By Aminat Lawal
A few days ago, women were on a Twitter boycott to protest against online harassment. It was ironic and disheartening that a tweet calling for women to boycott twitter due to harassment was met by even more harassment. Amnesty International reports that a woman is abused on Twitter every 30 seconds. That is, thousands of women facing online abuse every day. Thus, it is fitting that the theme for this year’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month centres on Creating Safe Online Spaces.
Sexual assault can happen anywhere and through any means, including online spaces. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the internet has become a second home for most people. It is a platform where people take classes, work, and connect with friends and family. Technology now plays an even greater role in our daily lives, so efforts must be made to curb abuse online. The theme hopes to raise awareness to this and encourage social media users to practice digital consent, intervene when they see harmful contents online and ensure that online spaces are respectful and safe.
This year marks the official 20th anniversary of the celebration of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Although its theme is different every year, its goal is always the same; to raise awareness about sexual assault and share how it can be prevented. It is imperative to consider if there has been any development in the 20 years of SAAM being celebrated. Violence against women is still referred to as a global pandemic that affects 1 in 3 women. According to the World Bank, 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical and/ or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner violence.
However, in recent times, there has been a shift in the discussion about sexual assault. Firstly, it is even encouraging that there is a discussion. A major development that has arisen is the growing awareness on social media to the enormity of the violence meted against women and the need to end victim-blaming that has served as a response to this issue for years. Convictions for rape cases remain low, but women are coming up with other ways to end this violence. The level of awareness has also had a ripple effect in changing the silent culture that has plagued women for many years.
Women have also organized several campaigns to protest sexual assault and violence. In October 2018, Damilola Marcus organized a market march to challenge the misogynistic culture of men groping and catcalling women in the marketplace. On May 10th 2019, several protests were held across the country and outside to protest the police’s unfair and inhumane treatment. These women were harassed, forced to pay 3,000 Naira as bail and for women who could not pay, they were assaulted by the policemen who used pure water nylons as condoms. When asked to comment, the Commissioner of Police made further insensitive comments regarding women who visit club-goers as sex workers and assuming that sex workers did not deserve rights. This led to a further uproar on social media.
In June 2019, Busola Dakolo, a Nigerian Photographer, gave an interview where she accused Biodun Fatoyinbo, a pastor, of grooming and raping her when she was 17. This led to several sit-ins at churches and served as the beginning of the “Church Me Too” movement in Nigeria, a movement aimed at calling out and ending sexual abuse in the church. Although there has been no resolution to the case, it led to several important conversations on social media especially giving women the platform to speak about the abuse they have faced in religious organizations, normally not considered as religious as Nigeria.
In October 2019, BBC Africa News and BBC Africa Eye released an hour-long documentary titled “Sex for Grades”. It was reported by Kiki Mordi, who, alongside other journalists, had gone undercover to investigate sexual harassment in tertiary institutions. The documentary was a huge success, and it sparked several conversations within and outside social media. It led to students coming forward to report the sexual harassment from lecturers in my university. It also led to the reintroduction of the Anti-Sexual Harassment Bill, which passed the second reading in July. The bill proposes up to 14 years of jail term for teaching staff who have sexual relationships with their students.
In October 2020, Ebony life films, in partnership with Netflix, released “Oloture”, a movie depicting the dire and dangerous underworld of human trafficking. It was loosely inspired by the personal experiences of Tobore Ovuorie, a journalist who went undercover to expose the state of human trafficking in Nigeria. The movie was widely watched, and it sparked important conversations about the state of human trafficking and sex work in Nigeria. In a country where sex work is not usually discussed, this was revolutionary.
There has also been the rise of several non-governmental organizations centred on preventing violence against women. In 2013, Ayodeji Osowobi founded Stand to End Rape, a youth-led social enterprise advocating against sexual violence, providing prevention mechanisms and supporting survivors with psychosocial services. As of 2019, Time estimated that the organisation had reached around 200,000 Nigerians. The organisation has also worked on several projects such as advocating for the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions Prohibition Bill, the PASSTHEVAPP Act Project and several others. It also recently won the Mobilise UN SDGs Action Award at the SDG Global Festival of Action. STER and several other organizations have made a great impact in providing help to survivors of sexual violence in Nigeria.
Although a lot of work has been done, there is still a long way to go. Women continue to be victims of assault daily, and they still face certain levels of victim-blaming sometimes by their family, friends and society. There was an article written on the STER website that discusses in detail the rise of violence against women during the pandemic. It was so bad that it was referred to as the “shadow pandemic”. Vera Uwaila Omozuwa, a 22-year-old microbiology student, was brutally raped and murdered during the lockdown. Barakat Bello, Tina Ezekwe, Elizabeth Ochanya, Jennifer, Ada and several other girls were killed due to several forms of violence. This led to an uproar on social media and physical protests, with many calling for the declaration of a state of emergency within the country. Most of these women’s families have still not gotten justice at this time.
The laws are also still not favourable to survivors. The Violence Against Women Prohibition Act, which, unlike other laws, is focused on protecting survivors of sexual assault, has still not been passed by several states in the federation. It is the state’s role to protect its citizens, and it is up to the government to take sexual assault as a serious crime that carries serious ramifications. The state should also set up a separate and functioning body solely based on curbing sexual assault and providing grants and support to organisations performing this role. Citizens should take it upon themselves to practice the “see something, say something rule”. It is not a war that women should solely fight, but everyone should fight. Sexual assault is a menace that needs to be curbed in our society, and everyone has a role to play in ensuring that it is brought to an end.
Photocred: Vanderbilt University