By Ebunoluwa Sessou
Sexual assault is a severely traumatic experience that disproportionally affects women and girls. The unfortunate aspect of it is the fact that survivors continue to live with the pain for the rest of their lives.
Narrating her ordeal, Augusta Eshiowula, 20, said although she had moved on with her life, the thinking of being sexually assaulted again lingers.
“To be sexually assaulted means being exposed to a bad experience”, she said.
“I was sexually assaulted when I was six years old and it was a traumatic thing to hear that a child was molested in that manner. I am still trying to get over it”.
Sexual assault is often associated with psychological, physical and social distress and, occasionally, results in fatality either from shock, severe injury or murder by the perpetrator in an attempt to conceal his identity.
According to the United Nations, sexual assault encompasses a wide range of activities ranging from rape to physically less intrusive sexual contacts, whether attempted or completed.
It involves lack of consent; the use of physical force, coercion, deception or threat; and/or the involvement of a victim that is asleep, unconscious, under aged, mentally incapacitated or physically impaired as a result of voluntary or involuntary alcohol or drug consumption.
Speaking at the just concluded Survivor Summit Ending Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institutions organized by the EU-UN joint spotlight initiative to commemorate16 days of activism against gender-based violence, three survivors, who recounted the trauma suffered as a result of being violated, noted that the increasingly rate of rape in tertiary institutions is worrisome and that, if not urgently addressed, can make victims hostile in their environments.
Sheila Ojei, one of the survivors, said, “Someone came to take what wasn’t his or touched what was not his. The second time, I was strong to say no because the part of me that wanted to heal was stronger than the part of me that was broken. I am a survivor”.
Ms. Winifred Ekwuonye, screen writer and poet, also speaking about her ordeal, said, “I have lived a huge part of my life in silence and it has been really tough. But I have learnt that I need to cope with my life by talking about it.
“I was studying law at the University of Calabar but I had to quit because I found myself in a situation where I was supposed to be protected against cases of domestic violence. But the case was different. My story was horrible. Sexual harassment alters people’s lives. It has altered my life; I am just trying to make the best out of my life”.
According to her, the justice system in Nigeria has failed victims of sexual abuse especially students of tertiary institutions.
“My life has been full of struggles because we are living in the society where people tend to blame the victim of rape for what she was wearing, what time of the day she was raped”, she said.
“Often times, you do not find the perpetrator being questioned; people rather pass the wrong question to the wrong people.
“Often times, we see condemnation of women but we also have men that are abused. Both women and men are being abused”.
Ms Brend Uphoupho, an art manager, on her part, said she had channelled all the negatives of what she passed through to influence others positively.
“I work with lots of young people and I use art to showcase and highlight challenges and issues facing survivors of sexual assault”, Brend stated.
“Sexual assault is still a pathetic issue. Even in the climes where there are laws to fight sexual harassment, evidence back it up, proofs are still a big hindrance. We just need to continue to do more advocacies around it. People should know what sexual assault is all about, consent and the understanding that sex-for-grade is bad”.
To Augusta, the trust that should exist between the guardian and the child was not there. “After being sexually assaulted, I was not able to confide in anybody, not even my mother”, she said.
Even Winifred Ekwuonye, at 17, could not be trusted by her mother to tell the truth. She lamented that her mother called her a prostitute.
“I was seeking admission into tertiary educational institution and my mother never believed that I was actually doing what I told her I was doing. She threw me out and that was the beginning of my sorrow. I was raped by five boys and was made to bathe in their presence. My anus was damaged and the trauma I suffered still lingers”.
Sexual Harassment Bill
The UN Women Representative to Nigeria and ECOWAS, Ms. Comfort Lamptey, speaking on the Sexual Harassment Bill pending at the National Assembly to curb rape especially in tertiary educational institutions, said, “One of the hanging issues is to see how the Sexual Harassment Bill can be passed into law. It is will not solve all the problems but it will provide the framework to be able to respond”.
In her contribution, Mirabel Founder, Mrs. Itoro Eze-Anaba, disclosed that the bill is a reporting mechanism that has been put in place in tertiary institutions to address gender-based violence.
“A student has the right to report and also be assured that she will not be traumatized for reporting. It is also important to know that when a report is made, the process should take place and it should be automatic”, Eze-Anaba said.
“Every case that has been reported has to be documented and conclusion reached whether in favour or against the perpetration.
“It is important that we remember that there is a place we can make the report and that you will be heard and the process is also free of any kind of bias or prejudice”.
On the implementation of the bill, she recommended that government should raise a body to oversee the enforcement. The activist added, “Apart from government, all of us have a responsibility to make sure the bill when it becomes law is enforced.
“At times, the survivor might have the desire to report but the third party can ensure that her voice is heard. So, the law will only be as good as we want it to be; if we do not engage the process, it will not work”.
Breaking the Silence
One of the highlights of the Survivor Summit was the need for rape victims to be courageous enough to speak out and break the silence.
In an interview, Chioma Okpala, also known as Chioma BBB Broadcaster, urged victims to speak out so as to get help.
“I will advise anyone who is going through sexual assault to speak up so as to get help”, she said.
“Speaking up is the first victory, that way, you do not become the victim anymore. I believe that people need to speak the truth and they should not expect anyone to speak the truth for them. It is their right to speak up on what is going on with them. If you do not speak up, nobody will help you.
“They should also know how to say no. If you do not speak up, you cannot get help and what will happen is the traumatic experience you might not get over.
“Some rape victims who have been married still nurse fear in them because of the experience. If you do not get help, you cannot become a survivor. You are a victim until you actually find the way out and then become a survivor. Nobody should stay as a victim; every rape victim should become a survivor”.
The Prevention Call
Wife of the Vice President and Founder, the Women’s Helping Hand Initiatives, Mrs. Dolapo Osinbajo, meanwhile, called for the prevention of gender-based violence to forestall untold pain and trauma of rape victims.
“Looking unto the eyes of a rape survivor; it could have saved the pain if violence has been prevented in the first place”, Dolapo said.
“If we ever sat with a traumatized girl or a lady that has gone through gender-based violence, you will understand that it is a multifaceted problem and it requires multifaceted response as well. This multifaceted problem that we have will encourage stiffer penalties for perpetrators.
“Every lecturer in higher institutions must be engaged. We must identify those lecturers that have chosen to take the wrong path. The entire management of universities, polytechnics and colleges of education, organizations and civil society organizations, among others, should ensure that perpetrators of gender-based violence are brought to book.
“Nigeria does not accept gender-based violence against women and girls, Nigeria has institutions that stand against gender-based violence and assault of any kind, whether abuse or molestation. There are laws that have been put in place.
“I encourage us to participate in speaking to as many people as possible on helping them process the information that can help them come of out of the pain.
“The horrible movies or videos of sex-for-grade have been tensed that there is to find a way out to help people to process information and speak to those who may intend to abuse and show them the better way of addressing life.
“We need to stand up for one another, families, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. The young girl should be able to play safe in the neighbourhood; women should be able to walk to the market without being harmed”.
She urged every woman in tertiary institutions to be a concerned mother for others to ensure that a female student does not suffer gender-based violence in the hands of men. “We must organize support structure to ensure that we do to become victims or survivors in the hands of rapists”, the VP’s wife said.
“The rate of mental challenge we have in the country today may have emanated from gender-based violence which many might not survive.
“There is a need to come up with robust and effective solutions to end gender-based violence in Nigeria. We all have a responsibility for the girl-child to be kept safe. If she happens to encounter gender-based violence, she may survive the trauma early.
“Exposing the girl-child to gender based violence is a menace that the entire generation of Nigeria must address. This mission is to consistently speak on the need to eradicate gender-based violence in Nigeria”.
Also speaking at the occasion, Ms. Comfort Lamptey said, “Prevention is important, we need education, awareness; girls need to know about their rights and we need support mechanism. So, we can become each other’s keeper. We also need to ensure that those who perpetrate these crimes are brought to book. Individual who has been entrusted to care for our mothers, sisters should ensure that they are trusted.
“Another issue is the fact that the process of recovery for anyone who is violated is a lifelong journey. Imagine thousands of girls who have been traumatized and yet they do not have the benefit to get back on their feet.
“The consequences are there and we need to be able to invest in prevention. We need to be able to educate girls in institutions of learning that they do not have to give in to these advances and we must have mechanism put in place to report cases of rape.
“It is important to know that there is a crisis at hand and the type of violence against women we have seen and heard and so, we need to be able to work in a concerted manner”.
In her address, wife of Lagos State governor, Mrs. Ibijoke Sanwo-Olu, lamented that rate at which rape cases are recorded in tertiary institutions is alarming.
According to her, changing the narrative of rape cases in Nigeria is the ability for everyone to possess the political will and the tenacity to defend victims and bring perpetrators to book.
Dr. Mamadou Kante, UNFPA Deputy Regional Director, OIC, in her contribution, said, “It is important to know that some survivors of rape have clearly come out to speak about what they went through. It is, therefore, imperative for government, institutions, CSOs to strongly come together and stop violence against women and girls.
Rector, Lagos State Polytechnic, Mr. Samuel Sogunro, also at the occasion, lamented that gender-based violence has become a common social disorder in the society especially in tertiary institutions.
According to him, the time has come for well meaning individual and institutions to stand against this menace of which majority of victims is female gender.
In his contribution, Comrade Bamidele Akpan, President NANS, said we must all say no to sexual assault in our tertiary institutions.