What It Means to Tackle Gender-Based Violence in Nigeria’s Volatile North
“I believe that a woman, as a key player in reproduction, should be able to decide if they want to have sex, with who they want to start a family if they want to have children, when they want to have children and how many children they desire to have. This is not possible if they do not have the knowledge about this right and where they have this knowledge, it may not be possible in some cases for them to enjoy these rights if they are not economically empowered to cater for themselves.” - Fatima Musa Aliyu
In November 2019, a number of women in northern Nigeria rose to call out sexual abuse; they organised a rally and engaged with stakeholders to implement the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act in several states in the North.
The women behind this movement were targeted, harassed and vilified; anyone associated with the movement was insulted and ridiculed on Twitter. The #Arewametoo movement and #Northnormal rally faced many opponents.
The Nigerian government enacted the VAPP Act of 2015 to safeguard people against various forms of violence. As of March 2021, it has been domesticated in 22 states except for Adamawa, Bayelsa, Borno, Gombe, Imo, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Kogi, Niger, Ondo, Rivers, Sokoto, Taraba, and Zamfara.
The act makes provisions for wiping out violence in private and public life; restricts all forms of violence (physical, sexual, psychological, domestic, harmful traditional practices, discrimination against persons, etc.); and provides protection and remedies for victims and punishment of offenders.
It seeks to eliminate existing cultural beliefs that initiate and sustain the prevalence of domestic violence in Nigeria.
To mark the #16daysofactivism this year, Document Women peer into the lives of two women dedicated to fighting against Sexual and gender-based violence in northern Nigeria.
Since I was a little girl, I saw certain treatments meted out to women that I knew were wrong. I was young, and although I didn't know exactly what was wrong, I didn’t like it; I just knew it wasn't right, and in the smallest ways, I always saw myself doing something and speaking up against them. A good example was when I was in junior secondary school, and I got into a fight with an older boy twice my body weight for beating up a girl in my school. – Zulaiha Danjuma.
We begin with Zulaiha Danjuma, a journalist and anti-Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) advocate based in Kano State who actively advocates against sexual and gender-based violence.
She is a content creator for Stand To End Rape Initiative and Societal Healthcare Organisation. Zulaiha says there was no definite time she began her work as an activist. She felt like advocacy was always something she did unconsciously.
“Honestly, I could never give a particular date or year, this is because I have also been an SGBV advocate before I even knew what advocacy was. Even before my advocacy properly started in terms of coordinated movements, campaigns and efforts, I had always stood up against anybody who mistreated girls around me. And I guess that's why throughout my Primary and Secondary school days, I fought a lot of boys and was seen as a tomboy, even though most of those boys later became my good friends. So, for me, my journey into advocacy started years before I was In a structure. But my journey of advocating against GBV structure-wise started in my University days way back in 2014,” Zulaiha says.
She credits the motivation behind her advocacy to a need to help people. The unfair treatment triggered her.
“It wasn't just about physical abuse, rape or harassment. My trigger was far less. Even the manner of communication, tone or approach that displayed any sought of degrading statements or subjugation to a woman made me want to do something to stop that early on in my formative years. Because I just felt everyone deserved some sought of respect and that shouldn't be based on their gender it should be universal. For me, it has been the way society treats ladies like myself who dare to say we believe both genders may carry some biological difference. Still, logically all human beings are the same, and as such, should be treated first as humans rather than along gender lines. And when I say society, I mean both the male and female species found in it. Because most times it looks as if men are the only ones against women who speak up against societal vices melted out against women like SGBV, but a lot of women do and say even more heartbreaking things to fellow women.”
When asked about the challenges she faces in her work, Zulaiha mentioned that she realized that because a person is a woman does not mean she will fight for the rights and proper treatment of women. It doesn’t stop her from fighting. Whether other women believe in it or not, let alone a man, she also believes the challenges have been the misconception around women and some men who lend their voices against SGBV.
“The name-calling online and offline, the stereotype that most people in society just frame you as a person; and the work you do can sometimes be heart-breaking. Sometimes people just spun rhetorics about female SGBV advocates as agents of religious and cultural destruction. It is almost as if lending a voice to those whose voices have been silenced is your fight and hate for men.”
It hasn’t always been insults and challenges; Zulaiha says, recalling her happiness at the conviction of a teacher who murdered his student in Kano state after abducting her and feeding her rat poison.
For Fatima Aliyu, the implementation of laws like the VAPP act and Child Rights Act will do a lot in the fight against Sexual and Gender based violence.
Fatima works in a very volatile and vital aspect of curbing sexual violence. She spreads awareness on sexual and reproductive health rights as Bridge Connect Africa Initiative’s Program manager with over six years experience in Development.
Fatima is a ONE Campaigns and Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumna.
“Bridge Connect Africa Initiative (BCAI) is an organization that is committed to empowering and amplifying youth, women, and girls' rights, health, and education in their communities. The organization is known for its policy advocacy and support for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), girl child education as well as women’s rights through research, human-centered programme design, implementation, management, and support, for local, national, and international organizations.I currently work as a Senior Programs Manager with BCAI.” She said.
When speaking with Fatima, she highlights the many ways lack of sexual and reproductive health knowledge has ben used against women in the north and the significance of her work. Fatima mentions that her experience has been difficult yet rewarding.
“Having women and girls testify to the impacts my work has brought to their lives is quite fulfilling and it is a reason to not want to give up even in the face of challenges.Advocating for women in the north has not been easy but this is what I'm born for. I've passed through the stage of misconception (stage where people chose to read different meanings to what I actually stand for), the stage of name-calling and the stage of rejection. I think I'm in that stage where people understand my cause and are bringing themselves closer to lend their voices to the cause that I am pursuing. I am definitely proud of the work that I do and I hope that someday, when I become old and gray, I'll look back at the impacts of the works I have done to promote women's reproductive health and rights and have a big smile of fulfillment on my face.”
She lists her motivation as burning enthusiasm to see women treated as human beings.
“I am enthusiastic about women being able to make decisions as humans about whatever concerns them, I desire to see more girls go to school and reach their full potentials, I desire to see a world where women enjoy good health and can contribute meaningfully to the development of their communities. These motivated me to start a career in addressing women-related issues.I started working with BCAI since inception. It all began with a burning desire to bridge the equality gaps I had noticed and experienced between men and women and what I would term injustice meted at women on a daily basis.”
Recently, the United Nations declared Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) as a ‘shadow pandemic’ while calling for urgent, comprehensive, and effective actions by duty bearers to curb the menace.
A 2021 report by the UN Women estimated that 736 million women—one out of three women worldwide— have been subjected to physical sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their lives and data from the 2018 Demographic Health Survey indicated that over 17 million Nigerian women have experienced sexual violence.