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Silence is not an option

By Denrele Animasaun

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing” -Albert Einstein

I have never been one to shy away from tackling unpopular or uncomfortable subject matters. In fact, my father always encouraged us as children to tell the truth even if it is met with severe hostilities or displeasure.  So there is no better time than the present to discuss a burning issue that continues to plagues our nation.

Recently, a big Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, was allegedly accused by numerous stars of stage and screen as a serial sexual predator.  You may say there is nothing new here; if this were the case, we have a serious problem.

Nevertheless, there has been a shift and what has really changed this time, the women that he had abused over the decades are coming forward in droves to tell their stories and this time, the powers that be, have shifted gear and they are making their disapproval known; they wouldn’t stand by this serial offender anymore. They have left him out in the cold and Harvey is shocked by their disapproval. I mean don’t they know who he is!

The man has been at it for decades and it was a known secret within the industry but as this man weld so much power, he believed he was untouchable. Here was a man who was responsible for most of highest grossing films and had won 81 Oscars. So this King Midas turned everything he touches into gold and he arrogantly assumed that he could do anything to any woman and no one would question him. He goofed this time and so spectacularly.

He simply thought he will continue to get away with his behaviour of sexually assaulting women and young girls. At the present moment, he has taken refuge in a clinic claiming that he suffers from sexual addiction and while begging for forgiveness! He also believes he can come back and that he will be subsumed into his old opulent and unquestioned life.

He has another thing coming. The arrogance of the likes of Harvey is nothing new but this time there is no moratorium on sexual assaults or crimes; their nefarious acts will come back to bite them where it hurts the most, in their pockets and a massive fall from grace.

In the UK, there are now talks of stripping him of his CBE (CBE stands for Commander of the Order of the British Empire and is a rank in the UK’s honours system – one step below a knighthood).  A group of Labour MPs, including Chi Onwurah, have written to the prime minister calling for his CBE to be removed.

Oh, how are the mighty falling even! the company bearing his name has fired him and others have parted ways with any film that is associated with him. Top American politicians including Barak Obama have come out in full force to condemn his behaviour and vocally supporting women who have come out to tell their traumatic experience with Weinstein. Of course, Weinstein, has lawyered up and through his lawyers, have insisted any sexual relations he had were consensual. Seriously? Really! it’s a bit late in the day to lie.

His wife has had enough and has started divorce proceedings. So why is it relevant and is it relatable in Nigeria? It is very relevant as it a known fact that Nigerian men, in general, think that any girl or woman is fair game; the daily sexual intimidation, harassment and unwanted assaults in the workplace, in public places, at home, in places of learning or social gathering is so common place, up and down the country. Worryingly enough but so many, men and surprisingly, women, accept it as normal. It should not be normal.

We do have a serious problem as females, some very young and old, are victims of sexual abuse and harassment and too many people have come to accept it because they believe they are powerless. Having said that, they live with the trauma and the shame. Sadly, poverty and deprivation continues and enables more men to take advantage of women because they seemingly acquiescence their action as a mutual exchange. Unfortunately, far too many females are disadvantaged from the onset due to lack of basic needs as a result they are exploited by opportunist men who initiate younger girls into sexual activities and worse.

Of course, most men will deny that they ever participated in such predatory crimes but statistics says otherwise. Of course, some of these men claim to be family men, of good standing and they are religious. This is all a ruse, as you scratch the surface, they have are not as lily white and upstanding as they claim.

Young girls are groomed for transactional sex and they become damaged as an adult and are unable to make connection between normal relationship and exploitative relationship.  You may recognise why some of the relationships do not work as it is based on financial and sexual exchange. So for them these young females from mid-teens and in their twenties are properties to be used and discarded. So no wonder any subsequent relationships these girls form after their initial coerced encounter becomes a transaction for any form of want.

Of course, there are so many men, who do not see any harm in this but none of them would wish this on their children. But none of these do not know differently. Several studies, including one from WHO in 2002, stressed that; “Poverty, living in a community with a general tolerance for sexual violence, and weak sanctions against perpetrators have been identified as being contributory factors”. Sadly, this is true in the case of Nigeria

Two-thirds of girls in Nigeria have encountered sexual harassment or violence many times over so the less privileged the female the more likelihood of sexual harassment  and the younger the victim.

They say the number is far higher than reported because such crimes is mostly under reported simply because it has become commonplace and no one takes it seriously. In many cases, the girl or the woman is blamed for her trauma, so the fear of becoming common knowledge, the victim is silenced, beaten, often blamed as the instigator, shamed and shunned by the community.  So many put up a wall of silence and most family do not what to lose face.

The police are ill equipped to deal with such sensitive issue; actually they have no clue and are more likely to make matters worse without the proper training or sensitivity.

To make matters worse, such cases fail to make it to the courts and if by some fluke, it does, the lenient sentence does not fit the crime. Our society and the legal arm has not this epidemic seriously nor has the government taken it on or fully understood the gravity and impact such crimes and the impact it has on our society.  It affects people mentally, physically and financially and it can be far reaching and across generations. It is no exaggeration, it is a fact.

Until majority of Nigerians take a good and hard look at themselves and each other and be totally honest that something has to be done until then, such trauma will continue to repeat itself and continue to affect others as a result. Our female folks have stayed silent for far too long, because of the fear of retributions but also they are ashamed and frightened that some of the perpetrators are their bosses, teachers, relatives and so on.

There is a pervading power and intimidation at play here and the more powerless a victim feels, the less the opportunity there is for a crime to be registered. This secret and lies is tearing at the moral fabric of our society and yet, many are sleep walking and they wonder why our society is the way it is.

WHO (2003) states that; the mental health consequences of sexual violence can be just as serious and long lasting. And the victims of child sexual abuse are more likely to experience depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide in later life than their non-abused counterparts. Worldwide child sexual abuse is a major cause of PTSD, accounting for an estimated 33% of cases in females and 21% of cases in males. So what should we expect from the appropriate bodies and the government? First – include health and citizenship as part of every school curriculum. Let us start from primary schools and upwards to other senior seats of learning; at home, parents should teach their children what is expected of them and what their rights are, how to treat one another, respect and tolerance.

Establish and train state departments with staff to carry out inspection or follow up leads and task with the authority to pursue cases to its legal conclusion and the same time providing support for victims and rehabilitation. Construct a better and a robust legal provision that is consistent and committed to justice. Most crucially to promote a transparent and thorough legal structure that serves a stringent and stiffer sentences for serious offenders, with a live register for sex offenders this may serve as a deterrent.

A national community campaign to inform and educate the nation via different medium. There is an urgent need to change the culture and narrative. Nigerian females dearly deserve a shift and a reduction of the damning and high rate statistics of sexual violence and assault. The government can provide opportunities for women and girls, a compulsory education or training for women and girls to break the cycle of poverty and dependence, in particular to help and support women to gain independence and confidence.

Men that are harassing women at work or at school, should be investigated, removed temporarily and offered gender competency workshop. If the person indeed has sexually assaulted a woman or girl, then the person should be fired from work and follow the legal due process. After serving time then they should be place on the sex offenders register. It sounds severe? It has to be.

In terms of what girls and women should do. First of all, if you have experienced any form of sexual assault or harassment; it is not your fault. Speak to someone you know and trust about your experience. Do not keep it a secret to protect the perpetrator, your life matter and you are stronger than you think and you will survive this. No one deserves your silence to deal with your pain while they continue to commit the same crime. Being polite does not mean you have to be subservient and no one should make you feel uncomfortable. No-one.  If you do not give consent, then the person is abusing or assaulting you. That is not acceptable.

Be aware of your surrounding and trust your guts, if you feel uncomfortable, make your excuse and leave. Act decisively and swiftly, be emotionally strong and know yourself. Be clear and concise. Say No, it is your right and if you are not heard, shout loudly always let people know where you and ask friends to call you at interval to ensure that you are safe. Better still, learn some martial arts and kick some butts.

For men: talk to men who may be harassing a female in your presence. Let them know that it is not unacceptable and if they continue, you will take it further or reconsider your friendship (if he does this in your presence, then he will behave like that with your sisters, daughter or female friends). Proper men stand up for women and you have integrity. Be an ally to women, it makes a positive difference in the workplace. Men, if a woman does not want to smile at you while passing. She does not have to and calling her names only confirmed why she didn’t smile in the first place. It is not a pick up gambit and it never was.

When a woman or girl confesses to you that someone you know acted inappropriately, please don’t dismiss it or say; “boys will be boys”.  Don’t make excuses for a man’s predatory behaviours and if you have boys or are a big brother, please be a role model they don’t only listen to what you say they watch what you do. Show them how to behave towards women and help them to understand the differences of how or how not to behave. Women and girls should be treasured and admired.  If anyone is affected by any of the contents of this piece. Please email me and I will endeavour to signpost you to appropriate services.

Please be safe and be strong. You are neutral in situations of injustice; you have chosen the side of the oppressor. (Desmond Tutu)

From my archives

“Jesus does not do coins.”

I have a lot of misgivings, when vulnerable people go into places of worship seeking spiritual refuge and absolutions and they are fleeced of their meagre earnings. I know of several cases. One that immediately comes to mind is that of a former client of mine, who was a victim of a serious crime and she sustained a life changing injury. She was lucky to be alive and she had gone to a church to pray and give thanks. She told me that at the end of the sermon, the collection plate came round and she placed a £1 coin into the tray.

This £1, she had saved by walking instead of taking the bus to the church, but the usher was so scathing of her offering and she told my client that “Jesus does not do coins”!  Let’s say that was the last time my client visited the church and it did shake her religious belief momentarily.

Another was, an old lady who gave her last £5 but then she had to beg at the door for money to buy her electricity to warm her flat. When she was asked, she said that she had felt pressured into handing her money over. Whatever the case, these places prey on the vulnerable and promises everything only to deliver paranoia, penury and pain.

Some of these places are nothing but a pyramid, a Ponzi scheme where only the top tier skims the proceeds while those at the lowest tier continue to chase the elusive spiritual deliverance, cures for their maladies and promises of riches beyond their wildest dreams.




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