2017 was the year when the lid was blown off sexual assaults on a global scale. It seems
befitting that the first 2018 post should address that issue, particularly on International Women’s Day. It was an honour to interview Oluwaseun Ayodeji Owosobi, a rape survivor and founder of NGO, Stand to End Rape (STER). *trigger alert* this post contains details that may cause distress.
RWW: When did you start Stand to End Rape?
OAO: It started in 2013 as an online initiative to give survivors a platform to break the silence, own their stories and not be ashamed. I was in New York at the time and ran a weekly forum called Speak Out on Twitter and then on Facebook for survivors to share their story. Once survivors engaged with me, I would do online one- one to counselling with them and then when they were ready, they would share their stories.
When it got to the stage where I was having to manage a huge numbers of people, I started to think, how can we help break the silence and put an end to the menace.
RWW: What were your initial obstacles?
OAO: Well at the time, I was simply thinking about providing an avenue for people to express themselves. I didn’t think about the implications it would have for confidentiality and a safe space for people to share that story without feeling a form of shame. I then decided to create a formal organisation. There was a trust issue with victims and a formal organisation help to allay fears.
In 2014, I moved back to Nigeria to start advocacy and awareness as well as enlisting volunteers. On June 19 2014, Stand to End Rape was registered as NGO and as a formal body supporting victims of sexual violence and also promoting female reproductive rights.
RWW: Were you working at the time?
OAO: I was an intern at the United Nations working in communications. I then moved to intern at Half the Sky Movement, the largest NGO in New York working to end worldwide oppression for women and girls, as social media communications and US aid intern.
RWW: What was your personal experience?
OAO: To be honest, I have outgrown telling my own story but you will get bits of it from my interview. I was 20 going on 21 when I was raped in Nigeria.
RWW: How did you overcome it?
OAO: The most important support for me was the family front. My mother was super super supported. However,although I had support from my family, there was no other support available – medically, physically, psychologically or socially. The most I received was from a friend who took me to a pharmacy to prevent me from getting pregnant.
I eventually ended up doing a Masters in International Relations with a focus on gender. As a result, I became more aware about the role masculinity plays in our work.
RWW: How are you battling patriarchy and the stigma?
OAO: Our aim is not to challenge men but to let them know that survivors have a face. And to let perpetrators of rape know they have to stop. I was ready for the backlash or the stigma – you will never get married; you’ll be ostracised from society. I was ready for that.
At the end of the day, the most important thing was how I viewed myself and how important I saw myself to be. I didn’t see myself as a victim but a weapon. I was ready to fight or defend. Statistics show that someone who has been a victim once is most likely to be a victim again. I was willing to put myself forward and ready of the backlash because I had my family with me. I didn’t present myself as a victim but a survivor. Amazingly, people were receptive to my story and my cause and they accepted me. Naturally you will get horrible comments from some men but with my family’s support I was go through it,
RWW: How about the survivors? How do you to connect with them?
OAO: It’s been mainly through referrals from people who have been through our programme and found healing. We also use social media as well as radio and TV.
When you work with a client and achieve success, referrals come naturally and survivors reach out to us. Our aim is to help them build confidence in themselves and raise their self esteem again. It’s crucial that they understand that it wasn’t their fault and that they can move on and own their story, very much like how cancer survivors own their stories. Ultimately, progress hinges on how they see themselves. No matter how much you try you won’t achieve anything until you are able to help them change their perception of themselves.
We also engage with religious leaders to change the understanding and perception of sexual violence. They have a huge crowds and a platform to reach thousands of people which will take us longer to do. People are usually willing to listen to leaders and that helps to propagate the message.
RWW: How does your team function?
OAO: We are a youth led initiative with team members in Lagos and Abuja and volunteers across Nigeria. Our aim is to have individuals who act as foot soldiers and are able to help by referring survivors to our team. Then we can support the survivor, officially report the case on their behalf and then they follow through on the case.
RWW: What those following through involve?
- Get the survivor to a hospital to get tested. In the first instance they’ll need post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent HIV infection
- Follow due process. They should be taken to the police station although survivors are reluctant to go. Depending on the complexity, we may go to police first or hospital first
- Find a lawyer within that space. The law states that rape is a case against the state so they provide should provide survivors with a prosecutor. However, they are not proactive and court dates can be given ranging from three to six months after the rape. The longest I have seen is three years (*gasps of shock from RWW*).
As a result we get involved to ensure there is follow through with regards to court proceedings. We help with the preparing the survivor for questioning to help reduce the impact of the verbal ‘bashing’ survivors may get from the defence.
- Only a mentally strong person can go through the process. Survivors can sometimes experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and can often experience psychotic episodes. In such circumstances we would refer the individual for appropriate medical help.
- Financial support in cases where it is necessary.
RWW: With your limited resources, where do you focus your main attention ?
OAO: Support services, awareness, prevention and advocacy. Laws become ineffective if the people are not aware.
RWW: What is the strategy for awareness then?
OAO: We have no intention to reinvent the wheel. We aren’t there to teach or be their mums or tell them what to do or not do. Our role is to engage and inform. We commence a campaign and have a conversation around that and then communicate what they don’t know. This is mainly via social media, radio and support.
We address issues like language. ‘Why are you acting a girl’, ‘be like a man’, ‘don’t cry’. We say to girls, ‘close your legs’, ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t wear that’. We end up teaching boys to keep all their aggression within and girls to be ultra conservative. When both parties meet, the expectation is that the boy asserts his masculinity and the girl submits to it. When the girl challenges this, then the boy takes it by force. We have also discovered that the impact of social media and pornography encourages boys in particular to seek to experiment with what they have learnt. Worst still, some men have no idea that they are guilty of rape because consent is not something they have been socialised to seek or educated about.
Through radio and TV interviews we aim to raise awareness of these issues and correct attitudes and behaviours. It requires behavioural change, providing strategies for change, referrals to coaches or counsellors as well as advocacy. We also focus on educating the police as well who don’t fully understand that rape can happens everywhere and the issues surrounding consent.
RWW: What’s the worse story you’ve come across?
OAO: Every situation is horrendous but some can truly shock you. It’ll have to be a 9 month old with rectovaginal fistula. She had been raped by a 20 year old teacher. There was also a case with a neighbour raping two boys aged 5 and 14 year old for a year and a man who had been raping his wife’s niece.
RWW: Are you working with schools and young kids?
OAO: We run workshops in community secondary schools as they often have no one reaching out to them. Again we do not replicate effort already taking place but we support effort in places they have not reached, usually highly dense city areas. We run joint workshops with boys and girls and afterwards the students can ask questions. It is usually about behavioural change and addressing mindsets. For example, the fact that you spent money on a date is not a guarantee of sex and is not consent to rape. That you are dating someone is also not license to have sex. We use examples to correct ideas and promote positive masculinity amongst students. We also work with girls on how to create boundaries and communication. We teach them how to say no assertively through the use of language and tone.
RWW: How do you involve men in your campaigns?
OAO: Some of our STER champions are men. Men have a vital role to play in ending sexual violence. With the right information, they can they can start conversations on their own, get other men talking and change the narrative. We also have male advocates who go into communities and help with follow through.
RWW: What’s the major resistance you have faced?
OAO: The narrative that how a woman dresses is the major reason she is raped. We also face resistance from survivors who understandably do not want to go through the experience of having their case drag on for 3 years.
RWW: What’s your message to anyone that has been raped?
OAO: The rape experience is part of your past. Don’t let it own your future. Own your story. You are not a victim you are survivor. There is help for you and know that you can get past it and be fine. We are here for you. Don’t let someone’s violent action take your voice as well.
RWW: Thank you Oluwaseun.
To find out about more about Stand to End Rape (STER) or to volunteer, visit www.standtoendrape.org
To find other organisations supporting sexual assault survivors visit itv.com/thismorning/rape-helplines