“…for those of us who are Human Rights Defenders. We however, not just know our rights, we realise more than anything that there exists people who count on us to amplify their voices in the quest for justice.”
My name is Dein Tamuno. I work for Dorothy Njemanze Foundation. It is an Abuja based non-profit founded by Dorothy Njemanze, an actress and activist. Our major aim as an organisation is sensitising the public on what constitutes abuse, offering legal aid to women who are survivors of gender based violence and offering psycho-social support such as therapy that would also fast track the recovery process for survivors.
In addition to that, an essential part of our organisation is that we act as first time responders to Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). This essay would focus on what it is like working on the frontlines as a first point of contact for survivors of domestic violence and rape in particular.
At a regular office when the phone rings, it can mean a lot of things, most of which are non-violent and often void of trauma. It may be that an internal memo is about to be passed and required everyone’s attention: Maybe someone has a visitor or maybe there is a new client whose deal requires closing. However in a crisis centre, it is hardly a case of random calls unrelated to sexual abuse. It may be law enforcement agencies following up on a case or a call from journalists interested in telling a story, or the worst: Someone has just been raped. Someone is about to become a walking statistic. Someone’s life has changed forever.
One would think exposure to these stories on a daily basis means that it gets easier and your resilience is built. It doesn’t. With each story, your heart breaks into tinier pieces. Some of the stories show well mapped out intent that disregards any notion that it was a mistake. Rather, most stories show that the rape being discussed was well planned, well orchestrated and the whole time it was being planned, the survivor was too oblivious to even act, scream for help or call someone until after the act was perpetrated.
At this point, you have to stop in your tracks and ask the survivor questions like: “What do you want to do?”. This is because as heartbreaking as it may sound, the idea of what makes up justice means different things to different people.
Some of them just want counselling or therapy; some however are willing to go forward to get justice from the legal angle. In asking questions relating to justice, there has to be a lot of empathy because the survivor is often in a very sensitive position. While one may want to get all the facts right for a case, it is of utmost importance to not re-traumatize the survivor beyond what they are already facing. You have to be particular about reassuring them of their safety and letting them know that while you believe their story, it is necessary to get the facts in a short time frame. This is due to recognising that accumulating evidence against rape is extremely time sensitive.
For instance, it is mostly advised to rape survivors to not take a bath and report to the nearest hospital for a swab of the perpetrators’ semen. However, most rape survivors, are often met with a desire to wash off because they feel unclean. Also some rape survivors may not want to put their vaginas through another round of things being inserted in them as that would re-traumatise them. It is however important that if justice is to be pursued from the police, evidence—which is hard to collate and get—is presented. The evidence in this case is sadly also on the site of violation i.e the body, so the first instinct of most rape survivors is to repair the physical damage by bathing which inadvertently wipes off the evidence. However, beyond even getting a vaginal swab for semen, drugs like prophylaxis to prevent STIS and HIV/AIDS are also needed and most times they would need to have their wounds cleaned and taken care of medically.
There are also times you may have to effect a rescue mission. The victims may not always be able to come to you, so one may have to make their way to them in extremely dangerous situations late at night. Sometimes these women are found of town in a lonely road by 2:00 am and although you are in a car with seeming protection and are the rescue worker, the sight of bushes to your left and right can make you afraid in a split second. You who is there to help, becomes even scared for your own life. You however try your best to shrug away the fear as the thought that there’s someone that needs you to show up for them–because if you leave at that moment, they would be left alone—eventually supersedes whatever fear you may have.
Fishing Out Perpetrators
The task of arresting the perpetrators isn’t always easy. This is because most times they always conveniently go missing once they commit the crime. In the past, we have always had to adopt smart ways to bring them to book. For instance, we once had to mobilise an entire community during the peak of COVID-19 pandemic where we painstakingly explained to them the magnitude of the crime he had committed against the four-year-old child he raped and even more importantly, why catching and apprehending him was dependent on the collective efforts of the community. A few hours later, some members of the community reached out to us to let us know that he had been found.
At another time, we had to stage a “settlement” meeting at a Catholic Church. A man called James popularly known in his community as “Ba,” had raped a 13 year old girl at gunpoint, after which he gave her a mixture of ogogoro i.e locally brewed gin to drink forcefully when he was done. The case was reported to us and we petitioned the police. Almost as expected, James was conveniently absent for close to three weeks. The implications of this was that the local police at Dei couldn’t find him for 3 weeks which was clearly slowing down the investigation process. Someone however came up with the idea of a settlement meeting at a Catholic Church, which turned out to be the perfect bait to draw him out.
We attended the meeting with two police officers, who were from the Federal Capital Territory command. During the meeting, one of the officers conveniently took the seat next to the abuser who was unaware of what was about to happen. The police officers were dressed in plain clothes, which created a great shock on the abusers face when he heard later on that they were from the FCT command. Some minutes after that, James was arrested and taken to the police station.
Pattern To Abuse
From working here, one thing I have noticed overtime regarding the behavior of most abusers, is that their first line of action is to discredit the victim. Majority of them flourish on society’s inability to hold them accountable. One would find them repeating the same lines used to blame women whenever it is obvious that they are going to face the consequences of their actions.
Some would say things like, “She came to my house,” “She was drinking with me,” “We were in a relationship,” etc all to evade responsibility and avoid the fact that they violated someone. Now, the thing is most don’t realise that by sticking to this narrative, they shoot themselves in the leg as most times the victims are children. So for James who decides that a smart move when writing his statement would be to say, “She asked for alcohol” or “We were dating,” forgetting in that moment that a child cannot consent and even more one cannot be in a relationship with persons under 18. This is why in curbing rape culture, we always stress that there is no excuse for rape as these excuses absolve the perpetrators from any accountability and at the root only seek to enable them.
Accessing justice in Nigeria is also very cost expensive. Majority of the costs go into paying to open a file at the police station, to paying to mobilise the police officers to visit the crime scene and even down to transferring a case to the legal department. Most times the survivors themselves have to bear this cost. The truth is the law enforcement agencies sometimes do more harm, as although majority of them have a price, most always insist that cases of sexual and gender based violence is a family matter.
Most go on to further retraumatise the survivor by refusing to acknowledge events, and even going as far as constantly mischarging or under charging cases. I have encountered one who insisted that there was no evidence of rape. This despite the fact that the victim in question, was herself a child who was heavily pregnant. Even though the provisions of the Child Rights Act 2003, explicitly states that children cannot consent to sex. The police officer concluded her pregnancy to be one that came from “consensual sex” as opposed to rape even though she was a minor.
As a person who works in a Rape Crisis Centre, it is essential that one has to be ready to stand up to law enforcement at any given time. This is due to the fact that the lot of them are willfully ignorant and in addition to this ignorance, most always try to intimidate those of us who are Human Rights Defenders. We however, not just know our rights, we realise more than anything that there exists people who count on us to amplify their voices in the quest for justice.
In some instances, one may also need to evacuate and relocate the victims. Not just that, most times, these victims come with their family members for safety and plans have to be made on how to accommodate them all. More often than not, it is not only law enforcement that one deals with. In most cases, there is the added pressure of dealing with societal bullying on a family.
“It becomes very easy to become a villain in the story as an Anti-Rape advocate.”
There are times a rape case or case of domestic violence, reaches the leaders of a community. These people alongside other members of the community, then go on to aggressively guilt trip the victims family into forgiving the perpetator, reaching a settlement and dropping the police case at the risk of being social outcasts. It becomes very easy to become a villain in the story as an Anti-Rape advocate. The anger would sadly not be directed at the person who committed a crime against another human being. The anger would sadly be directed at you who is helping a survivor fight for justice. To me, it can only be described as another form of cognitive dissonance.
At the end and above all, the satisfaction from being a justice worker at a Rape Crisis Centre does not come from money. The truth is there is no money as you probably spend more than you earn. It comes from seeing the survivors get justice in the form of either therapy or securing judgment in court. At other times, your satisfaction might just come when you observe that their physical wounds are healing. Whatever it is, it’s the same proud feeling a parent has observing their child maturing and finally being confident in their place in the world.
The YNaija #RapeCulture Special Series will run from September 15th to September 30th. Visit YNaija.com/Specials to catch up on all essays and excerpts from our Instagram interviews.