On Friday, July 9, Ifeoma Chukwuemeka (real name withheld) left Awka, capital of Anambra State, unaccompanied to Lagos on the invitation of one ‘Aunty Doris’ who had promised to take care of her in Nigeria’s commercial capital.
The 13-year-old orphan had left Akwa in a night bus and arrived at Ojota in Lagos at 7 a.m., expecting to meet her expected host at the park. But after a call, the teenager was told to continue to West Coast Park in Mangoro.
Narrating Ifeoma’s experience to PREMIUM TIMES, Uremma Onyekuru, who was part of the rescue mission said the survivor got to the park at 8:45 a.m. but still did not meet Aunty Joy there. She called repeatedly but kept hearing the same message: “I am on my way.”
At 6 p.m., some men in the park approached a man called Obinna to help the girl because they are of the same ethnic group. He noticed that she was tired so he bought her food and water. After narrating her problem to him, Mr Obinna called the supposed host but she repeated the same thing.
Suspecting danger, he warned the girl that she could be trafficked, abused or used for rituals. But seeing he had nowhere to take her, Mr Obinna bought her food again and gave her N2000 and his phone number should she have any cause to call him.
A few hours later, a man sent by Aunty Doris arrived to pick up Ifeoma but dropped her at a hotel. Her ordeal began immediately. Between Friday night and Sunday morning, eight men had raped her. It was then that she remembered Mr Obinna. She begged a worker in the hotel to use his phone and called Mr Obinna who reported the case to a reverend sister of a Catholic church. The nun then alerted a member of her church, Mrs Onyekuru.
Mrs Onyekuru is the leader of a Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) surveillance team in Agege, Lagos State, set up by an NGO Project Alert on Violence Against Women.
She had been trained by Project Alert under the Spotlight Initiative Project funded by the European Union (EU) and United Nations to combat violence against women and girls.
The project is building the capacity of community-based organisations to provide first-response to SGBV cases in their respective communities as a way of bringing help closer to the people. This is a creative response to the increase in reported cases of SGBV.
Raped at home
Although Ifeoma’s story was caused by a lack of guardianship, Aisha Mohammed, 16 (real name withheld) who lives with her mother in Rumbuki village in Bodinga Local Government Area of Sokoto State was raped in her parent’s house.
On a cool afternoon in March 2020, Ms Mohammed had just fetched firewood to cook the family’s dinner. About four minutes later, a boy who had monitored her movements all through the day sneaked into their hut, raped her and fled, she narrated to PREMIUM TIMES.
A resident of the community who had heard about the previous efforts of the Project Alert surveillance team in a nearby village contacted one of the team’s members.
NGO sets up SGBV surveillance team in Lagos, Sokoto
Many communities have little or no knowledge of SGBV issues, with some even seeing the acts as culturally and traditionally allowed. Where they see it as a crime, they do not know what help to give the victims or where to refer them. Some know of only the police, which a lot of community members have distrust for. These were some of the reasons for the creation of a surveillance team consisting of residents volunteering to curb the alarming increase in SGBV cases.
The Spotlight Initiative Project being implemented by Project Alert in Lagos and Sokoto states started in December 2019 and began sensitisation in 2020 in the two states.
Before the sensitisation, Project Alert created a strategy to penetrate communities. First, they mapped stakeholders like the relevant ministries, the police, local government officials, traditional leaders, and service providers in the selected states, visited them to get their buy-in and support for the project.
They also partner with sexual assault referral centres and primary healthcare centres, training them to respond to the psycho-social and medical needs of SGBV survivors. They also provide safe spaces that shelter survivors who are homeless and stranded.
After an advocacy visit to a local government (LGA) in the two states it focuses on, Project Alert mobilises community groups and selects about 50 persons in the LGA. It also conducts a capacity-building workshop for them, teaching the rudiments of SGBV, prevention and how to respond to cases. From there, volunteers are requested to serve as the surveillance team.
The team members are chosen based on passion and availability, Nsini Udonta, Project Alert’s Programme Officer and Shelter Administrator in Lagos State, explained.
In Lagos State, the NGO chose 12 local government areas where SGBV cases are said to be prevalent. These are Yaba, Ikorodu, Alimosho, Kosofe, Ikeja, Surulere, Lagos Island, Agege, Oshodi/Isolo, Shomolu, Eti-Osa, and Ajeromi-Ifelodun.
According to Ms Udonta, “we taught them not to name or shame survivors so they could easily open up about their issues and they have been able to achieve success with most of the cases handled. They now know appropriate referrals to make – to government and non-governmental agencies.”
Like in Lagos, Sokoto in the past year has had one of the highest reported cases of SGBV. This is believed to be as a result of the support given to survivors by the project, such as free legal services. The International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), also an implementing partner, provides free legal aid on SGBV cases.
In Sokoto, Project Alert has also partnered with local community-based organisations (CBOs) that serve as surveillance teams. One of the CBOs visited by PREMIUM TIMES is Freedom for Humanity International Foundation headed by Hussaini Gwadabawa.
The CBOs carry out sensitisation activities in communities through drama and dialogue, invite traditional and religious leaders for meetings, work with journalists and conduct live programmes on radio.
Initiative births positive tales for survivors
Aside from being survivors of SGBV, Ifeoma and Aisha’s stories ended on a positive note due to the intervention of the surveillance team.
After Mrs Onyekuru, the leader of the surveillance team in Agege, was called, she contacted the police and was accompanied by two officers dressed in plain clothes to the hotel to rescue the girl. Her team thereafter called Ms Chukwuemeka’s family who had been looking for her as she had fled Awka without informing anyone.
They got her immediate treatment at a clinic and returned her to her late mother’s family in Anambra State, accompanied by a parishioner of the Catholic Church.
“She is back to school. The church is training her and her siblings. She is also learning a trade after school hours. We are trying our best to make sure she and her siblings are well settled. We send N20,000 to her monthly and have connected her to one of the Catholic churches there to give her food materials,” Mrs Onyekuru told PREMIUM TIMES.
The team wanted to investigate the incident but they could not continue at the police station because the hotel staff did not have the identities of the men that lodged the girl.
But Aisha’s case was probed. After she identified the rapist, the surveillance team reported at the police station where he was detained and is currently awaiting trial at the court.
Aisha was also taken to ‘Nana Khadija Centre’, a sexual assault referral centre in the state created under the Spotlight Initiative Project to help with the psycho-social and medical treatment of abused survivors.
“I was given medication, clothing materials, food items, and money. They also counseled and taught me how to protect myself. I attend monthly meetings with other survivors to discuss our issues,” Aisha told PREMIUM TIMES.
How SGBV response strategy impacted Lagos, Sokoto communities
Highlighting the successes of this project, a community leader in Agege, Moses Adepoju, said the culture of silence surrounding SGBV cases has reduced because residents are now reporting incidents, particularly when they see others get positive results.
He said 50 streets in Agege each has 10 members in its surveillance team, aside from the one created by the NGO. He said this is to make it easy for residents to report their cases. They also hold town hall meetings, a platform allowing residents to speak out. And for those who cannot speak in public, they meet them privately or write their complaints in a paper.
Mr Adepoju said there is an ‘open day’ where they take residents through the reporting process for complaints and investigation.
Due to the effectiveness of the project, he said, the British Council empowered over 120 boys and girls in Agege through sports, training them to become coaches, referees, and players. He said this is helping to keep the youth busy and reduce the rate of crime in Agege. “You know an idle hand is the devil’s workshop,” he added.
Apart from this initiative, each community-based association in Agege introduced their security network called the Voluntary Policing Sector. This group was trained by Justice For All, an NGO focused on policing skills. Mr Adepoju said that when they suspect that a crime has occurred, they report to the police, adding that the security network is more prompt in responding to incidents.
In Sokoto State, the head of one of the CBOs, Mr Gwadabawa, said the police and courts now refer cases to them because of the strategies they apply in using community and religious leaders to tackle issues.
“For instance, in a rape case, when the police take the perpetrator to court, they do not have anything in their law to take care of the survivors. They then refer them to us. This also applies to the court when they can only sentence the offender to prison. They refer the survivors to us for counseling, rehabilitation, and reintegration into the society,” he explained.
Giving an estimate of the increase in reported cases, Mr Gwadabawa said before 2019 (the start of the project), it was hard to get five rape cases in a year. But because of the orientation, in 2020 they received more than 400 rape cases in Sokoto.
Besides rescuing the survivors from the place of abuse, they are given medical help, psychological services, and taught entrepreneurship skills, he said.
“One of the successes is that people are now reporting more. Sometimes, we get a lot of cases and we don’t know the ones to attend to. Secondly, the survivors are now getting help. The Ministry of Women Affairs now organises survivors’ meetings so they know how to engage them, equip them with skills, and give them materials to start. Thirdly, there is justice. The courts are now sentencing perpetrators and NAPTIP now prosecutes people,” Mudassir Ahmad-Gado, the coordinator of Project Alert in Sokoto State, said in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES.
Limitations of the project
However, the project also faces roadblocks. Most of the sources interviewed indicated abrupt discontinuation of cases, inability to access safe locations, political interference, lack of support of security agencies, insufficient funding and delay in dispensation of justice etc.
At the top of the list of limitations is funding. Most of the stakeholders interviewed said they seek to do more but they are financially constrained.
Meanwhile, Abdulrasheed Umar, another member of the surveillance team in Surulere, Lagos, bemoaned the situation where the family of a survivor asks to stop the investigation despite several resources spent to get justice.
For Mrs Onyekuru in Lagos, she asked for continuous training of police officers on how to respond to SGBV cases, to foster more cooperation. Also, she hopes that for the next phase of the project, they will focus more on rapid response appraisal to have detailed records of their efforts and areas they need to address.
To reduce delays in courts, Mr Ahmad-Gado wants specialised courts to be created to focus on SGBV, something Nigeria’s attorney-general, Abubakar Malami, says the government is committed to.
Mr Ahmad-Gado also wants the initiative to spread to more local government areas and states. Currently, it is being implemented in 12 of the 33 local government areas in Sokoto and 12 of the 37 local government areas in Lagos State.
For his part, Mr Gwadabawa asked that the initiative be extended particularly to Internally Displaced Persons Camps and areas rife with SGBV cases. He said insecurity is hindering penetration of places where women’s rights are violated regularly, citing Isa and Sabon-Gari LGAs in Sokoto State.
He appealed to foreign donors to provide technical support and training for his volunteers on effective ways to handle SGBV cases. He also called on the ministry of women affairs to include local NGOs in their meetings because they are the ones who generate facts that the ministry needs for policymaking.
The NGO officials in both states believe the project will be sustained beyond the given time frame because they have ensured that the surveillance teams see it as a community project and they hold their meetings in the communities. Also, there was a time it expired and before its renewal, the surveillance team did not stop despite not being given their airtime allowance.
Motivation of surveillance team members
In this project, all the members of the surveillance team working in the communities to constantly address SGBV cases are volunteers and are not paid. PREMIUM TIMES asked them their motivation to serve their communities without financial reward.
Mrs Onyekuru, leader of Agege surveillance team, said she was inspired to join the fight due to the worrying spate of SGBV cases in Nigeria. She said she is passionate about helping others and wants to stop injustice.
Mr Umar, a member of the surveillance team in Surulere, is an artist that recently relocated to Nigeria following his retirement abroad. He said he wanted to use some of his time to get involved in his community, adding that he is motivated by his children because he does not want such incidents to affect them and he can only stop the trend by contributing to the advocacy.
Mr Gwadabawa of the surveillance team in Sokoto said he feels motivated by his children and when he records success in any case. He said his volunteering is an avenue to give back because society and the government sponsored his education as an orphan from age five up to his secondary school. They also secured employment for him, he said.