What is happening to women and girls in Nigeria is despicable and barbaric. We have to make it stop. We need to change minds. We need to speak out for those without voice and lift those who are already trampled upon. We don’t have a choice of inaction here. We are guilty and we are all victims.
It is an embarrassing testimonial to our irresponsible disdain for women and our collective criminal silence in the face of this enterprise contrived to extort and profit off the misery of our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters in the name of sanitising Abuja. There are times to be angry and profoundly so. This is such time. We are living witnesses to a value system that continues to disrespect, commercialise and subjugate women. We are living witnesses to unprovoked raids on women, labelled as prostitutes but without any information or arrest of their patrons. We now live in a city where our women cannot walk the streets in the evening without being harassed or arrested by security agencies who now possess supernatural powers to determine a woman’s trade or profession by just looking at them. This assault on women now enjoys the institutional imprimatur of the Federal Capital Authority and the coercive resources of various security agencies in Nigeria. It will be then true to say that the Nigeria state is at war against women.
Permit me therefore on behalf of the menfolk to offer a long overdue apology to women and girls across Nigeria. I apologise for the lack of appreciation and gratitude for the life you gave us through your blood and pain. I apologise for a prevailing culture that undermines the importance and significance of womanhood. I apologise for our ignorant prejudices that deceive us into believing we can amount to anything without women. I apologise for the violence, abuse and most shamefully for our silence in the face of the state sponsored and culture influenced subjugation of women. Our apology is meaningless without action. So this assault on women must stop now. We will not keep quiet. We will not relent until we awaken the conscience of this nation to its fundamental duty of equal protection. We will not stop until we force this country back to the values of its Constitution and the decency of a modern state. What is happening in Abuja and across the country is simply unacceptable. No nation can survive treating women this way. It is in our collective interest to save our women and, in so doing, save ourselves.
The documentary titled Silent Tears tells the story of a culture of exploitation and abuse of women in a society that is numb and apathetic to the plight of women. It chronicles the culpability of the Nigeria state in not only tolerating this culture but actively promoting it. It is a story of helplessness and courage in the same breath. It invites us to do something and awakens the best in us to bravely confront these issues.
How do we begin to sound polite when wives and mothers are now fair game in the hands of unscrupulous security officials hiding under the cover of protecting the environment? Where do we find the words to comfort parents whose infants girls are defiled by vile adults without any ounce of sympathy from agencies that are supposed to stand up for them?
I have employed very strong words deliberately. But how can we dwell on niceties when our women and girls are being raped routinely in a state sanctioned operation without any appreciable consequences for perpetrators? How do we begin to sound polite when wives and mothers are now fair game in the hands of unscrupulous security officials hiding under the cover of protecting the environment? Where do we find the words to comfort parents whose infants girls are defiled by vile adults without any ounce of sympathy from agencies that are supposed to stand up for them? Perilous times like this requires a different kind of language – that of desperation and the harsh truth.
In 2014, some very brave Nigerian women went to the ECOWAS Court of Justice to seek remedy for the abuse they had suffered in the hands of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB). They argued that the discriminatory and arbitrary raid on women in Abuja in the name of sanitising the city was a direct affront on their fundamental rights and a targeted abuse against women. The ECOWAS court agreed with them. The court ruled that the raid was a breach of the fundamental rights of women and even awarded damages against Nigeria. Years after, Nigeria has not complied with any of the ruling in the judgment. If anything, a country that holds itself up as rule of law state is brazenly contravening the ruling of a regional court. Nigerian officials are on record trying to justify disobedience of a valid court order. An order that only seeks to protect our women. What does this say about our country?
Every duty bearer (including both government and citizens) must commit to changing this ugly narrative. What is happening to women and girls in Nigeria is despicable and barbaric. We have to make it stop. We need to change minds. We need to speak out for those without voice and lift those who are already trampled upon. We don’t have a choice of inaction here. We are guilty and we are all victims. The interconnectedness of our destiny and mutuality of our humanity bind us in unbreakable bond. None of us can actually stand if anyone of us is down. Changing the fate of our women is the only way we can change our fate and the fate of this endangered nation.
Udo Jude Ilo heads the Open Society Initiative for West Africa’s (OSIWA) Nigeria office. @udoilo
This is the text of remarks made at the screening of Silent Tears, a documentary on sexual violence against women.