How Nigeria’s conservative northern region came to terms with its MeToo movement

Difficult to open up.
Difficult to open up.
Image: Karel Prinsloo/UNICEF/Handout via REUTERS
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On the morning of Feb. 3, Khadijah Adamu, a young woman in the northern Nigerian city of Kano decided after two years that it was time to share a deeply personal part of her life to a hostile audience on Twitter.

Adamu recounted her near death experience at the hands of a man she had once loved, to her surprise, she was met with strong support, which drowned the condemnation from a section of Twitter dominated by northern Nigerians. A wave of recollections of sexual violence followed under hashtag I created #ArewaMeToo. Arewa, a local term for the northern part of Nigeria, could not evade the global overspill of the #MeToo movement that had taken off from the United States. 

Northern Nigeria, though outwardly pluralistic in nature, is an ultraconservative region, in an already conservative country. Islam, the dominant religion of a part of the world battling insecurity and held back by underdevelopment, is interwoven into the cultures of a diverse populace. This cultural and religious syncretism has resulted in an interpretation of Islamic thought, that makes it difficult for victims of sexual violence to come forward for fear of ostracism.

This near overarching influence, of a mostly unregulated religious scholarly base, and the absence of a contextual system of social justice, has had a concomitant effect on the region’s social development. 

ArewaMeToo provided a platform for many to voice shelved parts of their lives they had never shared before. The detailed experiences of young girls and boys sexually abused and molested from as young as 5, came out as a shock to the rest of the country. In actuality , Northern society has been accustomed to revelations regarding sexual abuse and impropriety, albeit not in open spaces, or at such alarming rates. Recounted stories of molestation and sexual abuse have been a part of many childhoods, in secondary/boarding schools, in informal Islamic classrooms and more predominantly, in homes. These instances are often swept under the rug.

The resultant feelings of shame, of both the victims and their families, create a culture of silence, perpetuated over several generations of women and young boys. Over time, the preponderance of these crimes, and the reticence of communal authorities to address them, lessened the severity of their impact on the social consciousness of the region, thus giving way to a culture of painful acceptance. 

In the absence of safe spaces within communities and institutions that are meant to serve as a haven to victims of sexual and gender based violence, Social media has become a substitute for physical avenues that shelter victims from stigma, judgement and condemnation by society. It serves as a space where victims can recount and share their experiences of abuse. An avenue through which they at times find support and understanding from strangers behind a keyboard, replying with “ it happened to me too”, “ I am sorry, sending you love”. 

Non-fatal cases of gender based violence are culturally attributed as a family issue that can be settled within. This has been a major underlying factor that has driven the culture of silence, which perpetuates non-reportage of different degrees of violence within households and schools. At this point, it became clear that the hashtag needed to transform beyond social media to offline spaces. Young people across the North showed key interest in taking the baton to push the fight against sexual violence and silence in their communities.

This further cemented the move from a hashtag to a grounded movement with a presence in five northern Nigeria states in the first few months. One case the local volunteers encountered in Maiduguri, Borno State, was of a minor that was being raped by her uncle at home, and sexually harassed by her teacher in school. When the school caught wind of it through a sensitization drive by a university student, Hassana Maina, who was inspired by #ArewaMeToo, the owner of the school pleaded that the case be settled out of court in order to protect the reputation of her establishment. 

The fractured nature of communities impacted by the relative absence of local systems of governance and the degradation of the Nigerian North’s traditional means of leadership that had in the past fostered a sense of community and cohesiveness, leaves a gaping hole in the discourse of the appropriate channel to use when dealing with societal ills such as sexual and gender based violence. Northern Nigerian culture remains largely insular in its outlook, and prides itself in preserving a traditional perception of gender roles and norms. Victims of sexual violence are stigmatized and shunned as the crime committed against them is used to identify them as either unwieldy or unchaste. 

Those who find the courage to speak out are often met with stigmatisation and scorn. Twin tools that serve as hallmarks for silencing victims of sexual violence further perpetuating widespread non-reportage of incidents to the right authorities. This results in the epileptic rate of prosecution of cases of sexual violence across the country. Moreover, the current rape laws in the penal code that’s proscribed for most of the Northern states are ambiguous and make it impossible to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence. Without the domestication of the Violence against persons prohibition act (VAPP act), first introduced into the Nigerian Senate in 2015, which blocks many loopholes in the current rape laws, both the prosecution and conviction of violent abusers remains low. Despite an overwhelming number of reported cases of sexual assaults, it is widely believed Nigeria has a very low record of rape convictions.

The cycle of sexual violence remains prevalent in Northern Nigeria due to in part to tepid responses from relevant authority figures both traditional and contemporary. Many reported cases remain unresolved. This has, overtime contributed to several victims’ inability to access services to aid their recovery. They are then left without support, to contend with health issues, psychological trauma, and social stigma that are a direct result of the abuse they have suffered. 

ArewaMeToo activists and supporters such continue to face increasing backlash from diverse camps of mainly men that seek to silence the conversation to tackle sexual violence in our society. This month, after accepting an invitation to chair a panel on sexual abuse and consent at a literary event curated by students of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, myself and Maryam Awaisu, co-convener of ArewaMeToo, were met with threats of violence from students and others. They seemed to believe we were embarking on an advocacy that sought to both tarnish and impede upon the fabric of northern Nigeria culture. 

Unrelenting, we continue to seek ways to address the scourge of sexual and gender based violence through advocacy in raising awareness by mobilizing young people to be agents of response in their communities and through a regional rally. ArewaMeToo gave rise to the Mayafi initiative—Mayafi in Hausa language is a metaphoric term translating to a cover or a shelter for victims of sexual and gender based violence.

In partnership with CWCD Africa, we are creating a technological tool, UNSUB to create a system of active response in communities across the North by pooling individuals and stakeholder organizations to create a system accountability and improve response to sexual violence by stakeholder agencies such as the Nigerian Police Force. 

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