In a country where a culture of silence has worsened sexual assault and gender-based violence, a group has launched an initiative to encourage young girls to report and share information on any form of violence they experience.
The Sexual Offences Awareness and Response Initiative (SOAR) in collaboration with the councilor representing Ushafa ward, Maryam Barnabas, launched the ‘Safe Space’ initiative in Ushafa, a rural setting in the Bwari area council of the Federal Capital Territory where the authorities revealed a chilling pattern of hidden gender-based violence, child labor and trafficking and sexual assault.
As the world retreated inside homes due to the lockdown measures introduced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, reports showed an increase in violence against women especially in rural communities such as Ushafa.
“The current data after the COVID-19 lockdowns is scary in all honesty,” said Adam Adam, the gender desk officer, Bwari area council.
“For me that have worked in the social welfare office, we have received a lot of alarming cases especially during the lockdown. In Ushafa for instance, we handled cases of internal and external child trafficking, child labor and sexual abuse of young girls,” he said.
Mr Adam said while his office is preparing data for UNICEF on the menace, one major challenge in getting the real picture is the unresponsiveness of victims due to the culture of silence in rural communities.
“The major problem is a culture of silence due to fear of victimisation,” he said.
Nigeria has an extremely low conviction rate for rape and sexual abuse, despite a high rate of violence against women. But the shortcomings in Nigeria’s legal system – where the burden to prove rape or abuse often lies in the evidence of it also being a violent attack – are not the only challenges facing survivors.
Africa’s most populous nation has just a handful of facilities dedicated to the care and support of victims.
The initiative was launched in the community on Monday to coincide with the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence activities, from 25 November to 10 December.
This year’s campaign against gender-based violence initiated by the United Nations came under the global theme: “Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!”
“A safe space simply means a place where teenage girls can feel safe to say whatever they want on issues affecting them without feeling judged,” Mercy Ugoche, the SOAR program officer, said during the launch.
“It is also a place where these girls can meet people with similar ordeal and they can share experiences. The idea is to break the culture of silence and empower girls to speak up in the face of abuse,” she said.
The official said ‘Safe Space’ is a six-month-long programme where girls will be trained with the necessary life support skills that will help them identify, report, and even become advocates against gender-based violence.
“We just set up the maiden ‘Safe Space’ programme in Ushafa and we hope to replicate it in many other communities where there is a high prevalence of assault against young girls.”
She also explained how the programme works. “There is a counselor that will be training these girls on how to handle any such incidents.
“When a case is reported, the councillor will evaluate how it should be handled depending on the peculiarity. If it’s psychosocial, we have trained experts it can be referred to. if it’s serious and needs legal action, we also have lawyers to handle them.”
The programme officer said they are partnering with the FCT women affairs department, the FCT sexual and gender violence response team, FIDA, the police and hospitals to deliver medical services if need be.
She also said attendance of the programme is free.
Michael Enweremchi who represented the councillor of Ushafa ward said the councillor partnered with SOAR in the project due to her long standing against the abuse of young girls.
“She is the only female councilor in the entire FCT so she is very passionate about the empowerment of women and that is why she is supporting this initiative,” he said.
Mr Adam, the gender desk officer at the Bwari area council, described the safe space programme as a remarkable initiative that needs to be replicated in every rural community across the country.
He also called on parents and guardians to allow their young girls attend the Safe Space classes every Saturday.