Mary (not her real name) is an 11-year-old girl preparing for her Common Entrance Examination. She is a kind, cheerful and brilliant girl according to her father, a 63-year-old pensioner. Mary lives with her parents and siblings in one of the densely populated neighbourhoods in the central area of Minna, the capital of Niger State. Like many children her age, Mary is extremely close to her father and spends time with him after school hours. However, the last few days of January 2019 were strange for Mary’s parents and siblings, as she became completely withdrawn. Unlike before, now, she would rather sit alone than with the rest of the family and would not eat as she used to. Her family also noticed she frequently visited the toilet. After repeated questioning, she finally opened up with a revelation that shocked the family. Mary told her family someone she knew had hurt her, a shop owner whose shop was located just a short walking distance from her family’s house and from whom she bought household groceries for the family on a daily basis.
A pervasive scourge… A silent epidemic
Sexual harassment and abuse has no place in our but is however pervasive in many working places, schools and sadly behind the closed doors of people’s homes. Men, women, and children are all victims of sexual abuse, but young girls are often the most common victims. In 2015, the United Nations Children Education Fund (UNICEF) estimated that at least one in four Nigerian girls experience sexual violence before the age of 18. More alarmingly, the majority of the abusers are people known to the victims. In another area of Minna, a three-year-old girl Zainab (not real name) was abused at her school in late February 2019 by a security guard who was a relative of her step-mother. Unfortunately, family ties became a stumbling block that prevented justice for the little girl, brought on by the societal fear of the family, according to Zainab’s mother. This is a disappointing but familiar reaction to incidences of sexual abuse in families. In some cases, the fear of discrimination and lack of awareness discourages survivors and relatives from seeking medical or legal help. The survivors who require , have no option but to suffer in silence and live with the consequences of the abuse.
A ray of hope for survivors of sexual abuse
Both Mary and Zainab have not received legal redress. However, they are among many survivors from within and outside Minna who receive medical and psychological support, thanks to Rayuwa Sexual Assault Referral Centre (), a non-governmental working to raise awareness about sexual abuse and provide support to survivors in Niger State.
Founded in 2014, RSARC is strategically located across from the Nigeria Police Force clinic, a throw from the Emir’s Palace in Unguwan Daji, Minna. The small office is divided into three sections where the registration of survivors, medical examinations and are provided with support from Pathfinder International, which helps with medical supplies and training for the staff. “The moment they come, history is taken and provided, after which we perform medical examinations,” says Dr. Inegbenijie Ose, one of the three medical doctors volunteering at the . He added that more than 80% of survivors receiving care from the are between the ages of three and 18.
Sexual abuse can result in many issues for the survivors and their families, he says, and providing to survivors helps them. The has two professional , one of whom is a staff of the State Ministry of ‘ Affairs.
After the initial , scheduled follow-up sessions done on phone three days after the incident, and a to the survivor’s home within the first two weeks. Thereafter, the survivor is asked to be seen at an interval of three months. The operates 24 hours a day and at least one doctor, a nurse and must be available at any given time.
Contracting Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) is also a potential consequence of sexual abuse. To confirm whether a survivor has been infected with an STI, samples are taken from the survivor to the nearby laboratory at the police clinic for tests, and those that test positive are placed on treatment or referred to General Hospital, Minna. Hepatitis B vaccine is also given to the survivors regardless of test results. For survivors who present within 72 hours of incidence, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), a preventive antiretroviral therapy against HIV infection is immediately given. Survivors who present after 72 hours of incidence are given an HIV test after three months and if found positive, are referred to the General Hospital, Minna, as RSARC does not have routine antiretroviral medication. Physical forensic examinations are also carried out on the survivors to ascertain any form of physical injuries and treatment is provided while a comprehensive medical report is prepared and submitted to the police.
Taking the message to communities
Getting communities sensitised about sexual abuse, how to protect themselves and children, what to do in the event of sexual abuse are also part of the activities of RSARC. This is done through radio jingles in English and local languages on various FM stations in the state, as well as community and school outreach programmes. The centre believes community and religious leaders have a huge role to play in sensitising people about sexual abuse says Madam Lois Zainab Ndagi, a retiree of the state civil service who volunteers as a community mobilisation and sensitisation officer. The centre periodically carries out advocacy visits to these leaders in towns and villages across the state and holds focus group discussions. The community advocacy and radio jingles have significantly increased awareness about sexual abuse in the state says Madam Ndagi, as the centre has witnessed a steady increase in survivors coming from various parts of the state. For survivors who are not willing to go back to their localities, the centre liaises with the State Ministry of Women Affairs to be admitted into safe homes, managed by the Ministry of Health. Since inception in 2014, RSARC has provided medical and psychological support to over 300 sexual abuse survivors, recording a continuous rise in the number of new survivors every year, from 14 in 2014 to 98 in 2018. The centre has attended to 25 new survivors between January and February 2019. However, the centre could do more by strengthening its collaboration with the police and other civil society organisations so that survivors are provided more support in seeking justice, especially from the courts.
Does Nigeria have a way forward?
Earlier in the year, the Nigerian social media space was filled with what was originally a campaign started in the US, the Me Too Movement urging survivors of sexual abuse to speak up and share their experiences using the #MeToo hashtag. Hundreds of women, especially from Northern Nigeria used the opportunity to share their experiences using the #ArewaMeToo platform, reminding everyone that sexual abuse is endemic in the country. Even though authorities didn’t seem to have given attention to the discourse, it provided the survivors with a platform to speak up about the burden they had been carrying. The opportunity offered by #ArewaMeToo must be seized to continuously create awareness about sexual abuse in the country, and mediums of passing this message must go beyond social media to the communities, worship places, schools, markets and public places.
The sexual offenses bill signed into law by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015 is explicit on different forms of sexual abuse, and punishment for sexual offenders. Among other things, it made provisions for the protection of sexual abuse survivors, including compensation and establishment of a sexual offenders’ registration in the country. But to what extent the law is being implemented so far is not clear. Governments at all levels must strive to fully implement this law. Families of survivors must also be encouraged to seek justice, and legal assistance must be provided to these families by the concerned authorities. Cultural sensitivities and a desire to preserve the “family honour” continues to hinder many victims of sexual abuse from accessing the necessary care they need. An inability to afford the services of a lawyer was alsone of the reasons Mary’s parents decided not to seek legal redress and though Mary’s abuser was arrested by the police, he has since been released and may continue to pose a danger to other children. Governments must also take ownership of rehabilitating sexual abuse survivors through the provision of medical and psychological support, so that young girls like Mary and Zainab who are abused have the support they need to carry on with their lives.