(CNN) — Lagos, Nigeria — At the start of each day, Dr. Anita Kemi DaSilva-Ibru and her team put on gloves, facemasks and other personal protective equipment to see their patients.
They’re not treating people for Covid-19, but they are on the frontline of the pandemic, working at the Women at Risk International Foundation (WARIF), a rape crisis center in Lagos, Nigeria.
Wearing protective gear is the new reality for crisis center workers, like DaSilva-Ibru.
“We change these kits each time we see a survivor as we are mindful of the risk of transmission of the virus between the survivor and us and the cross-contamination between a survivor and the next,” she told CNN.
US-trained gynecologist DaSilva-Ibru has spent most of her career treating hundreds of sexual violence victims but it was the growing scale of the crisis in Nigeria that prompted her to set up WARIF in 2016.
The clinic in Yaba, a suburb of Lagos, provides medical treatment, legal assistance therapy and space for rape victims and survivors of sexual abuse to get back on their feet.
One in four Nigerian girls has been the victim of sexual violence, according to UN estimates, but DaSilva-Ibru says the numbers are higher as many cases go unreported due to the stigma attached.
In recent weeks, two high profile cases of gender-based violence have brought Nigerian women out onto the streets demanding change.
Uwaila Vera Omozuwa, a 22-year-old microbiology student, was found half-naked in a pool of blood in a local church where she had gone to study after the Covid-19 lockdown left universities across the country shut.
Her family said her attackers raped her and the student died while being treated at the hospital. A few days later, another student, Barakat Bello, was allegedly raped and killed during a robbery at her home, according to human rights group Amnesty International.
“Rape is an epidemic in this country,” DaSilva-Ibru told CNN.
She says her work with survivors of sexual violence has become more critical during the outbreak, with restrictions to curb the virus from spreading fueling a surge in calls.
It’s a story echoed in other parts of the region, as authorities grapple with a growing number of Covid-19 cases and the impact restrictions are having on women.
DaSilva-Ibru said she initially closed the center after authorities locked down the city in March. She had to reconsider the decision as the organization became inundated with SOS messages from sexual violence victims and their guardians.
Staff operating the 24-hour helpline at the center also reported a 64% increase in calls during this period, according to DaSilva-Ibru.
“Our phones were ringing. Women were calling and desperately asking how we can help them; these were women in fear of their lives, as many have now been forced into quarantine with their abusers, in an already volatile environment,” DaSilva-Ibru told CNN.
For the center to re-open, DaSilva-Ibru said she had to source PPE, face masks and other protective gear personally, and when that was not enough, the center launched an online appeal for funds from donors to buy the equipment at no cost to survivors, she said.
“We carry out forensic examinations on survivors and our frontline health workers who triage and examine patients are in close proximity to the survivors. As much as we need to carry out our duties, we also need to ensure our workers are adequately protected,” DaSilva-Ibru told CNN.
The challenges Ibru faces to keep the center open doesn’t compare to what sexual violence victims have experienced as a result of this pandemic, she said.
DaSilva-Ibru recalls a woman who told staff at the center that her male friend had raped her in her home during the lockdown.
“The first day we re-opened, we attended to women who had walked many miles in spite of the mandatory lockdown to get to the center. These are women who had been terrorized in their homes,” she added.
“She (a survivor) had repeatedly been calling (the center) to find out how she could get help. She feared she might have contracted HIV and wanted to be tested,” Ibru said.
Speaking to CNN, the woman, who didn’t want to use her name to protect her identity, said a co-worker raped her after he came to her apartment unannounced in April.
The young banker said she had previously rebuffed his attempts to visit, but on that Sunday afternoon in April, he showed up at her doorstep.
“He’s a friend, not a stranger, so I opened the door for him. I was still asking him what was so urgent that made him leave his home. He said he wanted to check up on me and I told him he could have done that over the phone,” she told CNN.
But a few minutes into his visit, the conversation became uncomfortable between them.
“He kept coming towards me, and when I told him to stop, he put his hand over my mouth and pinned me on the floor,” she said.
She says he apologized after raping her and hurriedly left her house.
The survivor told CNN she did not make a police complaint because she was worried about the stigma and strain that the rape might have on her parents.
A friend she confided in told her to reach out to the Lagos Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team who put survivors in touch with treatment centers for help.
After several calls to the centers on their website, she was referred to WARIF.
When she went to the clinic, she says staff ran some tests and placed her on Post Exposure Prophylaxis, a HIV prevention treatment for possible exposure.
“Sometimes I get really angry, and sometimes I feel numb,” she said, reflecting on the assault.
She says she was sick every night for 28 days because of the drugs.
“…even though the doctor prepared me for the side effect, it has not been easy,” she told CNN.
Gender-based violence is a problem in many countries, but the coronavirus pandemic has worsened the situation.
The UN says the raft of measures deployed by governments to fight the pandemic have led to economic hardship, stress, and fear — conditions that lead to violence against women and girls.
Equality Now Regional Coordinator in Africa Judy Gitau told CNN that the wave of unemployment and school closures has put victims in a precarious situation.
The government enforced strict stay-at-home orders that closed businesses and schools across the West African nation to curb the spread of the virus, she said.
The restrictions made schoolgirls vulnerable to abuse as some were assaulted in their homes by relatives, and at the same time, a majority of girls from low-income families were coerced to exchange sex for money for food, Gitau said.
“Many of them wound up pregnant but the evidence became available when people were plugging back to life as they knew it as a normal society,” she said.
Gitau says authorities must know that perpetrators often take advantage of the strict measures to abuse victims without arousing much suspicion.
As state resources are being re-focused to tackle the spread of coronavirus, law enforcement agencies should also respond quickly to reports of abuse and create shelters for victims in need of immediate rescue, she said.
But placing women in shelters, especially in countries battling an outbreak, comes with the additional burden of proof, according to DaSilva-Ibru who said shelters in Lagos city are asking survivors to take coronavirus tests before they can be admitted to prevent infection in their facilities.
Authorities in Lagos designated gender-based violence services essential in May as it eased lockdown into curfews to allow service providers to get to work more smoothly, DaSilva-Ibru said.
The police force says it has now deployed more officers to its stations across the country to respond to the “increasing challenges of sexual assaults and domestic/gender-based violence linked with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.” And last week, governors across the country resolved to declare a state of emergency on rape, according to the Nigerian Governor’s Forum (NGF).
It’s the first time federal and state authorities are coming out with a united voice to condemn gender violence, DaSilva-Ibru said. It validates the outcry of women in the country and the scale of the problem in Nigeria, she added.
“Violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive forms of a human rights violation and should be recognized by all countries,” DaSilva-Ibru said.
“In Nigeria, it has become a national crisis that needs urgent attention. I am pleased that this has been recognized.”
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