At the start of each day, Dr. Anita Kemi DaSilva-Ibru and her team put on gloves, facemasks and other personal protective equipment to see their patients.
They’re not treating people for Covid-19, but they are on the frontline of the pandemic, working at the Women at Risk International Foundation (WARIF), a rape crisis center in Lagos, Nigeria.
One in four Nigerian girls has been the victim of sexual violence, according to UN estimates but DaSilva-Ibru says the numbers are higher as many cases go unreported due to the stigma attached.
In recent weeks, two high profile cases of gender-based violence have brought Nigerian women out onto the streets demanding change.
Uwaila Vera Omozuwa, a 22-year-old microbiology student, was found half-naked in a pool of blood in a local church where she had gone to study after the Covid-19 lockdown left universities across the country shut.
“Rape is an epidemic in this country.” – Dr. Anita Kemi DaSilva-Ibru, Women at Risk International Foundation told CNN
Her family said her attackers raped her and the student died while being treated at the hospital.
A few days later, another student, Barakat Bello, was allegedly raped and killed during a robbery at her home, according to human rights group Amnesty International.
When Seyitan Babatayo tweeted on June 3 that veteran Afrobeats pop star Dbanj raped her in 2018, she might have been expecting he could sue her for defamation of character but probably not that she would be arrested by the police who she claimed proceeded to intimidate her.
Following an outpouring of support and outrage from Nigeria’s civil society groups and social media users, Babatayo regained her freedom two days later on June 18 but not before deleting the accusatory tweets about Dbanj, 40, whose real name is Oladapo Oyebanjo.
In addition a tweet with Dbanj’s photo was posted on her account alongside a reconciliatory caption, a move many suspected was coerced.
But late on Tuesday (June 23), Babatayo released a statement claiming four police officers, pretending to be delivery men, arrested her in her home without a warrant, and after 48 hours in jail, Dbanj’s team took her to an undisclosed location, where they made her sign a gag order.
The June 18 tweet from Seyitan Babatayo’s account which appeared to absolve Dbanj of her rape allegations
“I was isolated from my family, coerced, pressured and intimidated in person by Dbanj and his team to retract all statements and to announce that my testimony was a publicity stunt,” wrote the final year university student in her press statement, adding that she is not seeking financial compensation from the singer but an apology.
She also alleges Dbanj, through his team, has continued to harass her via phone calls and boasted he can “buy off anyone within the justice system in Lagos.”
An Instagram post published the day earlier on Dbanj’s page showed him dancing and alluding to the police probe into the rape allegation in song.
The video’s caption read, “Innocent until proven guilty… STOP social media trial. Say no to rape and human rights violations.”
A woman, who didn’t want to use her name to protect her identity, told CNN in a report that a co-worker raped her after he came to her apartment unannounced in April.
The young banker said she had previously rebuffed his attempts to visit, but on that Sunday afternoon in April, he showed up at her doorstep.
“He’s a friend, not a stranger, so I opened the door for him. I was still asking him what was so urgent that made him leave his home. He said he wanted to check up on me and I told him he could have done that over the phone,” she told CNN.
But a few minutes into his visit, the conversation became uncomfortable between them.
“He kept coming towards me, and when I told him to stop, he put his hand over my mouth and pinned me on the floor,” she said.
She says he apologized after raping her and hurriedly left her house.
The survivor told CNN she did not make a police complaint because she was worried about the stigma and strain that the rape might have on her parents.
“Sometimes I get really angry, and sometimes I feel numb,” she said, reflecting on the assault.
She says she was sick every night for 28 days because of the drugs.
“…even though the doctor prepared me for the side effect, it has not been easy,” she told CNN.
“Rape is an epidemic in this country,” DaSilva-Ibru told CNN.
DaSilva-Ibru says her work with survivors of sexual violence has become more critical during the outbreak, with restrictions to curb the virus from spreading fueling a surge in calls.
It’s a story echoed in other parts of the region, as authorities grapple with a growing number of Covid-19 cases and the impact restrictions are having on women.
The challenges Ibru faces to keep the center open, doesn’t compare to what sexual violence victims have experienced as a result of this pandemic, she said.
DaSilva-Ibru recalls a woman who told staff at the center that her male friend had raped her in her home during the lockdown.
“The first day we re-opened, we attended to women who had walked many miles in spite of the mandatory lockdown to get to the center. These are women who had been terrorized in their homes,” she added.
Nigeria confronts an underreported rape crisis that’s spiked during the lockdown
Gender-based violence is a problem in many countries, but the coronavirus pandemic has worsened the situation.
The UN says the raft of measures deployed by governments to fight the pandemic have led to economic hardship, stress, and fear — conditions that lead to violence against women and girls.
According to the police reports, 717 rape incidents had been reported in the last five months during the Covid-19 lockdown, with vulnerable individuals trapped with their abusers.
The month of June announced itself with the gang-rape and murder of 18-year-old Barakat Bello in her home in Ibadan, a city two hours from the Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.
Two days later, four masked men raped a minor in her home in Lagos.
The preceding month saw 11 men sexually assaulted another minor in the northern state of Jigawa, which was followed by the rape and slaying of 22 year-old university student Vera Uwaila Omosuwa on a church’s premises in Edo state in the south.
Omosuwa’s death birthed the hashtag #JusticeforUwa, an abbreviation of her middle name, and became the inflection point for the “State of Emergency gender-based violence” protests organized in June in Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city.
The demonstrators’ demands included the establishment of sustainably-funded sexual referral centers in Nigeria’s 36 states and the swift persecution of cases of sexual assault devoid of external pressures from affected parties.
Based on these efforts, Nigeria’s vice president Yemi Osinbajo convened a virtual meeting with the National Human Rights Commission on Friday to discuss sexual violence, and in a subsequent tweet announced a commitment to encourage states yet to ratify the two federal laws protecting women and children from violence to do so, mirroring an earlier statement by the NGF.
Powerful state governors have also thrown their weight behind the cause by agreeing to declare a state of emergency on rape and adopting a sex offenders’ register in a communique.
Also, states like Bauchi in northern Nigeria have started the process of adopting the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, where it’s passed the second reading at the state house of assembly.
In light of the activism on and offline, the police chief announced the deployment of investigators to the gender desk dedicated to handling sexual violence cases. But anti-rape campaigners believe more should be done.
“Many [police officers] still don’t get rape,” says Bakare-Yusuf, who wants the police educated on the sexual violence and retrained to conduct investigations proactively.
“I want the inspector general of Police to go: The next rape case we get in this country and I hear that it’s not being investigated, somebody’s head is going to roll. Then, we’ll begin to see a change.”
Equality Now Regional Coordinator in Africa Judy Gitau told CNN that the wave of unemployment and school closures has put victims in a precarious situation.
She recalls a similar situation in Sierra Leone during the 2014 Ebola outbreak when teenage pregnancies spiked in the country
The government enforced strict stay-at-home orders that closed businesses and schools across the West African nation to curb the spread of the virus, she said.
The restrictions made schoolgirls vulnerable to abuse as some were assaulted in their homes by relatives, and at the same time, a majority of girls from low-income families were coerced to exchange sex for money for food, Gitau said.
Gitau says authorities must know that perpetrators often take advantage of the strict measures to abuse victims without arousing much suspicion.
As state resources are being re-focused to tackle the spread of coronavirus, law enforcement agencies should also respond quickly to reports of abuse and create shelters for victims in need of immediate rescue, she said.
“Violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive forms of a human rights violation and should be recognized by all countries.” – Dr. Anita Kemi DaSilva-Ibru, Women at Risk International Foundation
The police force says it has now deployed more officers to its stations across the country to respond to the “increasing challenges of sexual assaults and domestic/gender-based violence linked with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
And last week, governors across the country resolved to declare a state of emergency on rape, according to the Nigerian Governor’s Forum (NGF).
It’s the first time federal and state authorities are coming out with a united voice to condemn gender violence, DaSilva-Ibru said and it validates the outcry of women in the country and the scale of the problem in Nigeria, she added.
“Violence against women and girls is one of the most pervasive forms of a human rights violation and should be recognized by all countries,” DaSilva-Ibru said.
“In Nigeria, it has become a national crisis that needs urgent attention. I am pleased that this has been recognized.”
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