Nigerian sisters and their communities are raising awareness on gender-based violence, rape, and child abuse across the country, as part of ongoing activities marking International Women’s Day [IWD], March 8.
The day celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women globally, and marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.
With “Choose to Challenge” as this year’s theme, the sisters say this is an opportunity to challenge social structures affecting women in their families and places of work.
Since 2016, Sr. Eucharia Madueke of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur has been working with the African Faith and Justice Network [AFJN] to raise awareness on violence against women in local communities across Nigeria.
Sr. Madueke who is also the coordinator of AFJN African Women project said the purpose is “to engage structures of injustice in the country, especially those that perpetuate violence against women and children.”
Ending violence against women and girls is one of the many ills in Nigerian society that the network is devoted to, Madueke says.
Rates of violence against women and girls happens are very high Nigeria. A Unicef survey shows that 25 percent of Nigerian girls have experienced sexual violence before the age of 18 while 10 percent of boys report the same.
An anti-gender-based violence law signed in 2015 has been poorly implemented. Of Nigeria’s 36 states, only 13 have ratified and signed the law.
But since it was established in 1983, the network has been working with 86 sisters from 28 congregations to promote peace, advance human rights and dignity and social justice.
The AFJN also works with Catholic dioceses, religious communities and government departments to fight for the rights of women and girls, especially by engaging with the government for stronger legislation against domestic violence targeted at women.
Madueke says that the AFJN uses Catholic social teaching which “invites us to speak out in the face of injustice” as well the Church’s teachings on the dignity of the human person as made in the image of God. The AFJN is also guided by the United Nations and African Union protocols on gender-based violence, the national laws prohibiting gender discrimination, and the “stories of our fore mothers who stood up against injustice in their communities to inspire change in the network of sisters.”
Last year, the AFJN held a two-day virtual workshop for about 70 young people selected from across Nigeria that explored advocacy against gender-based violence and hosted discussions about combating rape and other physical and psychological attacks against women.
This was coming in the wake of rape and domestic violence against women and girls during the COVID-19 lockdown. When a lockdown was imposed on March 30 in the country, more than 3,600 cases of rape had been reported within a few months, along with homicides and other acts of brutality against women.
The AFJN also believes in building the capacity of sisters and other volunteers of the network through regular training and workshops as a way of creating impact in the communities they work in. For instance, convinced religiously and legally that violence is unacceptable, prohibited, as well as diminishes the individual who experiences it, with grave consequence to the nation at large; the AFJN trained sisters in the network, equipping them with advocacy skills.
Engaging in this advocacy work in Nigeria entails breaking the silence that enshrouded violence on women and children and the perception of people on violence,” she adds. “For this reason, the sisters were first helped to change the way they perceived themselves and violence around them.”
Madueke says “Changing mindset requires developing and strengthening the sisters’ self-confidence and self-worth so that they will in-turn empower others.”
The outcome of the training and workshops has been positive. Sr. Madueke says that having changed their mindset and provided advocacy skills, the sisters have been engaging in advocacy at mostly state and local government levels across the country.
Last year, the sisters engaged over 100 staff of human rights groups in Nigeria’s southeast region, challenging them to step up to their duties and responsibilities.
In December 2020, after receiving the training from the sisters, the human rights groups mobilized themselves and held a grassroots campaign against violence in rural villages in the region.
They have been raising awareness in local communities, schools, churches, and among groups, helping these groups to recognize violence around them,” she said. “They also mobilize these groups to speak out against gender-based violence.”
Madueke adds that the sisters are holding advocacy visits to both civil and traditional leaders, demanding change of policies and traditions that lead to discrimination against women and requesting protective laws as well as implementation of national laws that protect the rights and promote the dignity of each person.
In addition, the sisters engage with security authorities by visiting the police and security personnel to make them responsive to victims when their help is needed.
They also host radio programs to educate and influence the public, provide legal advice to victims, and train youth to join their advocacy network to help victims develop self–confidence, Madueke said.
The Sisters of St. Louis have organized workshops to raise awareness on gender-based violence while providing counseling and legal services to victims.
“We organize workshops for women and talk to them about abusive relationships and how to handle or get out of them,” Sr. Rachel Alonge, who is a lawyer with the community, said. “We also visit schools to speak to girls and boys about rape and different kinds of abuses and how to get help in case of any incident.”
Sr. Gloria Ozuluoke of the Religious Sisters of Charity [RSC] and her congregation has joined the Committee for the Support of the Dignity of Woman [COSUDOW] in street demonstrations on rape and attacks targeted at women and girls.
Another aspect of the work of the sisters includes raising awareness on trafficking of women and girls abroad by working with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons [NAPTIP].
NAPTIP relies on the Violence Against Persons Prohibition [VAPP] law — a law which aims to eliminate violence and protect victims, to arrest and prosecute those found guilty of violence against individuals in the country including children.
Taking care of children’s welfare is at the heart of the work of the sisters. Children from mostly poor families are given out as housemaids and are sometimes subjected to inhuman treatment such as rape, hawking, street begging and sometimes raped or branded as witches by their caregivers.
“A lot of boys and girls are taken from there in the name of domestic workers and this is an exploitation and many of them are being trafficked and their parents are not aware,” adds Sr. Madueke says. “They think their children are in good hands but that is often not the case.”
Exposing parents to these issues is very important, Sr. Ozuluoke says. “Most of the time they are brought to the city from the rural areas and their parents are lied to and they are brought to the cities and some of them end up not going to school or eating for some days. So, these are some of the dangers and some of the aspects of human trafficking that we educate them on.”
Working to break structures that affect women and girls, including talking about child abuse, has not been without some challenges for the sisters. But the sisters are optimistic that their work will continue to go on despite the challenges.
Sr. Madueke says they would like to open a shelter for victims of violence and abuse to ensure their safety and to provide in-depth counseling.
“We have manpower but unfortunately, we do not have financial capacity,” she said.
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