By Umo Akwang
One Tuesday morning, 14-year-old Sarah Israel* sat at home waiting patiently for a verdict that would see her step father, 47-year-old Emmanuel Thompson Udo, who had sexually assaulted her either pay for his sins or walk free. When the report finally came, he got sentenced to 22 years imprisonment.
The judgment came after about three years of legal tussle, following a petition by the Basic Rights Counsel Initiative (BRCI) in Calabar, Cross River state. The journey to justice was prolonged due to many factors including BRCI’s process of documenting and gathering evidence to build a case; legal proceedings and several court adjournments but in the end, Udo was arrested, investigated and then prosecuted.
For many others who are survivors of sexual abuse in Nigeria, access to justice is a myth. Although 36% of women between ages 15 and 49 in Cross River state have suffered a form of SGBV according to a Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) 2018 report, drawing from the conviction matrix of the BRCI only 4% of the cases have been treated in court since 2011.
BRCI, a non-governmental organisation based in Cross River, works to secure justice and provide support for women and girls who have suffered varying degrees of gender and sexual abuse. The Executive Director and Principal Counsel BRCI, James Ibor said since its inception, the organization has filed “822 cases in various courts of competent jurisdiction across the State and secured 30 arrests and convictions”.
13-year-old Nsikak Mkpoikana’s* story is no different. For over three years, she was forcefully raped by her father’s friend. He accommodated her family after the untimely death of her father who was their sole breadwinner. She recounts how he was a “fatherly figure” and promised to meet all their needs, this unfortunately, was only a mirage.
“One day, when he came from work, he called me into his room, pushed me onto his bed, covered my face with a pillow and forced himself on me. I struggled to no avail,” Mkpoikana said in an interview.
Before BRCI took up her case, she had gotten pregnant five times, all of which her mum aborted using pills. After taking up her case, Mkpoikana was immediately placed in therapy.
“I struggled with anger issues, sometimes I cried, relapsed and had suicidal thoughts, but the counselling sessions that I had in BRCI helped me through the pains, they helped me understand what was going on in my mind and walked me through the journey to my recovery.”
17-year-old Atim Nsuhoridem* was sexually assaulted while she was returning home from school, by a man who lived on her street. Her abuser constantly taunted her, mocking her inability to do anything about his assault. She regained hope and confidence that justice will be served when BRCI took legal actions to bring the perpetrator to book.
In her words, “You can’t hide the pain when you see the perpetrator walking freely, but when they are punished for their crime, it gives you a little bit of comfort.”
The Legal Journey
Although legal representation is cost intensive, the BRCI files and follows through court processes at no cost to the victim or survivor. The BRCI receives alerts of cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) through a dedicated phone line, referrals, community volunteers and in some cases, walk-in complainants.
Following receipt of complaint, investigation process begins which upon determination of the facts of the case, legal procedure commences. According to Ibor, an investigation is first carried out when they receive a complaint.
“When we receive a complaint, we carry out a discreet investigation. As soon as we can confirm that there’s fact in the complaint, with the support of the police we ensure that the child is evacuated from the home where she is being abused to a safe space.
“For abuse that borders on sexual assault, first we try to get treatment for the survivor, if the survivor is alive, thereafter we make a complaint to the police and follow up with the police for prosecution.
“Many of those cases are already being prosecuted by the ministry of justice and the police force, and we follow up the case. We have a filing system where we open a folder for each survivor or victim, and for every step taken, be it – legal support, psychosocial support, referral – everything is documented. While some cases are still pending in court, quite a lot has been resolved,” he narrated in an interview.
The organisation also has an emergency shelter approved by the State government for short stay of survivors of abuse, where they can be completely rehabilitated before they can be reintegrated either back to their families, relatives or foster families for cases where the abuse came from their homes.
The Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act 2015, which aims to eliminate all forms of violence was domesticated in Cross River State on 31st December 2021. Ibor says, “Having a legislation that supports the campaign against Gender Based violence helps to enhance the work we do, however there is need for increased advocacy to key stakeholders to ensure the full implementation of the law”.
The Mental Journey
In a country like Nigeria where mental health is underrated, BRCI, while providing free legal service, also provides psychosocial support for the survivors of SGBV. The organisation’s counsellor, Ideba Edu says, “while the legal arm of the organisation ensures justice for the survivor, the psychosocial desk see to their mental wellbeing. Psychosocial support is an important factor that helps a rape victim recover, change their perception, grow and be reintegrated into society”.
Nsuhoridem said, “before I started the counselling sessions, I was lonely, I suffered from periodic relapse, become aggressive, bitter, and had suicidal thoughts.
She added that, “the counselling helped me to move on, forget some things, but it’s one step at a time. Right now, I feel stronger and I’m happy that this organisation (BRCI) came up to help me”.
The psychosocial support received by survivors influences their lives and decisions as they reintegrate with society. Mkpoikana says, “I want to be a counsellor that will counsel children and women who have been sexually violated.
“The reason I chose this path is because I want to help people who have experienced rape, to let them know that there is still hope, I want to touch their lives and help them forge ahead. Because I have been a victim once, I will be in the position to understand them more and work with them to make them better persons in the society,” she said.
Needle in a Haystack
While BRCI continues to intensify efforts to curb SGBV in Cross River State, there are a series of challenges that stifles the work. Principal amongst the challenges according to Ibor is, ‘weak institutions’.
He added that although the organisation should be complementing government efforts, “unfortunately, the agencies of government whose efforts we should be complementing do not have the resources or capacity to respond and carry out their primary mandate. They do not have imprest, so even referrals made to them don’t work, they bounce back to us.”
Another challenge is the inadequate budgeting and budget implementation. Ibor advocates that, “the government needs to budget properly and release budgetary allocations to agencies that respond to cases of GBV.”
These challenges stifle the work being done by the organisation to nip GBV in the state. Ibor notes that, “the process of getting evidence to successfully prosecute and secure conviction is capital intensive and requires a lot of expertise. In a country where forensic examination is lacking, it is challenging to get corroboration enough to secure conviction and this compromises the cases”.
Meanwhile, Officer in charge of Gender Unit in the police force, Cross River state Police Command, SP Philomena Modor says, “the police have tried to prevent crime in the society but the issue is funding”.
Modor explains that, “If a case is reported and there is no vehicle to quickly go to the crime scene, we cannot get prosecution because delay will cause the crime scene to be distorted or destroyed. Sometimes the officer will be constrained to source for personal resources to be able to investigate the case”.
BCRI is further constrained by limited resources to carry other tasks that aid the legal process such as medical support for survivors, litigation support, facilitating the appearance of survivors in the court to give evidence.
Also, mobilization of funds to support the education of the survivor where they are still students as well as insufficient funds to cater for the basic needs of survivors in the organisations’ shelter pose more impediment to their success.
In addition to these challenges, team members, staff and volunteers of BRCI as well as their family members receive threats to their lives and physical attacks especially when the organisation files cases against perpetrators who are well placed in the society with the resources and power to bribe their way through the system.
The essential services provided for survivors by BRCI, ranging from investigation in collaboration with the Nigerian Police, evacuation, emergency shelters, psychosocial and legal support impacts the health and welfare of survivors. The convictions secured also serve as a deterrent to perpetrators of GBV in the state while providing insights for other communities and countries in stemming the scourge of sexual and gender based violence.
Editor’s Note:*Names with asterisks have been changed to protect the survivor’s identity.
This story has been made possible by Nigeria Health Watch with support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems, http://solutionsjournalism.org.