#ArewaMeToo: Time To Speak Up
When Maryam Awaisu was arrested in her office on February 19, many believed it was connected to her quest to get justice for victims of sexual abuse in northern Nigeria.
Awaisu is a part of many activists, mostly from the conservative northern Nigeria, whose campaign targets the culture of sexual predation they say is prevalent in the region.
The #ArewaMeToo movement has awakened the minds of more people to the normalisation of sexual abuse in Northern Nigeria. It has also significantly brought to the fore, the harassment victims face and how they are all too often silenced about their experiences.
Suffering in silence
12-year-old secondary school girl in Kaduna, Sefiya, was raped by her step-father. Her story is told by her former teacher, Adam, who served as a corp member and who eventually got her to open up to him.
He wrote: “Sefiya’s step-father was raping her at least three times a week, most times when her mother was not around. According to her, the abuse started when her mother travelled. When her mother returned, she told her about it but was told to never speak about it to anyone, hence, encouraging the abuse which continued.”
The prevailing African mentality is that adults are almost always right. As such, little sense is made of what children say especially when it comes to accusing adults. A lot of children are being forced to suffer in silence while the paedophiles walk about in pride.
Men are not left out as target of sexual abuse. United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) says one in four girls and one in ten boys in Nigeria have experienced sexual violence before the age of 18. UNICEF also reported that six out of ten children in Nigeria experience emotional, physical or sexual abuse before the age of 18; with half experiencing physical violence.
Using the #ArewaMeToo movement as his voice, Twitter user @Freeborny shared his own story of abuse:
“At 3-years old, my father started molesting me until I was 19. I feel so insecure I can’t even fall in love with a girl as I am madly in love with my dad. I don’t know where I can find help??? He got me a job and an apartment where he comes in most times to stay with me.”
People reacted to his story with mixed reactions as many felt he had cooked up his story to elicit pity or gain likes and followers on the social media platform.
A Twitter user, @JamesLantern2 gives an insight into how the culture of abuse has been so normalised that even wives keep mute about their husband’s rapist tendencies. He wrote:
“My sister went to visit my aunt in Abuja last year, and her husband tried to rape her (his sister). She told my mum and my mum called my aunty to inform her. His wives knew he is a bloody rapist but they don’t want the society to know. They were out when he made advances at my sister. When they came back and my aunt saw how cold my sister was, she kept asking my sister, “What happened? What did my husband do to you?”
An activist, Sadiya Taheer says, “sometimes victims do not even know they are abused”. And so, they do not know that they are supposed to speak up. As a result of this, victim-shaming has become a norm, such that the stories fizzle out as soon as they are told. If the victims insist on speaking out, they are threatened to shut up.
Parents and adults further entrench the culture of silence into their kids just as shared by Lailah Gumbi: “A three-year-old girl was raped by unknown assailants in Usarki, Kaduna, and right now parents keep their children from playing or associating with her. The girl is being treated like she had character flaws that brought on the rape.”
Sometimes, religion is used to explain why so-called indecent dressing aids sexual abuse, just as this statement from a Twitter user:
“Cover your body and dress with decency and modesty, nobody will harass you. The Quran teaches us everything. #ArewaMeToo” – Falmatah Lawan.
The fact that child marriage is allowed in northern Nigeria with perpetrators using religion as a justification does not further help the cause of the campaign against child abuse. Also worrying is the refusal by some northern Nigeria states to domesticate the Child Rights Act (2003). The law was passed at the federal level but it will only be effective when state legislatures pass same.
This act tends to curtail child marriage which is still prevalent among the Hausa-Fulani tribe, but the region does not see the negative impact(s) of big issues like the betrothal of children to adult males and will only continue to shield themselves from such laws. Besides, too many people actually do not believe in the illegality of child marriage. Not forgetting that there is a strong argument that child marriage is not illegal in Nigeria under Second Schedule Part 1 item 61 of the 1999 Constitution:
The formation, annulment and dissolution of marriages other than marriages under Islamic law and customary law including matrimonial causes relating thereto.
This rather improper aspect of cultural trends in the North uncomfortably encourages the men to think that they are entitled to sex. As the human mind works, the men take this ‘entitlement’ further by attempting to or actually forcing themselves on children and people who cannot fight back.
Moreover, when people like Awaisu rise to champion the cause of the victims, they are met with the force of the state. Although, she was released soon after she was arrested. Amnesty International insisted it was meant to intimidate her to jettison the cause.
“While arresting Maryam, the police attempted to gain access to her laptop and mobile phone by force,” Amnesty says in a statement.
“This is clearly an effort to access the sensitive evidence she and other human rights defenders have been gathering to seek justice for victims of sexual violence.”
Nigeria is notorious for its underwhelming prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence against women, a situation which allows violation of women, including children that could barely talk, go on almost unchecked.
“For too long, Nigeria’s women have been facing various kinds of sexual violence that seldom receives proper attention from the country’s law enforcement agencies,” Amnesty says.
“It is unacceptable that women working on behalf of these victims are subjected to such arrest and intimidation, and we fear that these actions may prevent victims of sexual violence from pursuing justice.”
The culture of male dominance, female social and economic disempowerment and poor or non-prosecution of sex offenders are some of the other things that aid sexual abuse.
A survey by Positive Action for Treatment Access (PATA), says over 31.4 percent of girls said their first sexual encounter was non-consensual. This just goes to prove that the pandemic has gone deeper than we can imagine.
The movement is believed to have become a trend after one Khadija narrated – on Twitter – her alleged trauma in the hands of Aruwa Sadiq; a rather popular figure in the social and political sphere. She talked about how she was almost killed; as threats kept trickling in. And, with the influence of her boyfriend, Lawal Abubakar, an aide to the minister of finance, Zainab Ahmed, she concealed it until she opened up.
Her story gave rise to the #ArewaMeToo movement on social media, giving victims a platform to relate their harrowing experiences.
Another user who chose to remain anonymous stated that the abuse started at a very early age – six years old. The derisive act continued for years until the paedophile who was her step-father had an accident. She could not speak up because of the threats he issued. Series of other stories border on the pedophilic molesters being religious teachers, family friends and relatives.
These stories underscore the failure of institutions to protect children and victims from their abusers and, a reminder that the media is more than just a news sharing community. The growing confidence is that ‘ArewaMeToo’ is in for a rude awakening.
How it affects us all
There is no doubt that the #ArewaMeToo movement is slowly but steadily touching on us all, as its growing pressure to curb abuse (in all its forms) is one that has had a huge impact on our conversations. Many victims are beginning to understand they are being abused and can actually speak out; especially since women in Northern Nigeria don’t traditionally discuss sexual or physical abuse publicly.
Although social media has played a key role in breaking the culture of silence about sexual abuse in the North, there is still a need for collective effort in curbing the menace. There’s the need to put into place, more conservative methods to ensure that abuse survivors get justice and that local institutions of authority key into the movement to further amplify its message.
Most of the northern states practice Shariah or Islamic law (at least twelve of the nineteen northern states). Under the Shariah, the punishment for sexual abuse is death by stoning, banishment from the city or 100 lashes – depending on what the judge decides or the gravity of the abuse. These punishments in themselves are not enough to create a safe haven for northern women but it is a step in the right direction in ensuring that women have a right to their bodies.
Talking about this, an Islamic Cleric, Abbah Dahiru, and a teacher in an Almajiri school in Jigawa State, Nigeria, said, “any kind of forceful sex or abuse is forbidden. It is not in any way a good thing if you force someone to do your bidding. It is like destroying someone’s life completely.”
Grab a copy of Guardian Life to read more on the ArewaMeToo movement
Tip: It is an inset in the Guardian Newspaper