Gender-based violence is a daily reality in Nigeria, where 30% of women and girls aged 15- 49 have experienced sexual abuse. Recently the governors of Nigeria’s 36 states declared a state of emergency in response to a spate of rapes and attacks on women and girls. Nigeria’s President and Justice Minister also insist that the issue is now being taken seriously at the highest levels. Love Matters Naija is supporting and participating in a concerted push by civil society organisations to advocate for concrete and lasting measures to end the crisis.
RNW Media’s Love Matters Naija platform targets young Nigerians with information about sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The young team are keen to bring about change in the country’s often highly conservative attitudes to gender and SRHR and often tackle issues around sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Country Coordinator for Love Matters Naija, Alu Azege, explains that the problem is a long-standing one that is consistently under-estimated.
It’s under-reported for many reasons. People don’t know their rights or what to do. First respondents don’t give the victims the support or the encouragement to demand justice. And one of the major challenges is family and friends and care givers who say, Hey shhhhhh, don’t spoil the family name, don’t say that out loud, you won’t get a husband if you let people know you were in that situation.
Social media, says Azege, has been an important channel for calling attention to the on-going problem:
It’s not like there hasn’t always been lots of SGBV but social media has really amplified the situation. We are seeing that people have stepped up on social media and society has been brought to realise that it’s not just wrong but it’s a criminal offense. The awareness is increasing, people are realising that they need to open up and keep pressing the message via social media. Before, we only had traditional media which really couldn’t take on the stories.
A tough conversation
Social media is also a powerful tool for Love Matters Naija when trying to change attitudes to SGBV. Oyindamola Bamgbola Fadeyi is the team’s social media editor and responsible for creating content to be posted on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube channels. Changing minds, she says, is not easy:
We’ve noticed that there is a rape culture where even a lot of women are supporting rapists and saying the reason men rape is because of the way women dress. We’ve seen that it’s going to take continuous discussion, continuous education, continuous presenting of issues to convince the average Nigerian that rape is not normal, rape is not the fault of the victim but that rape is the fault of the rapist. It’s a tough conversation because we’re in a society that’s heavily patriarchal and rapists are covered up for or supported.
There’s also a marked difference, explains Fadeyi, in the attitudes and opinions shared on the different channels
Twitter is more ‘woke’, more open, these users are more likely to discuss rape, seek for justice, support victims of rape. Same for Instagram. On Facebook you have people from rural areas, all parts of Nigeria, areas still heavily invested in Nigeria’s cultural traditions and these are the ones that still embrace rape culture. They are more inclined to cover up rape and accuse victims. So you don’t find people on our Facebook timeline coming forward. People would rather go to Twitter where they have role models who have come out and talked about their own experiences and others come online to back them up. It’s very important to be aware of these differences in the audiences’ attitudes and adapt the approach accordingly.
Walking on eggshells
All the discussions on LM Naija’s social media channels are carefully moderated to ensure they remain respectful and inclusive – and to offer advice and information to users who come with questions. The team’s two moderators are Ema-Olori Naima Ayonmagbemi and Victor Ogbodo. Ayonmagbemi says she sees a reluctance to openly acknowledge the reality of the situation.
What’s jumped out at me is that individuals who come to the inbox to talk about it, they never call it rape. A young lady will likely say my boyfriend or my partner forced himself on me. Then if you use the word rape to identify [the act] she will go back to he forced himself on me. So talking about it becomes like walking on eggshells because you don’t want to scare the person off.
This reluctance also means rape victims often don’t get the support they need explains Ayonmagbemi:
They say afterwards, I just want to know I am safe – am I pregnant, do I have a disease, how do I know I’m ok? More these concerns rather than their mental health or what the impact has been on them. We encourage them to talk to a professional and provide a referral service to a counsellor who can support them and encourage them to report it and bring the perpetrator to justice. And what I keep finding is that the rapists are always close to the victims – a friend or a boyfriend or someone in the neighbourhood. Someone they can identify.
Unfortunately, says Victor Ogbodo, the moderators see a clear lack of understanding from male users for the realities of SGBV:
There is a lot of male bias, the men seem to come from a position of saying – ‘women accuse us, they can come up with a case that never existed’. That’s their biggest fear and it even trends as a topic. Men say, why did you wait so long before telling your story – especially if the incident involves a celebrity. Responding to one man, I said, you come out because you have gained more confidence to speak. And the celebrities have handed you a tool to speak. More women come out and when they do, it gives other women the courage to speak out. We need to be constructive and include men in our programming, sadly the fear of being accused means they don’t want to join in the discussion. Men come on the platform and just try to drown out the voices of women.
But it’s not just male attitudes that hinder the fight against SGBV says Ogbodo, Nigeria’s institutions and services are also an issue.
Existing frameworks do not support or encourage or help victims to cope with their situations. There’s also bias when you walk into a law enforcement agency to report a case, the handling is terrible. Mostly victims want to avoid police or prosecuting or seeking legal redress. And the crazy thing is the perpetrators become intimidators – they intimidate their victims, even abductions have happened.
This lack of strong institutions and frameworks to deal with sexual violence and its aftermath is something that may finally be changing. The Minister of Justice, for instance, has said he will establish a special commission to fast- track justice for survivors of sexual violence. This increased awareness and attention is, says Azege, a response to determined advocacy:
Lots of civil society organisations (CSOs) have been piling on the pressure. Love Matters Naija is a partner in the EU-UN sponsored Spotlight Initiative and recently we joined 25 other groups to organise a demonstration and visits to the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry for Women. We have a number of demands for this commission the Justice Minister is proposing. We want to be involved, we want it to be headed by a woman, we want it to be up and running sooner rather than later and we want it to be accountable to the people not just the government.
Stronger insitutions needed
The necessary laws do exist, says Azege, but implementation is lacking. Federal laws such as the 2009 Child Rights Act and the 2015 Violence Against Persons Act have still not been adopted by all states and often law enforcement are not even aware of them. In some areas a low age of consent and child marriage are accepted and encouraged. What will help Nigeria, says Azege is strengthening and supporting state institutions and better law enforcement practices.
Key is also getting people trained in forensic investigation. There is an emphasis on evidence, so we need to have forensic investigators who will guard the evidence, make sure it’s not tampered with, so that victims know they can rely on first responders to give them justice. Also, institutions need to know that these people are available and to use them. Trained investigators will really help victims and ensure laws are implemented.
While the government’s response to advocacy initiatives has been promising so far, there’s still a way to go to achieve real change says Ogbodo.
The statements from the Minister of Justice and President are promises. A promise is a good step, but change happens when legislators make laws and the president backs them up. When law enforcement agencies reform their ways and transform their responses to the issues. Until that happens, we’ll still be stuck.
We won’t give up
Azege agrees continued pressure will be needed to ensure the political promises become reality, but is also confident:
In the past things have not been done but now we think something will change and make things better for Nigerian women and girls. We will keep demanding and maybe we won’t get everything, but we will get some of it. Everyone wants to keep fighting. Our call is to get the support we need, to put the spotlight on institutions via media to strengthen zero tolerance for SGBV against women and girls. We have faith.
The Love Matters Naija team are confident that the work they do can improve knowledge, change attitudes and help the fight against SGBV in Nigeria:
People need to be educated; we need to reach people where they are. Many are now online so we will continue to reach out there. We are also spreading the message and our content via radio where we can reach a lot of people. We’re saying, you guys know what’s happening, you need to understand it’s wrong, we need to talk about consent, there are a lot of issues that you need to consider. We won’t give up.