Access to justice in Nigeria is still poor especially for women victims of violence, Osai Ojigho, country director of Amnesty International (AI), says in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Chiamaka Okafor where she talks about AI’s latest research, ‘The Harrowing Journey, Access to Justice for Women and Girl Survivors of Rape’.
The research covered about two years of study and found that rape was the most prevalent form of Sexual Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in Nigeria, with about 11,200 rape cases recorded by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in 2020.
Amnesty International is a human rights organisation present in over 150 countries worldwide. It campaigns for a world where everyone’s right is important and should be protected.
PT: You have a new research focusing on Sexual Gender-Based Violence in Nigeria, please tell us about this research and its findings?
Ms Ojigho: Recently, Amnesty International Nigeria launched a report titled ‘The Harrowing Journey, Access to Justice for Women and Girl Survivors of Rape’.
This covered nearly two years of study by Amnesty and partners with regards to the shadow pandemic that arose following the COVID-19 lockdown. We discovered that quite a number of domestic and gender-based violence, in general, were raised but for sexual violence, particularly rape, was quite prevalent during this lockdown.
Furthermore, we also discovered that the laws that have been enacted to prevent and protect people from rape were underutilised and were not as effective as we thought.
The study covered both the legal framework as well as interviews with victims, survivors, and with human rights defenders, including government agencies like the National Agency for the Prevention of Trafficking of Persons (NAPTIP); the Nigerian police, particularly their gender desk officers, the Ministry of Women Affairs; National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as well as the Federal Ministry of Justice.
The idea was to understand the journey of a complainant from the time the incident is reported until it gets to court.
Sadly, our research shows that many victims never even got that far as to getting their perpetrators investigated and punished. Several of the people who contributed their stories to us shared how disappointed they were with the police’s handling of their cases.
There were issues of request for money to facilitate investigation and transport for the survivors or their families to clinics to carry out medical examinations. There were also issues of collusion, whereby victims were convinced or encouraged to settle with the perpetrators. Also, when perpetrators attack or threaten survivors, the police are rarely able to protect them.
Despite the fact that we have the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPPA) which is applicable in FCT and other states that have domesticated it, the police were not using the act.
The NHRC in their annual report of cases of sexual and gender-based violence for the year 2020 reported 11,200 cases of rape; this is just from the NHRC and we know that rape as an offence is largely underreported. This shows that even with those who have the courage to report, convictions are still very low and it all boils down to their experience in seeking justice.
If the police in their line of questioning are not able to gain the trust of the survivors and their families, they are most likely not to continue with the process. Also, if cultural bias towards female victims continues to operate in the minds of the officers who are supposed to protect and provide service for them. Even in hospitals, there were stories of victims being uncomfortable during examinations, talked down on, victims being shamed for what happened to them.
If all of them continue to happen at every stage of the process, fewer victims will turn up and be committed to seeing it through.
Finally, the law provides for the security agents and the justice actors to facilitate protection and access for the victims. However, due to insufficient funds and lack of specialisation for many of those who are coming in contact with survivors of rape, they are not getting these services.
PT: What is Amnesty’s recommendation having found all these?
Ms Ojigho: A major recommendation Amnesty International is requesting is for resources to be allocated to the police, to the medical service providers in both public and private hospitals, specific training for officers in the Ministry of Justice who will prosecute these cases, and also for judges. Because without that awareness, gender-sensitive training, and a conviction that these cases can be successful, they are going to continue to discourage survivors from actually pursuing justice.
The other recommendation is around the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPPA). Our governors declared a state of emergency against gender-based violence in June 2020. Over a year now, many states still have not passed or signed the VAPPA into law, which provides the framework for a more robust application on the issue of rape, including punishment, provision of protective services for victims and survivors; which will go a long way to reforming the Nigerian legal system.
Sadly, many women who were impacted as a result of their SGBV experience have lost their lives and in our report, we documented the stories of Uwa, Barakat, of the young 11-year old and also the story of Karen here in Abuja who died as a result of injuries resulting from rape.
The question is how many women still need to die? How many women and girls still need to experience this horrific act before the government put action to words to ensure that the menace of rape is erased from our society?
PT: In one word or in a few sentences, what is Amnesty International’s assessment of justice in Nigeria?
Ms Ojigho: I will say that access to justice in Nigeria is still crawling, especially for women victims of violence. There are a lot of cultural taboos around women’s bodily integrity which is already a barrier to accessing the services they need. You would have thought with Nigerian ratification of relevant international treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Maputo Protocol on the rights of women in Africa that we would have more gender-sensitive services for women. However, despite several years of ratification of these instruments, Nigeria is still slowly crawling to making substantive rights enjoyed by women and girls throughout the country.
PT: So what specific actions are Amnesty International taking to make sure that there is improvement in access to justice for women in Nigeria?
Ms Ojigho: One thing we are doing is human rights education because for you to claim your rights, you need to know what they are and so we have deployed creative means to do this. So not only in written form like in our report, briefs, and newsletters but we are also using theatre, we are using film, we are using music.
A lot of the activities we incorporate now are targeting community-based level intervention. The other is moving from policy to action; our advocacy with policymakers like at the National Assembly, with the Ministry of Justice, is about finding concrete means to actualise this declaration that the Nigerian Governors’ Forum, for example, made and by the attorney general of the federation.
So, we provide examples of what has gone on in other countries and could be adaptable to the Nigerian context.
Finally, we also use the opportunity to document cases of rape that have been successfully prosecuted, by showing officers, particularly police officers, that it is possible.
Because one of the reasons they discourage survivors from coming forward is because of reasons like; “I won’t be able to get the evidence; it is going to take a long time; we are not going to be able to convict this person; your life will be miserable; everybody would know what happened to you.”
And that is why I like the intervention championed by the European Union and other partners for special courts to be created by the government in order to tackle this issue of rape and SGBV in our society.
PT: Now that you have mentioned the special court law, is Amnesty International partnering or offering some form of support to SARCs alongside what the EU and the British Council is doing through the spotlight initiative? How is Amnesty International keying into the special SGBV court initiative?
Ms Ojigho: Amnesty International is doing more around campaigning as well as advocacy around this issue. Because we do not provide frontline services, our strength is in research – groundbreaking research which is then used by other groups in order to move policymakers to act.
We also are interested in how human rights defenders are engaging with these courts. So, a lot of training on evidence collection, on documentation of human rights violations, and support in raising awareness about these courts. And we will be joining other groups to support the establishment or the designation of specific courts in various jurisdictions across Nigeria to deal with only SGBV cases.
PT: So, if I get you clearly, Amnesty is supporting by a way of advocacy and training?
Ms Ojigho: Yes.
PT: So, generally, on human rights violations in Nigeria, some persons have said Amnesty International is partial in their advocacy. For example, during the #EndSARS protest, people did not see Amnesty International proactively come out to condemn the attacks on police officers. So they say “they are partial because these are the police.” So, what is Amnesty’s response to the feeling of partiality from members of the public?
Ms Ojigho: I would say that there are a lot more people who are aware of what we do now than ever before and they recognise that we always present the facts as it happens. That said, there seem to be attempts to kind of diminish the voices of those that are marginalised out of society.
Amnesty International consistently condemns any act of violence and violations, and criminal activity, which we denounce, but we continually invest our time and energy in raising the voices of those who are not close to power.
And so what the authorities need to be addressing is that all lives matter and if they have addressed the issue of those who have been impacted by the violations of their own agents, they will better be able to also address those who are violating the rights of their officers.
This has been our consistent call and I feel the issue that happened with the police officers and other security agents is very unfortunate. It is actually a reflection of the failure of the government to protect all of us and we all should be joining hands to condemn any sort of violence and any sort of deaths resulting from this because no one’s life should ever be lost as a result of carrying out their duty or voicing their opinion.
PT: Okay, you agree with me that freedom of expression is one very sacrosanct human right that should not be tampered with or violated anywhere in the world and even in Nigeria. And then, of course, freedom of expression is mostly upheld by the freedom of the media, and of course, there is no democracy without the freedom of the press. So what is Amnesty International doing for press freedom in Nigeria?
Ms Ojigho: Press freedom is largely linked to the exercise of our freedom of expression because if the press is also gagged, who is going to carry our stories? Who is going to disseminate it? Who is going to be able to present it to the people who have the power to make change happen?
And to Amnesty International, a couple of years ago we launched a campaign called the “Press for Freedom” campaign, and this year we revamped it a little bit by calling it “Talk Your Truth”.
This was to ensure that we could get the voices of bloggers, activists also included in this push back against press freedom in Nigeria.
More specifically, we have done training for journalists across the country in different media because you need to be equipped to be able to do your work securely. So, around safety and security for journalists, also around building capacity or even accessing your right, one as a journalist but also as a human being who has the right to freedom of expression.
The other is monitoring cases of journalists that have been targeted by the authorities. So, this involved cases like Jones Abiri who forcibly disappeared for years and eventually was released.
Also, cases of those who have been labelled or demoralised, media houses that have been demolished or raided and gather all this information to also present at relevant international and regional human rights summits. So, for example, Amnesty International, in our report to the UN committee against torture, recently had shared the stories of journalists that were tortured and detained by security agents for covering stories that they consider problematic to the government.
When the international conference on the media was held, Amnesty also shared our briefing which was titled “Endangered Voices”. All of these, we believe go a long way in highlighting the dangerous environment and difficult circumstances that journalists and media practitioners undergo in Nigeria. But more importantly gives them the confidence that when they are attacked, there is a body like Amnesty International that is seeking recourse for them in the relevant courts and institutions across the world.
PT: Do you offer any form of legal support for journalists or what kind of tangible support do you offer to journalists in Nigeria?
Ms Ojigho: There are more specialised organisations dealing with journalists’ protection. And so, we meet them and we escalate these cases to those organisations. In a few cases, we have been able to also rally and develop what we call an “urgent appeal” for journalists at risk. For example like Jafar Jafar which involved ensuring that the police knew that Amnesty International and other organisations were watching out for him, to also be able to support him in carrying out his work.
There have been some journalists that have gotten their laptops smashed and some of their equipment of trade. If they qualify within a very limited pool of funds we have that is housed by sections outside of Nigeria, they can actually have this equipment replaced – if they qualify.
READ ALSO: #EndSARS: One year after, Nigeria fails to deliver justice for victims of police brutality, killings – Amnesty International
But largely, what we do is more strategic empowerment because if we get more people in networks and coalitions, it is a lot harder than isolating individual journalists to target and harm them. So, we try to build that solidarity even within the media community so that they could recognise that an injury to one is an injury to all and together we are stronger.
PT: So, what is the biggest impact you have recorded from your interventions for journalists and general human rights issues in Nigeria?
Ms Ojigho: Well, I will say that one big impact is the pushback against the NGO and the social media bill. And we know that there are several attempts to amend the press act and other laws. We have campaigned successfully about the use of the terrorism act and the Cybercrimes Act to target journalists.
The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights actually wrote to the president on this particular issue — the use of the cybercrime act to target journalists and this led to a lot of conversations around self-regulation among bloggers and media practitioners.
But the most successful case we have had has been Jones Abiri whom everyone thought had been killed but was discovered; he was released; charges dropped, and even successfully sued the department of state services for his unlawful detention; and who is now going about, carrying out his daily activities. So, it is a poster child of what can happen when people come together to campaign and are consistent in ensuring that justice is served.
PT: Finally, what are Amnesty International’s activities around the 16 days of activism?
Ms Ojigho: The 16 days of activism is celebrating 30 years globally this year. So, it is a significant time for us to reflect on the many cases that we have taken and also to celebrate the women human rights defenders who made this possible.
For 2021, Amnesty International is promoting the findings of our report, ‘The Harrowing Journey Access justice for women and girls survivors of rape’.
We are also promoting the stories of a group of women from northern Nigeria known as The Nifa Women who have been campaigning for justice since they were traumatised by the Boko Haram insurgency. Many of them also suffered rape while they were in the IDP camps and they are still waiting for justice for themselves and their families.
We will be promoting a few global cases this year. One is the experience of Afghan women who are now under a very brutal regime with regards to their rights.
And later on, in 16 days, we’ll be looking at the cases of forced pregnancy of young girls in Paraguay who are made to carry these pregnancies, and yet the perpetrators of the rape are yet to be prosecuted and justice served to them.
Finally, we will be looking at cases of human rights defenders who despite the odds during the COVID-19 lockdown were able to achieve a lot for the community they served. And there really needs to be better attention focused on the provision of services for all survivors of SGBV in Nigeria.
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