Amadi Onyekachi says she was sexually assaulted by a Nigerian police officer in mid-October. Initially, she felt she would never get justice because there was “no way” she would report the incident to local police.
Instead Onyekachi took to Instagram to express her thoughts and went to bed, albeit tired and traumatized.
While she slept, her post, which detailed the alleged assault, went viral across Nigeria, generating hundreds of likes and comments and thousands of reposts.
In her post, Onyekachi said a Special Anti-Robbery Squad officer ordered her out of her taxi and accused her of being a “Yahoo [scammer] girl” and a prostitute. She said he then accused her of being a drug dealer and needed to search her body.
“This bastard put his hands inside my bra,” she wrote on October 16. “While I was shouting and trying to get out, he said he was going to beat me up if he heard another sound.”
“He forcibly put his hands in my pants and put his hands inside my body,” Onyekachi tells VOA.
The post attracted the attention of the deputy commissioner of police and a public relations officer in Kwara State, where the incident took place. Onyekachi was called in to provide a formal statement and identify her attacker, which she said was easy because the officer had a noticeable limp.
The officer in question was charged and is now awaiting trial.
Onyekachi says if she “hadn’t posted on social media the arrest would never have happened.”
Now, she is urging other women to come forward if they are assaulted. “I want to let people know they should speak up, otherwise [attackers] won’t be corrected or punished — not just police officers but people generally,” she says.
Fighting ignorance of the law
The United Nations Women Global Database on Violence Against Women says that 16 percent of Nigerian women have experienced “lifetime physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence.”
However, veteran women’s rights advocate Bose Ironsi, the founder and director of the Lagos-based Women’s Rights and Health Project, said such violence is greatly underreported in Nigeria.
Until 2015, when former president Goodluck Jonathan signed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill into law, there wasn’t any federal law in Nigeria to protect women against domestic violence. Only a few states had such laws, such one that Lagos state passed in 2007.
Ironsi says until recently, many Nigerian women weren’t aware of such laws and often accepted violence dished out by abusive partners.
In fact, a 2013 health survey found that 35 percent of Nigerian women said wife beating was justified in one of the following situations — if “the wife burns the food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children, or refuses sexual intercourse with him.”
Apart from dealing with 10 cases per day of “battery, rape, threats to life, abduction and child abuse,” Ironsi says her main focus is to “build the capacity of people [through knowledge of the law] to demand justice”.
“We might not be on social media but community pressure is relevant,” she said. “I would rather do this than be a Facebook activist.”
Through her NGO, Ironsi trains “community advocates” who educate people about gender based violence. They also mediate between victims and abusers and communicate with local police.
Adejoke Oyewale, 52, has been grinding peppers at a market stall in Ejigbo for more than 20 years. She’s also one of Ironsi’s community advocates.
“We had many cases of domestic violence and rape but after the [program] people started to speak out. Most women didn’t know how to speak out because they were afraid,” Oyewale tells VOA.
“Many women have died in silence [but] after the awareness, people were like, ‘Oh, so women can get their rights too.'”
“The problem is knowing how to go about it when you’re a victim. Before you will see women crying and shaking and not knowing what to do. But now they know there is a law against gender based violence and it’s not something [the perpetrator] will get off scot-free.”
There is some evidence the campaign is having an impact. In 2017, Lagos saw a 100 percent increase in the number of domestic and sexual violence cases compared to the previous year.
According to Ironsi, Alimosho, an area in the outer reaches of Lagos, recorded the highest number of cases, which she said indicated more women were choosing to speak out.
Udemo Eno, who runs a market stall around the corner from Oyewale, said her husband used to beat her every day, leaving her with “bruises everywhere.”
But since Eno went to Oyewale for help, she said her husband had stopped beating her.
“When you see violence in the community you say something and we’ll do something about it,” Oyewale said.
Long road to justice
Although more cases of domestic and sexual violence are being reported, when it comes to getting justice in the courts, the road is often long and like traffic in Lagos, slow.
Itoro Eze-Anaba, founder of Nigeria’s first rape and sexual violence center in Lagos, the Mirabel Centre, says court costs and lengthy delays discourage many survivors from following through with prosecution.
Recent figures from the Mirabel Centre show just 18 convictions were recorded out of 2,250 reported cases of rape in Lagos within a two and half year period.
She says while the conviction rate was low, there has been an improvement in 2017, which she attributed, in part, to social media and the response of the Lagos state government.
“They’re doing a lot more than [they] used to do for cases of domestic and sexual violence and there is a willingness to want to help more and understand the economic cost of domestic violence,” Eze-Anaba says.
In September, the Lagos state government approved a Domestic and Sexual Violence Fund to help victims with the costs associated with getting justice as well as immediate needs like transportation, clothes and shelter.
Mirabel provides a safe space for rape and sexual assault survivors, of which 85 percent are minors. It also provides medical services, counseling, legal advice and forensic medical examinations for the police to use in court free of charge.
But Eze-Anaba said because of funding cuts this year, the Mirabel Centre had to slash staff salaries by 50 percent just “to keep the doors open and continue to provide free services.”
Last month Mirabel dealt with 111 cases, its highest since it opened in 2013.
“It’s a long journey but we’re on the road,” she said.