The prevalence of sexual assault, rape and gender-based violence has recently been highlighted on a national scale and it is undeniable that these gross acts of violence and the ensuing lack of justice for survivors are misdeeds that expose a need for the restructuring of our criminal justice system. We spoke to a few sexual abuse counsellors at The Mirabel Centre, a sexual assault referral centre established to provide psychosocial and medical services to survivors of sexual abuse, on the fight for justice for survivors, the need for education on consent and more.
Many survivors who step forward to report an attack have the misfortune of coming in contact with the police as a first port of call. These [mostly] men have little to no training on how to manage these situations. They are also severely underpaid and have no real interest in working towards improving their part of the process. Is there an alternative to this step?
Most cases that land at the Mirabel Centre are referred by the police. In our first year, nearly two-thirds of all the cases came from the police. The Justice for All programme has worked with the police in developing their capacity to handle sexual offence cases. Rape is a crime, and if a survivor chooses to pursue a case legally, the police will have to be informed. However, this is not a process they have to go through on their own. One of the strengths of the Mirabel Centre is its central role in developing relationships with other key service providers within and outside the government. This coordinating role is critical if the problem of sexual violence is to be addressed effectively. The Mirabel Centre is a client focused sexual assault referral centre. This means that when survivors come to us after abuse, they get extensive forensic medical care by a medical doctor who creates a medical report based on the result from the examination done. That report can be used as evidence in a legal process.
It is evident that quite a number of people are grossly ignorant on the subject of sexual assault and what exactly constitutes consent. In a bid to ameliorate the rate of sexual abuse cases, how does your organisation disseminate information to educate the public about consent and sexual assault?
Our strategy towards stamping out sexual violence has always been multifaceted. We have created and facilitated multiple awareness programmes for children and teenagers in secondary schools across Lagos State. This is an ongoing and continuous process, not just for students but for stakeholders as well. We believe that having the right information about sex education, consent, and masculinity would help the next generation. We’ve also turned our focus online, to educate the communities that see our content. The content that the Mirabel Centre creates about sexual assault is multipronged, for example. Depending on the particular content, we’re speaking to the survivor of sexual abuse, the rapist, and the larger society that weighs in on these issues. We acknowledge the role men must play in stopping this menace. Our project #MenAgainstRape serves to educate boys and men on the dangers of rape and gender-based violence. From Ikeja to Surulere and beyond, we are taking the message across communities and local governments and the response reassures us that we must keep educating everyone.
And would you say that these efforts to educate people have been effective so far?
Absolutely! It is easy to read some of the ignorant comments on sexual assault on the internet and think that nothing more has changed, but that would be untrue. A lot has changed. For example, now we hear a lot of people who champion the truth that consent given is reversible. That is not a way of thinking that was popular even a few years ago, but with consistent education, more people have come around to the idea and have themselves become evangelists of it, teaching others in their own circle. While there are unfortunately still rape apologists, you will also find many equally vocal allies who champion the cause of survivors and amplify their truths. We have had numerous instances where people tell us “I used to be one of those people who would say rape has to do with what a person wore, but not anymore. I have really learnt a lot from your page”. Educating the public about consent is critical, and it works as a piece of a wholesome strategy. In order to get people to think differently, we have to give them multiple information to consider.
Last year, the National Sex Offenders Registry was launched in Nigeria, which was the first of its kind. How much do you think having a publicly accessible sex offenders’ registry plays a part in deterring perpetrators from committing acts of sexual abuse?
On the state level, Lagos and Ekiti states have a sex offenders’ registry. On the national level, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) has a digital registry for that purpose. Section 1(4) of the 2015 Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) act stipulates for a register to document and make public, the names of persons convicted of offences of a sexual nature. This approach is expected to serve as deterrence to potential offenders and contribute to the reduction of escalating cases of sexual violence especially against women and girls. The register will serve as an important public safety tool that will expose convicted sex offenders while enabling law enforcement agencies to make informed decisions about persons whose names are in the register. It is a step in the right direction. A public directory with not only the name of the offender, but also their picture and offence is powerful. The directory [being] public means that intending employers, business partners, romantic partners, anyone can get on the sites and confirm that the person they intend to work with is not an abuser.
For many people, reporting a case or seeking legal action against an attacker would be the very first time they’ve had to embark on the legal journey. What are some things that people should know before taking that step?
That they are not alone and help is available. There is a lot of skepticism that comes from our knowledge of the system in our country, and so people are inclined to not seek legal redress at all. While we understand that, we want people to know that change is happening. Apart from offering free forensic medical examination and providing psychosocial support to survivors, the Mirabel Centre can help survivors get access to the other support services they need. We will support you through the trial, should the case go to court.
What are the main obstacles between the fight for justice in response to gender-based violence and the execution of justice?
Some of our laws are inadequate and discriminatory and unable to protect vulnerable [people], especially women and girls from violence. There’s also the issue of cultural constructs of the power relation between men and women, boys and girls, in spheres of life, not to mention the delay experienced by some survivors while seeking justice.
You just mentioned that some laws are unable to protect vulnerable people from sexual violence. Are there any particular laws in Nigeria that are better suited to achieving this?
The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act… It’s an improvement on the penal and criminal code and it states that once the crime of rape is proven, the offender must be sentenced to a minimum penalty of 12 years for rape. However, the judge still has the discretion to sentence the offender to more than 12 years. The VAPP Act also makes provision for compensation to victims and the protection of their rights. In addition, while all previous laws only define the offence [of rape] in relation to women, it is the first piece of legislation in Nigeria which recognises that men are capable of being raped. Every state in Nigeria should pass the VAPP Act and adopt the Child Rights Act.
Sexual abuse can have very harrowing and destabilising effects on a survivor’s mental and emotional health. In addition to getting therapy from a licensed mental health professional, what other forms of support tend to help in improving a survivor’s mental and emotional state throughout their journey of healing and recovery?
A rock solid support system. We can never underestimate the support of people who truly care and show that care in a myriad of ways. Through the journey to healing, it is not uncommon for survivors to experience flashbacks and triggers that transport them back to the experience of what happened. When they have family and friends around who genuinely support them, these people can remind them of how far they have come in their healing journey. Survivors can often feel powerless in the face of the aftermath of abuse. In those moments, they need people who remind them of who they are and the truth that their power is with them and what happened was not their fault.
What are the most effective ways that we as individuals can support and care for friends or loved ones who have recently experienced sexual abuse?
Just listen. Don’t try to give advice or fix the problem. When someone says they’ve been raped, assaulted or abused, this is what you should say: I believe you, I support you, I am sorry this happened to you. You are not to blame for what happened to you. Survivors of sexual violence often feel an immense amount of guilt and can get buried in a process of self-flagellation where they convince themselves there is something more they could have done to prevent the abuse and so, they think not doing those things means they are to blame. This is of course NOT true, and friends and loved ones must remind them of what is true, which is that the rapist is solely at fault for the abuse. It is [also] critical that you don’t force your [well-meaning] solutions on them. You can and should let them know what options are available to them, but you can’t force them to take any of those options because you think it’s the best. They have to feel empowered enough to make decisions about their own healing and you have to respect those decisions.
If you or anyone you know has just been a victim of sexual assualt or rape, you can contact The Mirabel Centre for medical and legal support on any of these numbers: 08155770000, 07013491769, 08187243468, 01-2957816.
To Learn more about The Mirabel Centre and the range of services they offer, visit https://mirabelcentre.org/