By Ruth Okafor
In the first month of 2022, I was tasked with a different level of challenge when I was assigned project manager for the Galvanizing Mass Action Against Gender-Based Violence in Kano state (GMAA-K) project. The major objective of the project was to ensure that the masses join their voices to demand the passage of the Child Protection Act and Harmonized Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (VAPP) Bill in Kano State. The adoption of the Child Protection bill and VAPP bill into law will increase protection for children and women against rights violations.
Our immediate approach was to document and amplify the stories of girls and women who have suffered varying degrees of Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV). With this objective in mind, I and a small team traveled to the ancient city of Kano with nothing but recording equipment and hope that by telling these stories we influence an attitudinal change in the society.
We visited the only Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) in the State and found reasons to further advocate for support, especially for survivors who were bold enough to tell their stories and seek help.
As far as telling stories go, this was one of the hardest documentaries I have had to work on. It was simply an eye opener as I was opportuned to speak with victims, understand their plight, and even share in their pain.
Traveling down memory lane, I had just arrived in Kano State when the Attorney General of the State, Bar. Musa Abdullahi Lawan called to mention that he would only be available that day. That immediately put a strain on our plans as the documentary team was flying in and time was of the essence. As fate would have it, he eventually came around and we got the opportunity to talk at length about the status of the VAPP Act and Child Rights Act in the State House of Assembly. He assured us that the Bills would make it to passage before his tenure elapses.
Though he convinced us that the laws would be passed, I wanted to dig deeper and find out what the delay was and so when I asked about the hindrances and challenges delaying the passage of the Bill, he made it clear that the State operated and maintained a Penal Code, emphasizing that the existing penal code speaks to some aspects of GBV, hence the need for harmonizing the VAPP Act into the Penal Code as opposed to adopting an entirely new legal framework.
The Penal Code is a code of laws concerning crimes and offenses and their punishment. The penal code is similar to the criminal code that functions in the southern part of Nigeria. The penal code is prevalent in the northern part of Nigeria.
But beyond laws and policies, there’s a bigger existential threat to victims who are denied justice after experiencing an attack or abuse. Speaking on this, he mentioned that most victims hesitate to pursue justice, especially parents, who are more worried about discrimination. This, as well as cultural and religious factors, make it hard for justice to be served and more often than not, cases are settled out of court and perpetrators walk free.
After the interview, a question kept burning in my mind: If the goal is to ensure justice,why aren’t cases taken up as crimes against the State?
While I got no response to the question drilling hard in my mind, the happenings of the next couple of hours transported me to another disturbing state of mind. It was 10am the next day and we had set out to the Kaura Mata community to interview some survivors. We arrived a little past 11am, and were informed that the girls and young women who wanted to share their stories would have to wait for their husbands to set out on their daily activities before coming out. By 12pm some of them had started arriving.
We began setting up for the documentary at the home of the woman leader as that was the only place the young girls felt safe enough to share their stories and get support in the community. When we interviewed the woman leader, she stated that she had gone through a similar challenge as a young girl.
Besides the story of the woman leader, two compelling stories stayed with me even after I left Kano.
The first is a story of Salihu (not real name), a 20-year-old lady who is a mother of four. She mentioned that at the age of 10 her parents wanted her to get married but she refused. This led them to send her to a food vendor in another community, where she got raped by one of the customers and fell pregnant. She got sent off by the food vendor and all her parents decided to marry her off to her abuser. Life for Salihu and her four kids got worse after her husband abandoned them.
For Zainab (not real name) a 17-year-old girl with a vesicovaginal fistula (VVF), life has been unfair. At age 14, she was married off to a 70-year-old man. She took in but lost her child due to the fact that he was born prematurely. In fact, between the ages of 14 and 17, she has lost several pregnancies. She also stated that her husband is currently bedridden and she has to cater for herself, her surviving twin, and the husband.
The chill from the stories shared will forever be a memory which is part of the reasons I decided to pen them down. You can read through PART 2 of my experience documenting the stories of victims in Kano state.