BEVERLY HILLS, April 05, (THEWILL) – With the rising cases of sexual abuse against young women, minors and incest in Nigeria, and its attendant emotional and psychological effect, TheWill is shining the light on a woman who is leading the fight against this anomaly, albeit, in a unique and holistic way. An obstetrics gynecologist, Dr Kemi Dasilva-Ibru, is the visioner behind Women at Risk International Foundation, (WARIF), a non-profit organisation founded in 2016 in response to the high cases of sexual assault, rape and human trafficking across Nigeria and to raise awareness and address the prevalence of this problem. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Dasilva-Ibru also sits on the Board of Erelu Adebayo Foundation [ERAF], a non-profit Organisation that provides relief and assistance to widows and orphans in Nigeria, particularly in communities where HIV menace and unemployment are on the rise. She speaks to Ivory Ukonu about her NGO and its successes so far.
Why are you interested in gender-based violence?
After I moved back to Nigeria, I was exposed to a lot of young women and girls that had been abused in my practice as a physician, who had nowhere to seek help or treatment after their abuse. The exact incident that made me decide to channel my grievances into what birthed WARIF today, was the case of 3-month-old baby girl I had to take into the theatre because she had been raped.
How are you able to help these young women and girls with your NGO work?
WARIF tackles gender-based violence with our three pillars – Health, Education and Community Service. We address the health needs of survivors at the WARIF Centre where we provide immediate medical care, forensic medical examinations, psycho-social counselling, access to shelters, legal aid and vocational skills training. We implement educational programs for both boys and girls in secondary schools and also train students in tertiary institutions on sexual violence prevention. With our community service pillar, in the rural setting, we train traditional birth attendants to report and refer cases to us and in the more urban setting – law enforcement officers and religious leaders are sensitised on how to handles cases of sexual violence that they come across.
The NGO is already four years old. How would you assess its impact so far?
In the four years that we have been in operation, we have assisted over 2,000 survivors at the WARIF Centre, impacted on almost 10,000 people with our in-person initiatives and reached over 20 million people with our online campaigns.
Why do you think there is a rather high incidence of gender-based violence in Nigeria?
Because of the culture of silence. Survivors are made to believe that the abuse was their fault and, in a bid, to protect the perpetrator, the survivor is blamed and shamed. In order to create a safer society for women and girls, we need to see it as our collective responsibility to support survivors, believe them and encourage them to speak up.
How best do you think it can be curbed?
By creating more awareness – both in person and online. By educating not just the girl child but also the boys- encouraging them to be protectors and not perpetrators. By ensuring that abusers are brought to book by being properly prosecuted and sentenced. By encouraging survivors to speak, so citizens are enlightened on the different harmful effects of this menace.
WARIF is currently based in Lagos. Are you thinking of expanding to other states to make your services available?
WARIF currently offers educational outreach services and some states we have implemented our initiatives in include Niger, Kebbi, Zamfara, Abuja and Ogun State. The dream is to have a WARIF Sexual Assault Referral Centre in different states across Nigeria and we are working to make this a reality.
With the exception of Lagos State that has a specialized court for sexual offenders, Ekiti State that has a sex offenders’ register, Kaduna State that passed a bill to castrate sexual offenders and most recently and Jigawa that passed the death penalty bill for rapists – most states in Nigeria are less concerned with how they treat sexual predators. Why is this so and how can they be made to take sexual offence cases more seriously?
Two Acts that make provisions for the strict punishment of sexual violence offenders in Nigeria are the Child’s Right Act and the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act. All the states have been encouraged to adopt these acts as they dictate stiffer penalties for offenders. Last year, WARIF hosted Instagram live sessions with the Nigerian Governors Wives against Gender Based Violence. Viewers were educated on the current state of affairs and also given updates on the adoption of these laws in states where it has not been done.
There have been reports of men and women of the Nigeria Police Force conniving with families of the perpetrators of sexual violence to deny victims justice. Does your NGO work with the police?
Oh yes we do
WARIF launched the Law Enforcement Case Management Sensitization Program to educate police officers on the proper protocols to follow when handling cases of sexual violence. The officers are trained with a manual and equipped with fliers and posters with information on the WARIF Centre and our 24-hour confidential helpline. Since the introduction of this initiative, we have seen a vast increase of referrals coming from the police.
And to the families of the victims who sometimes shield the victim and prefer not to pursue the prosecution of the offenders, how does your NGO address such matters?
WARIF offers legal assistance to survivors in partnership with the Directorate of Public Prosecution, the Ministry of Justice as well as private law firms. Survivors and their families are encouraged to pursue the prosecution of perpetrators with our full support.
What do you hope to achieve with the ‘WARIF No Tolerance Campaign,’ which has now been running for two years?
Our intention with the campaign is to raise awareness to the issue of rape and sexual violence. This campaign is special because everyone is carried along, whether male or female; young or old; they can join the campaign and lend their voices. We might not be able to push our message across Nigeria and Africa by ourselves but to know the No Tolerance T-shirt can be seen anywhere with our 24-hour confidential helpline written boldly across; it makes us believe that a survivor somewhere will see the message and know that there is hope.
Sexual violence incidences are prevalent in the rural areas. Does your NGO reach out to those in the rural areas who don’t have a voice or the means to pursue justice?
The WARIF Gatekeepers Project is targeted at women in the rural areas, with this initiative, we train Traditional Birth Attendants on how to be first responders to incidents of sexual violence. They are in close contact with women and children in their communities and so they have access to these cases and have been trained to report and refer incidents to WARIF. These traditional birth attendants also serve as ambassadors who create awareness in their local governments and communities about the free services available at WARIF.
What would you say has been quite significant to you and generally since setting up the NGO?
The prevalence of this issue and the fact that 69% of the survivors that we see at the WARIF Centre are minors. These children under the age of 18 are brought in with both physical and emotional bruises that require adequate care to start them on their journey to recovery.
If you weren’t doing this, what else would you have been doing?
If I wasn’t running WARIF I would still be providing assistance to women and girls in my capacity as a specialist Obstetrician and Gynaecologist.
What have you learnt so far from life since running the NGO?
Life humbles you. It makes you appreciate how fortunate you are. It makes you appreciate your circumstance and makes you realize that it’s a privilege to be able to help others. This is not a problem faced by those affected only but it is society’s problem where we are all responsible. It is our collective responsibility to make sure that we don’t have rape and sexual violence in our communities. Where there is no consent, the act is not consensual and It’s a crime. No means no. Consent cannot be given if one is a child and in Nigeria, the law states that a girl remains a child until she is 18. Consent cannot be given under the influence of alcohol or other substances; it cannot be given when you are asleep or under the threat of harm or physical violence. Rape and sexual abuse should never be justified by what a woman wears- whether a mini skirt or spaghetti strapped top. That is the message we need to take out there.