan. Over the past five years, they have reached over 200,000 people with an intervention to either prevent or respond to sexual violence, Osowobi said. In 2019 alone, they received and worked on 172 cases. But as an organisation, Osowobi said STER is not about numbers, but the one life that got changed to attain their potential without letting their experience define them.
One of such stories is a rape survivor that got thrown out by her family because she was pregnant. Once contacted about the case, the organisation arranged for a shelter through a partner organisation and antenatal visits for safe delivery. After her delivery, postnatal care and further counselling, she is doing much better and about to get a teaching job to continue her life.
In fact, some of the survivors recover enough to decide to volunteer for the organisation as a way of giving back and helping others and this is a highlight of their success stories. This is how STER started in Port Harcourt, through volunteers.
Osowobi said seeing fellow young people rise to mobilise and speak up against cases and issues of sexual violence gives her great personal fulfilment as one of the few voices that broke the silence on speaking up against it.
But beyond helping respond to and manage cases, the organisation is building the next generation of leaders on issues of human rights, sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence. Funmi Ayeni, the organisation’s Director of Research, Measurement, Evaluation and Learning who works out of Michigan, USA, said her two years at STER has been a great journey. She said she has always had interest in gender issues and after relocating to the United States and observing how systems worked to mitigate and respond to rape cases, she started looking for local organisations in Nigeria where she can share and learn more. Now she can transfer skills gained from her PhD in Gender Studies to her team at STER and other staff and volunteers of the organisation. “Working with STER gave me that opportunity to be part of the solution instead of just complaining and doing nothing about it,” she said.
Osowobi’s work at STER isn’t going unnoticed. She has received numerous awards over the years with the 2019 highlight being her emerging as the first West African to be named Commonwealth Young Person of the Year 2019. She also received a commendation from President Barack Obama when she was named Time Magazine’s 100 NEXT in 2019.
Overcoming challenges together
Besides funds to execute their interventions, they initially faced resistance from communities they visited to educate about sexual violence. “Some felt we were going against tradition when we tell them that men have to respect the rights of women when it comes to sexual consent,” she said. Overcoming this required being more innovative in their messaging and letting the women understand that they weren’t speaking for them but empowering them to speak.
Sometimes, getting the trust of survivors especially if they have been abandoned by their families was another challenge. What makes it easier, Osowobi said, is sharing their personal stories and experiences with sexual violence. “It’s easier to gain their trust when they realise you have passed through the same thing,” she said.
Partnership among organisations and other individuals working in the area of sexual and reproductive health can be better, Osowobi said, because it means they will achieve more together and discourage those who work with no sincerity of purpose. Ayeni agrees, adding that without collaboration, organisations will end up with siloed and duplicated efforts. She said better structures around efforts aimed at stopping sexual violence will go a long way.
Already there are elements of partnership that are yielding results. STER played a significant role in producing the BBC #SexForGrades documentary that highlighted the rate of sexual exploitation in higher education institutions. The documentary helped advance the advocacy for the sexual harassment bill.
Ayeni said most organisations can’t work together because they are funded by different donors with different priorities. To change this, she shares lessons from her work with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. She said the Division of Victim Services provides oversight and funds for organisations working in the space and mandates them to work together by bringing their different areas of expertise to the table. This way, they advocate for a strength-based system where organisations are supported for the skills they bring. She said the equivalent in Nigeria is the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, and they can do the same by “carrying out a needs assessment to determine and fund local organisations that respond to sexual abuse because sometimes international grants don’t address local needs”.
Some of this is happening already, Ayeni said, but the processes are shrouded in mystery. There needs to be a bit more openness to let more people access the opportunities and scale their activities to end rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence in Nigeria.
Do you know other organisations working on sexual abuse or rape in Nigeria? Leave us a comment below or drop us a line on our social media platforms!