After surviving rape as a National Youth Service Corps member on a national electoral assignment, Ayodeji Osowobi rose above the disgrace, stigma and psychological effects of being raped and not getting justice. Her personal experience led her on the journey of advocacy that provides help and justice for rape victims and get them justice.
Consequently, she founded Stand To End Rape Initiative, STERI, a Non Profit Organisation advocating against sexual violence, providing prevention mechanisms and supporting survivors with psycho-social services.
Ayodeji Osowobi was kind enough to answer some questions on her work, journey to now and many more.
You once stated that it was after You were raped it dawned on you what a prevailing issue this is for most girls. How have you been able to ensure that rape victims you work with maintain the strength needed to keep fighting?
The means we use to ensure survivors maintain the strength needed varies on the case at hand and it is a process. What we do is to ensure they receive adequate medical and psycho-social support as this is the baseline for dealing with a rape experience. We have a team of trained psychologists who work with survivors through this process and ensure they are either able to manage the situation or rise above it. As a team a of survivors and non-survivors, we provide them with a support network that strengthens them and gives them a sense of purpose. Some of the survivors we have worked with in time past have joined the organisation so as to pay it forward.
Do you think there is any improvement in the way cases of sexual violence against girls and women are handled by Nigerian authorities?
Absolutely! There is little improvement. We have more Police officers and medical practitioners who are more familiar with the best practices required to deal with sexual violence as CSOs have organised capacity building training, compared to 5 years ago where most Government Hospitals and Primary Healthcare Centres (PHCs) did not have rape kits or have understanding on how to facilitate forensics examination on clients. My organisation facilitated training in 5 Local Government Areas in Lagos State and intend to expand to other States in Nigeria. Today, we have various centers and PHCs who are trained and providing such services.
Although the process with the Law Enforcement agencies is still very much slow and some officers still request for ‘motivation fee’ to charge a case to court or submit a case file to the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP for advice). Such situation discourage survivors from reporting cases and hereby sometimes rely on STER and other organisations to stand in the gap for them. Similarly, the legal process of trialing a case is cumbersome and discouraging. Having foggy recall of events or reporting years after an incident occurred is a major problem for the
Nigeria Police Force. There is lack of zeal, interest or full expertise to take on such cases. There is so much more to do in this regard.
Most male survivors do not report cases of abuse because they fear being mocked or perceived as weak. Have you had a male victim and was there a different approach in dealing with the trauma?
The upbringing although similar is quite different from girls. Boys are expected to put a masculine front and boys/men are not expected to be vulnerable. There is a historical reason male sexual assault is shrouded in so much stigma and secrecy and as such, men hardly admit to been sexually abused. Yes, we have had a male victim and while the services we provide to both genders are similar, the approach is somewhat different as there is so much male ego unburdening to do and a social re-engineering to do. It was much easier for them to open up to male psychologists who would listen to them, validate their emotions and provide them with adequate mental health services.
STER is a non profit organization that advocates for rape survivors who can’t speak about their ordeal due to stigmatization, how far has STER come in enlightening people on the need to end rape and shift the blame to the perpetrators rather than the victim?
STER has engaged and still engages in community outreaches and online campaigns targeted at changing narratives on rape culture and the role of men in ending this culture. We have had outreaches in over 50 communities enlightening members on how victim blaming emboldens perpetrators and makes rape culture thrive because if rape happens and you focus the negative attention on the victim, this act simply means what the abuser did is okay. The very essence of speaking out on rape is to take action on the abusers and deconstruct the power behind it. Our social media campaigns ranging from #SpeakOut, #BehindtheSmile, #STERMythbuster, #HERECampaign has further aided our goal to break the wall of silence on rape and re-focus the responsibility of rape on the abusers and help people really see who the violence was perpetrated against are – victims of a well thought out violent act.
STER runs programmes that do not only affect survivors, but steers the need for behavioural change inNigeria. To what extent has that goal been achieved? To a large extent, we have achieved this goal.
As mentioned earlier, sexual violence was not a conversation openly had by people. It also was not easy for survivors to speak out about their experiences to receive help due to victim shaming. With constant social and behavioral change communication disseminated via our online platforms, television and radio outlets, and importantly community outreaches has achieved three major things: unveiling the silence of culture making survivors feel empowered to share their stories, highlighting the roles of boys and men in ending violence against women and girls and providing a holistic support system for them. Sexual violence is now an issue being openly discussed on radio, social media and in Schools, and importantly several organisations such as Stand to End Rape Initiative are teaching boys in and out of school on bodily autonomy, consent and gender-based violence and this has enhanced a level of change in attitudes and behaviour among the boys we piloted this project with. In some communities, traditional leaders and parents have a better understanding on teaching their boys on consent and are aware that rape is not a “family matter” they should keep silent on and importantly, need to provide support to their daughters who get raped. Even today, the style of reporting of cases of sexual violence by journalists has tremendously improved which was not so before. All of these things contribute to achieving behavioral change on such an important issues. So yes, we have do quite so much on sexual violence, teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS etc as it relates to gender-based violence and have achieved high success in places we have worked, but there still is so much to do.
In a past interview, you mentioned that One of the most common psychological consequences of rape is self-blame, which is used as an avoidance-based coping tool. What steps would you advice to be taken
to free oneself of this mindset or even prevent it totally for those who have been faced with such a traumatic incident?
Believe that it was never your fault that someone abused you. Rape and domestic violence is never a mistake, it is a deliberate weapon used by someone to tame, maimor dominate you. No one will believe in you more than YOU. This is the first step. The next step is to seek immediate medical services if it is a recent incident. If not, you can speak with a mental health psychologist or contact Stand to End Rape Initiative to connect you with one AT NO COST. I would always advise that you prioritise your well-being because there are days such traumatic experience will flash your mind and what makes the difference between self-blame and triumph is owning your story and having mental health strength. This has worked for me and has made me confident to speak my truth always. However, there are days you may still shed tears and feel powerless, that is okay, it is only part of the process. You will keep healing. This does not only apply to women and girls, this is also for men who have experienced one form of gender-based
violence during their childhood or as adults. Never judge your manhood by the experience of rape, no, you are made of more. There is no need to feel disappointed or feel less of yourself. Anyone can be involved in an accident, have malaria or be robbed – and albeit they are bad, it has been normalised that it happens to women and men alike. These vices do not respect gender and so does sexual violence.
It’s no news that we live in a country that is wearing a veil of silence. What steps has STER taken inbregards to improving the responses of the appropriate authorities when cases of rape on any gender are
Stand to End Rape Initiative has facilitated partnership with selected institutions responsible for providing services to survivors. For example, from September 2016 – June 2017 we trained 100 healthcare
providers in selected Government and Primary Healthcare Centers in five Local Government Areas in Lagos State on global standard for sexual violence response mechanism. Some of the participants after the training started referring cases to Stand to End Rape Initiative. Additionally, we and other relevant stakeholders have engaged with some Nigeria Police Force officers and prosecutors on the importance of prompt response to cases of gender-based violence. We are about to launch some projects aimed at enhancing the capacity of specific authorities to respond to cases.
We are in a country where people rarely talk about or report rape. Has this impacted the work and success of STER in any way?
When our Stand to End Rape Initiative’s advocacy commenced, our main focus was to break the barrier of silence and ensure survivors have adequate support when they speak out. The amount of success recorded
has been so significant. If you use social media as a gauge, you can tell more people are opening up about their experience, however the challenge has been most people not interested in seeking legal redress. In
the cases of adults, they have the right to determine how, when, where they want to tell their stories and what they want to do afterwards. So while it is a challenge, it has not impacted STER’s success in any way
because our goal is liberation for them and speaking out alone achieves this.
Do you foresee a day when sexual violence would be completely eradicated from this world? And what can be done to make this happen?
I see this future and this is what everyone genuinely passionate about this cause is working towards. Respecting humans regardless of gender is really achievable if we can break down the patriarchal wall and norms that gives the a gender a soft landing and empowers them to exert their power over the other gender. From research and experiences, women are at the receiving end of this. So achieve a world completely eradicated of sexual violence, there must be – a social re-engineering of sexual norms and acceptable behaviours; breakdown of the culture of silence; establishment of adequate response systems to issues of gender-based violence; the obligation of the criminal justice system to uphold its obligation and an overhaul of policies limiting women and girls.
Do you think reducing the negative backlash aimed at the victims and focusing more on the perpetrators would help solve the issues of sexual violence?
This is a step towards achieving a more sane society that does not re-victimise victims/survivors of sexual violence. This strengthens survivors to identify their abusers, and get them off the streets before repeating this offense on another innocent soul while also sending a message to the general populace that survivors
are no longer silent and there is no safety net for abusers in our society. This is not a standalone that will solve the issues of sexual violence as our goal is basically to end the menace so change in perceptions,
legal frameworks and an improvement in the structure of the criminal justice system (including rehabilitation in the Prison) will indeed reduce and on the long run eliminate sexual violence in Nigeria.
Speaking at the 2019 Commonwealth award ceremony, you said, “This award reminds me that when young people say ‘no’ to cultural biases, we have the capacity to create change because we are magic.” What does cultural bias mean to you and how do you think it affects sexually violated victims?
The culture of survivors regarded as the problem and must keep silent about their experiences while the perpetrators are emboldened to roam the streets feeling like the victor and survivors relegated to
‘shameful victims.’ If rape is seen as a crime, then shouldn’t the person who committed the crime be held accountable? If you are holding sexually violated victims accountable, that basically means you see no
wrong in the person (perpetrator) or the crime committed, so you support rape and abuse. So what are we angry about?
The culture of domestic violence is a family matter and it is okay “for a man to chastise his wife so far he does not cause damage.” Women are not playing feed for exertion of power and dominance, we are equal
citizens and have a place in social, cultural, religious and political spaces. We must pull down those walls because when we do not, survivors are further silenced and traumatised. They have experienced so much
violence and now lost in the Universe that ought to protect them – they lose faith!