On the morning of June 5, a group of young people gathered at the Nigerian Police Force headquarters in Ikeja, Lagos, mostly wearing black and face masks, carrying placards. “Her today, it could be you tomorrow,” they chanted. Over the previous two weeks, three girls had been killed and Nigerians were demanding justice on social media. On May 26 in Lagos, 16-year-old Tina Nzekwe was hit by a stray bullet from policemen; she died in hospital two days later. On May 27 in Benin City, 22-year-old Uwa Vera Omozuwa went into a church to read and was found raped and beaten; it didn’t make major news until her death three days later. And just four days before the protest, 18-year-old Bello Barakat was gang-raped and stabbed to death in Ibadan.
The protesters were members and allies of #StateOfEmergency, a coalition of feminist organisations that at the time included Stand to End Rape Initiative (STER), TechHerNg, SilverchipFox, Education as a Vaccine, Dorothy Njemanze Foundation, YIAGA Africa, Girl Child Africa, Enough is Enough, and Connected Development.
For STER founder Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi—whose organisation is a non-for-profit advocating against sexual violence, providing prevention mechanisms, and supporting survivors with psychosocial services—it was personal. Ayodeji was 20, a National Youth Service Corps member working with the Independent National Electoral Commission, when she refused a bribe to register underaged children to vote during the 2011 national elections; in retaliation, a trap was laid for her by men in the community, and one of them, who had pretended to support her, violated her. Her report to the police was neglected.
Through STER, Ayodeji’s work has reached more than 200,000 Nigerians and earned her international recognition, including being named Commonwealth Young Person of the Year. Last year, when she made TIME’s 100 Next list, former US president Barack Obama, whose Foundation Fellow she had been, publicly endorsed the 29-year-old on Twitter.
Oh my goodness!!! Barack Obama just said my name and acknowledged @StandtoEndRape!!! Feeling over the moon right now.
Thank you so much @BarackObama for the leadership & community service lessons via the @ObamaFoundation. I’ll continue to build the next generation of advocates. https://t.co/cw38haJalK pic.twitter.com/QL7Si7uSPP
— Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi (@AyodejiOsowobi) November 19, 2019
As a teenager, Ayodeji had questioned gender norms. “For girls there’s judgement, there’s questions. People said, ‘Don’t go to parties, boys are animals’; it didn’t make sense to me. Why are you not cautioning boys and you’re preventing me from going to parties? It was a conversation that brought my mom and I to talk about gender equality. There was a place for me to question.”
She credits that familial space for questioning—allowed by her mother, supported by her father, and exemplified by her grandmother—as her inspiration. “My grandmother was a feminist. She used to sell drinks, pastries, tinko. Men would come to her shop and talk about beating their wives and she would interject.”
Her personal experience “showed my family that it’s not really about you protecting this girl, if society is broken, it will allow people to violate her.” Her religious mother told her, “‘Nobody is talking about this in Nigeria and that is why you are not able to tell your story. I want you to dig deeper. I don’t want your story and voice to end on that experience. I want it to blossom into something great.’”
After 2011, Ayodeji left Nigeria for studies, and knowing she needed to use her experience to do more, while working for the UN in New York, she interned at Half the Sky, the anti-women’s oppression movement, where she studied their interventions in child trafficking, use of media for advocacy, and the overall running of an NGO.
When Ayodeji began seeing stories from home that unsettled her, stories overexposing survivors, she knew it was time. She published her story on Bella Naija, and buoyed by the outpour of support, she started a personal blog, and when people began sending articles, she changed it to standtoendrape.com.
“Starting STER was daunting because I was going to put my name out there,” she tells me. It was 2014, and she left her job and moved back to Nigeria, prepared to challenge decades of rape culture even if in a country with a weak justice system.
Ayodeji understood the powers of social media and of language. “My strategy was to first reach out to young people who were building perceptions,” she says. “I was specific in tying the crime to the perpetrator and taking the shame away from the victim. If it was violation, I said violation. When I saw misreported articles, I would reply and tag the news site to better-reported ones so they could see. The more I did that, the more people saw the point.”
Ayodeji insists on consequences. “We never accepted out-of-court settlements. We prioritized mental health, social support, and legal consequences. It’s one thing to get justice for the person, it’s another thing to make sure they are well.”
In 2017, Nigerians reported 2,279 cases of rape and sexual assault but with zero convictions by the police. Between January and May 2020, the police said they received 717 reports of rape, concluded 631 cases, and made 779 arrests. There is a public alarm that there has been a rise in rape, but it is simply that the media is reporting more.
The #StateOfEmergency coalition, which held another protest in Abuja that same day, is leveraging its pooled clout to lobby members of the House of Representatives and the Nigerian Governors Forum. “We have specific requests, one of which is the adoption of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition and Child Rights Act,” Ayodeji tells me. “When you do them, we’ll remove your state from our Hall of Shame.” The Hall of Shame lists states that have not passed the resolutions and shares the phone numbers of representatives so people could call them to ask why. Has there been a pushback? “We don’t care,” she says pointedly.
Now an 8-strong team with 100 volunteers, STER turned six in June and is undergoing rebranding. “For the past year, we’ve been heavily dependent on donations and grants. They say people don’t donate but Nigerians are the major funder for STER—grants supplement. We are rebranding to have products and services rendered where STER receives income. We pay taxes and the rest goes to our legal work, mental health support, shelter support, protective support. Because of COVID, there would be a shift in funding. But women at home, COVID or no COVID, they get beaten or assaulted.”
Ayodeji is clear about responsibility. “I like to focus on what men can do differently. Men who stay silent could be scared that the day they speak about others, people will speak about theirs.”
Before the protest, she had recovered from COVID-19 and was worried about social distancing, so they spaced out the protesters. The protests needed to happen because “those in charge of keeping accountability are not bothered. The Nigerian police’s Twitter handle said nothing for days until people began demanding a statement. Families approach police and they would be asked for money for mobilization, or why they went there—all these indirectly abusive questions that re-stigmatize survivors.” When Uwa’s father went to the police station, her sister says that an officer called him foolish and asked him if his daughter was the first to have been raped and killed.
Ayodeji is critical of the reluctance to put influence to use. “We are still confined within power structures, belief systems, cultural barriers. When you’re in power, it is your responsibility to unlearn beliefs that perpetuate violence against women and influence change in attitudes and practices. Everything you say or do not say counts. We must continue to hold perpetrators accountable. When we don’t, more women die. It has to stop.”
Note: This piece was previously titled, and published as, “Giving a Voice to Survivors.” We changed the title as part of our commitment to learning better ways of describing humanity: we are all born with a voice.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.