Justice Champions of Change
The Young Women Delivering Justice Solutions to Women and Girls in Nigeria
In March 2021, the Stand to End Rape Initiative (STER) won the 2020 SDG Action Award in the ‘Mobilize’ category. STER is a youth- and women-led social enterprise that employs innovative and survivor-centered programming to advance gender equality in Nigeria, and advocates against sexual and gender-based violence while providing services to survivors. It works with rural and urban women across the country, and with communities and policy-makers who can help deliver systemic changes at the local and national level in how sexual violence is perceived and tackled.
The organization was founded by Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi. In the latest installment of our Justice Champions of Change series, Pema Doornenbal of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies talked to her about the initiative’s work and the reasons for its success.
Pema: What steps did you take to start your organization?
Oluwaseun: As a National Youth Service Corps member, I worked with the NYSC Editorial and Publicity CDS Group in Rivers State and, through that avenue, engaged in fact-finding and research, writing and storytelling. I was interested in women’s rights and safety issues, so my focus was on sexual and gender-based violence. Through this experience, I understood increased violence and gender inequality within the family, politics, and socioeconomically.
That sparked my interest in women’s issues, alongside my personal experience, so I furthered my studies via a master’s degree where I focused on gender and human rights. My dissertation researched the violence that women experience in post-conflict societies, and Nigeria falls within that category. From the research study, it was interesting to know that things as basic as access to water can lead to sexual violence, health complications and even death for women. Women who have to travel long and dangerous pathways to fetch water are often harassed by men and raped. Some are killed.
The commonness and complexities of women’s struggles, regardless of country, made me very angry. So I decided to go out and learn in practice. I’d built my knowledge, but it was imperative to build a practical understanding of the strategies that work in this space. What is being done, what isn’t, what are the gaps, and what solutions can I create?
Pema: And what did you want to accomplish?
Oluwaseun: I identified gaps in service provision for sexual and gender-based violence survivors, and I wanted to create awareness and provide the services they needed. I wanted to bring the issue of sexual violence to the fore, so government policies and systems would be either established or improved to serve the needs of survivors.
My second action point was to break the culture of silence, stereotypes and biases among survivors, which had suppressed their voices. I wanted more survivors telling their stories on their terms and expose perpetrators.
To achieve this required the services of young people with specialties in mental health, health, law, and communication to contribute to the work and support the initiatives I had around policy advocacy, awareness creation, community engagement, and holistic service provision through volunteerism. Together, we engaged traditional leaders and community members with government institutions to review existing policies and establish effective policies to bridge the gap and direct service provision to survivors.
Pema: What is the difference between what you do for victims of sexual and gender-based violence and what other organizations in Nigeria do?
Oluwaseun: Different organizations have varying focus, reach, and strategies. So, you can visit one organization and can only access medical services, then go to another, and you can only access mental health services or only legal services in a specific location. At STER, we are a holistic hub that provides a wide range of services — general advice, legal aid and representation, medical support, and health services empowerment support to survivors, including minority groups across Nigeria. When you come to us, you’re able to have all of these services at your fingertips. We leverage both technology and outreach to connect with those who require our services the most.
In addition, we apply a trauma-informed approach to our work, so we prioritize the survivors’ needs or the women who require support. For instance, some organizations may say they don’t provide support in cases of revenge porn, but STER sees an injustice issue for women that needs to be addressed. Women are being blackmailed and extorted by their partners to prevent private property from being released publicly. It violates several laws in Nigeria and is also experienced by survivors of sexual violence. So, we are not an organization that looks only at specific issues; we explore violence against women and girls from every angle, including any social injustice issues being experienced.
Pema: Why is the work important to you?
Oluwaseun: I have experienced these problems myself, and I didn’t have any form of support outside of my family. Sometimes I wished someone assisted me in accessing information or told me what to do. There was no readily available information, and survivors were shamed into silence. It was a daunting experience trying to navigate the system on my own. I wanted it [to be different] for other women and girls. Information and services must be easily accessible, and services are holistic, confidential, and free.
Over time, we have upheld patriarchal standards and principles, and emboldened abusers to oppress and undermine women’s voices, access, and opportunities which breed violence, so I am actively working to achieve an equitable society where women thrive without fear of violence. And for those who’ve experienced violence, adequate mechanisms should be in place to support them and prevent a recurrence.
Pema: Do you consider yourself a provider of justice services? And how do you work with the justice system in Nigeria?
Oluwaseun: Yes, we provide access to justice as this doesn’t end in the court of law. It entails various components, including empowering survivors to speak up and seek remedies for social injustice issues, providing legal advice and representation, as well as safety and separation from abusive partners. Justice means different things to those experiencing injustice, but the underlying factor is ensuring access to all services required in an impartial and non-discriminatory way.
With this being said, working with the Nigerian justice system is complicated and delicate. The processes are slow, cumbersome, and corrupt in most cases. A trial could last up to three years, making the survivor uninterested in pursuing such cases. When working with survivors, primarily women and girls, we review their case and options with them. For legal action, a legal representative accompanies the complainant to establish a formal complaint at the police station, as we understand this can be scary. Then we liaise with the investigating officer and state prosecutor. When the case gets to court, we liaise with the director of public prosecutions for legal advice and monitor the process overall.
In cases where the state prosecutor appears in court and has missed some relevant information that could impact the case, our lawyers are there to provide them with information. So that’s a practical example of how we work with the justice system.
Pema: Would you say that STER focuses on preventing, as well as treating injustice?
Oluwaseun: Absolutely. We facilitate community engagements and dialogues to discuss with stakeholders the practices and attitudes that contribute to violence against women and girls, and gender inequality, as well as practical steps to prevent recurrence and deliver redress, where applicable. We also work with those local systems to create “local guidelines”, which helps the community identify cases of SGBV and processes for initiating formal reports. In addition, we engage in-school and out-of-school adolescents and children with age-appropriate information around consent, bodily autonomy, gender equality, and SGBV prevention. These steer social behavioral change and create a structure of prevention at the community and grassroots level.
Pema: What are your thoughts on justice innovations? Do you favor low-tech or high-tech solutions?
Oluwaseun: Access to justice must meet the needs of people in both rural and urban areas. We can have high-tech online forms for those with internet access. There are startups with innovative web-based platforms where people can get on-the-go legal aid, information on legal actions applicable in a situation, and linkages to lawyers. But we also need low-tech solutions where people without internet can call or text a mobile number, and we call them back and take on their case and assign a lawyer or counsellor to follow up with them via phone. Based on experience, balance is required. The justice system must innovate high-tech and non-tech based-solutions for the various target audiences.
Pema: And what were the innovations that you have seen that were the most effective?
Oluwaseun: Mobile courts are an example of an innovation that makes it easy for people in rural areas to access justice conveniently and easily. We have mobile courts for minor offenses such as breaking traffic rules or driving with expired licenses. Once an offender is presented for court, the penalty or judgement is pronounced immediately. Mobile kiosk lawyers and prosecutors can be stationed at specific locations, where people can easily visit them with their complaints and access immediate legal advice.
Sexual- and gender-based violence cases, depending on the situation, may be rigorous and require more investigation. Still, I believe that access to justice can be quick, for example, if you have the hearing via Zoom instead of going to court. And if my client cannot join the Zoom call, she or he can dial in via mobile phone to listen in. Or I can visit the client’s location with my laptop and my internet, and we jointly attend the hearing right there in the community. It’s making justice quick and also participatory. Most times, these women can’t afford to leave their workplaces every time to go to court, but if justice can go to them, it becomes easier.
Pema: What do you think is the role of women’s representation in justice systems?
Oluwaseun: I think it’s critical, and I don’t want to speak solely from the point of view of the formal system, but also the informal structures. For instance, in communities, when cases are presented before the council, you will notice that most councilors are men. During peacebuilding initiatives, there are many men, although the issue affects women more than men. Women must be part of the decision-making process.
In the formal sector, having female lawyers, prosecutors, and judges help with administering people-centered justice, providing overarching policy advice, and strengthening justice systems. Generally, they have a better understanding or lived experiences of the issues affecting women and girls, and critically review areas that their male counterparts would otherwise overlook. This isn’t to say male judges or prosecutors don’t know their jobs and all female prosecutors are flawless; it’s requesting a balance. If justice is to be served effectively, there must be openness, accessibility, and gender perspective in adjudication.
Pema: One concrete example of this that you started yourself is the Nigerian Feminist Coalition. Could you explain what this coalition does?
Oluwaseun: I am one of the founding members of the Feminist Coalition, a group of young women advancing women’s access, opportunities and rights, financial literacy, political participation, and health and wellbeing. In our personal and professional lives, we work across communications, media, tech, gender equality, journalism, and so on. We’re all experts in different fields and believe in the strength of collective purpose, power, and commitment.
We are working to ensure Nigerian women and girls have equitable access, opportunities, and can meaningfully participate in politics and leadership positions. We are also providing funding, guidance, and expertise. For instance, if you are a small business owner experiencing violence and need to leave the abusive environment, we assist with economic stability and safety services, either directly or through partner organizations. We are actively promoting a social system with intolerance to violence and acts against violence.
Pema: You have won the SDG Action Award. The SDGs are a global agenda, have they had meaning in your work in Nigeria, and if so, how?
Oluwaseun: Yes, STER won the 2020 SDG Action Award for our work in eliminating sexual harassment in tertiary institutions, and we are proud of this achievement. It means that our interventions are in line with global best practices and our innovations are applicable across different countries. Significantly, it amplifies our work to the international community, and can aid partnerships and support. The SDGs are essential for our work because we actively use the indicators to measure and evaluate our work.
Pema: What are you most proud of in your work?
Oluwaseun: I am proud of how SGBV issues are actively on the front-burner, and various interventions are being undertaken at the government and non-state actors’ level. Today, we have more Sexual Assault Referral Centers than we did in the past; the Violence against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act has been adopted in 25 States in Nigeria. Also, the National Assembly is considering the Sexual Harassment Bill for eventual passage. This was not the case seven years ago.
On a personal level, I am most proud of how the services we provide change the lives and conditions of the clients. People who ordinarily had no hope of getting support can access information, legal presentation, change in status, mental health, and medical services, to mention a few. I’m delighted when I receive that tweet, email, text message or in a meeting; someone shares how a client spoke highly of our work. There is no more incredible feeling than seeing the impact of our tailored services enable women and girls to move from point A to point B to point C.
Pema: And what are your planned next steps in the coming years?
Oluwaseun: STER hopes to strengthen staff capacity further, innovate to improve our impact, and expand our services and strategies to other parts of Nigeria and Africa. We also aim to scale up our activities around policy advocacy for effective implementation while working with countries to develop systems to promote gender equality and SGBV prevention. And as an individual, I’m looking forward to advancing knowledge of the Sustainable Development Goals and collaborating with like-minded organizations to broaden and deepen the scope of our advocacy.
Champions of Change is an initiative of the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and have helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.
To read more justice Champions of Change interviews, visit: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/champions-of-change