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Interview with Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi - Nigeria










Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi (she/her) is a multi-award winning gender equality advocate with six years experience in deploying effective solutions to challenge systemic social barriers that promote violence against women and girls and utilising social and behaviour change communication to improve SGBV knowledge, attitudes and practices in order to achieve Gender Equality.

She is the Executive Director of Stand to End Rape Initiative (STER), a leading NGO that adopts a comprehensive approach of working with communities to generate sustainable homegrown solutions and partners with local and national groups on systems-level prevention and intervention, while providing holistic psychosocial support to survivors in Nigeria. The organization has provided support to over 350 women, girls, boys and men and reached about 200,000 Nigerians with information.

Oluwaseun fosters systemic change by providing capacity building support on violence prevention and intervention initiatives to governmental and non-governmental institutions as well as supporting policy advocacy to enjoin the Nigerian Government for the passage of gender-centred Laws. In 2019, Oluwaseun partnered with BBC Africa Eye on the #SexforGrades documentary to highlight sexual harassment in Nigerian tertiary institutions. Through this effort, the Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Institution Prohibition Bill was relaunched at the National Assembly and passed third reading.

In recognition of her work, Oluwaseun was recognised as a TIME 100 NEXT and the Commonwealth Young Person for the Year 2019.

United Nations. Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth (https://www.un.org/youthenvoy/oluwaseun-ayodeji-osowobi/)


Gender Equality Statistics


43.4% of women aged 20–24 years old who were married or in a union before age 18. The adolescent birth rate is 106 per 1,000 women aged 15-19 as of 2017, down from 120 per 1,000 in 2015. As of February 2021, only 3.6% of seats in parliament were held by women. In 2018, 13.2% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. In 2018, 35.6% of women had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods. Employed population below international poverty line. Age 15+: 32.2% (Female); 34.5% (male) Unemployment rate. Age 15+: 7.5% (female); 9.4% (male) Prevalence of severe food insecurity in the adult population: 73.4% (female); 70% (male) Literacy rate, age 15+: 62% (female); 52.7% (male) Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments: 3.6% Proportion of women in managerial positions: 30.3%


 

Interview with Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi (8 March 2023)

Abby Coen

GirlsNotBrides.org reports that child marriage has been used as a weapon of war. How has this practice been justified?

Moreover, how can we hold governments accountable to prevent these atrocities from continuing?


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

Thank you for your question. When I was growing up, I witnessed numerous cases of child marriage in my community. At the time, I did not comprehend the severity of the issue or the reasons behind it. However, over time, I came to understand that there are several forms of child marriage.

Firstly, some families refuse to educate or empower their daughters, fearing that this may compromise their chances of finding suitable husbands. Parents then pressure their children to marry from the age of 13, with the aim of molding them into housewives and preventing them from becoming too vocal or independent like myself.

Secondly, young girls are often used as collateral. Due to extreme poverty, families are often unable to meet their basic needs and resort to borrowing money. In return, they are required to provide collateral. As these families do not have property, they betroth their female children to the creditor, saying, “If I do not pay you back within this timeframe, you can take my child”. Consequently, young girls are being used as collateral damage for debts.

Child marriage is a concerning issue in Nigeria with two main aspects. To hold the country accountable, we can look to national policies such as the VAPP law, which prohibits sexual harassment, violence, and child marriage, as well as the Child Rights Act, which protects individuals under 18 and mandates that young children attend school until the secondary level. In Nigeria, this typically means until the age of 17-18, which should provide young people with the ability to make informed decisions about their lives. We can hold the country accountable by submitting petitions and protests, sending memos to the National Assembly, attending public hearings, and documenting cases of child marriage. Most importantly, we need to raise awareness about the harmful effects of child marriage.

What is the economic cost of child marriage in Nigeria, a country with some of the highest rates of out-of-school children? How does child marriage affect our GDP and maternal mortality rates? To fully address this issue, we must recognize the intersectionality of child marriage with other global issues.

We need to push for the government to implement policies at both the national and local levels and hold those at fault accountable. Even if parents are willingly giving their children away, our laws must be stringent in ensuring child protection and making high-quality education accessible to young children. Although school attendance is free, smaller costs such as uniforms can prevent children from pursuing an education, highlighting the need for better access to education.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

"Why did you define collateral in relation to girls and not boys?”


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Ososwobi

"That is a good question! When measuring the value of a child, there is a notion that women/girls are inherently maternal due to their ability to have children. This creates the expectation that a girl will take care of the home, be a respectful housewife, etc., and that you have a guarantee of a child from her. Since a boy cannot give birth, there is no return on investment. These gender roles for girls contribute to the expectation of fulfilling these roles, which is why there are not many cases of a boy child being used as collateral to pay debts.”


Josh Baniewicz

How have groups like Boko Haram impacted the lives of women and girls? What can government forces do to stop the violence against the general population while they are at war against these groups?


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

It's unfortunate that Nigeria is still plagued by the issue of Boko Haram. These religious extremists are making unnecessary and unactionable demands from the government. Unfortunately, women and girls are being used as weapons of war in this conflict. From what I've seen at the base, it confirms my initial response. When you look into the cases of people who are abducted, violated, and mutilated, it's always girls who are affected, and less frequently boys. The boys are turned into fighters for the militants, which isn't the word I want to use, but it's what comes to mind. They are used as weapons to join the war and fight against the government. On the other hand, women are used as collateral damage and as people who need to reproduce for them. Communities are being destroyed, and lives are unnecessarily lost because of the violence.

In terms of international security and intelligence, we possess some capabilities, but I believe we need to increase our efforts. We are familiar with the identities of these people, we have seen their faces, and they use technology. With the aid of AI, which we possess, it is easy to track these individuals in the era of AI. Moreover, we have a thorough understanding of the Nigerian landscape, including the locations of certain deserts and their appearance. However, I am uncertain if our lack of progress is due to a lack of political will or technology, which I think is unlikely. Although we have been making progress against Boko Haram, we have not yet won this war. There is still much that can be done, as there are certain routes we cannot track, resulting in missed opportunities to intercept their movements and capture those who are involved. Additionally, the current structure we have in place is somewhat ineffective. Niger has implemented a system in which individuals are arrested and provided with a community to become integrated back into society. However, this approach seems to have created a cycle that perpetuates their return to extremist actions. Our government is simply going around in circles without properly addressing the underlying issues. We already know the locations of these individuals, and with the technology at our disposal, we can track them down if we are fully committed to doing so. After all, a significant amount of resources is being invested in the fight against Boko Haram.

However, let's focus specifically on how this relates to violence. You may have heard of the "Bring Back Our Girls" initiative, which aimed to rescue girls abducted from their school. Some of these girls were held captive for over two years, and while some were eventually released, they still experienced the lasting impacts of their captivity. In some cases, they were forced to renounce their religion. The perpetrators considered this a religious war..

One young girl, in particular, named Lyashy, refused to renounce her Christianity. As a result, she was kept in custody for a longer period of time because the kidnappers could not convert her. She even gave birth to children while in captivity. The mental effects of this experience on these girls are unimaginable. They have been subjected to Islamization and brutalization, and were forced to become mothers at a young age. It will take a significant amount of rehabilitation and support to help them recover.

In general, we must prioritize security and increase efforts to locate these individuals and safeguard those attending school. The girls were abducted from a school located in an open area with no security or protection. The government must take action to address these pressing concerns.


Zoe Calyer

In Nigeria, how do religious and cultural values of purity affect victims of rape? In an article, you mentioned feeling filthy and drained of self-worth due to personal experiences. I am curious about how these emotions affect your ability to advocate for yourself and others in similar situations.


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

Nigeria is a country with a rich tapestry of cultures and social norms, represented by over 75 tribes. Each tribe has its own unique culture, but religion is a common thread that connects them all. There are three major religions practiced in Nigeria: Islam, Christianity, and traditional practices. In this document, we will focus on the first two.

In Nigeria, there is a cultural belief that a girl must be a virgin to be considered pure, worthy, and innocent in the eyes of God. Unfortunately, this belief does not apply to men. If a girl experiences any form of violation, especially rape, she is considered unclean and loses the value placed on her virginity. This pressure to remain a virgin and the fear of being viewed as broken, damaged, or filthy can lead to victims of rape remaining silent about their experiences.

I want to share my personal experience as an example. When I was a victim of violence and considered coming forward about it, I had a lot of doubts: Is this the right decision for me? Will I be stigmatized? Will it work? I had so many questions, but what was important to me was realizing that I am not my story. I am not defined by the violence I experienced. I am a human being, and my story is just part of my journey towards something good. I spoke out about my experience, even though I was met with a lot of personal criticism. People told me that I shouldn't have said anything because it would change how people perceived me and that I wouldn't be able to get married. But I had to keep reminding myself that my worth and value are not tied to my virginity. Even though it was taken away from me violently, I still remained valid, respected, and honorable.

I used my personal experience to advocate for others, and it became the driving force behind my decision to speak up. I faced backlash, but what worked for me was the reassurance I had in myself that I am a person of value, regardless of what I've experienced and the pain I've endured. Today, I help people see that violence is not the fault of the survivor, but rather the fault of the perpetrator. It's someone abusing someone else's autonomy and respect, and violently having sexual relationships with them without their consent. The shame should be transferred to the person who has violated, not the person who has suffered a violation. This has helped me rise above the criticism and backlash, and I've also received massive support. I credit my family for this, as they are very close and have a strong religious foundation that we use to carry us through difficult times.

Culture and religion play a strong role in our society, especially for survivors of sexual violence. However, we are working tirelessly to change this perception and end sexual violence.


Brody Russell Have traditional religions such as Christianity and Islam prevented you from spreading awareness of child marriage and violence? Have you faced pushback as a result?


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

That's a really interesting question, and I hope I won't get into trouble because I know this is a religious university, so I want to be very careful. When I first started my work, I engaged religious and traditional leaders in conversations about violence and women's rights. I would get reminded of the scripture, but since I'm well-versed in the scripture, I always had a counterargument. However, some religious leaders still believed in male superiority and used the scripture to support their views. I tried to use the narrative of Christ coming to redeem everyone and make us all equal to change their views about women's rights and autonomy.

Violence is not a standalone issue; it thrives on inequalities. This inequality is evident in the representation of women in church, their ability to speak up, or take leadership roles. Women who cannot speak in the presence of God or preach cannot speak to their husbands or assert their rights in society. I believe that it's possible to remind pastors, religious leaders, and professional leaders that women have equal rights as men.

I use the tool of storytelling to create a picture and then ask them what they would do if they were in that situation. By personalizing the story, we can see things differently and come to a middle ground. For example, when some religious leaders believed in female genital mutilation to prevent girls from entering sex work or prostitution, I explained how FGM affects the girl's health and well-being and has no legal or medical standing.

The program last year in September, where religious leaders from both Muslim and Christian faiths discussed abortion and women's reproductive rights, was very interesting. It was heartening to see more leaders who are pro-women's rights and pro-women's choice. However, there is still progress to be made, and we need to continue having these conversations to achieve gender equality and end violence against women.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

We were discussing how women are perceived in Nigerian society, which essentially refers to the various stereotypes surrounding women. It is fascinating to compare these stereotypes across different countries, and I would like to learn more about how women are viewed in Nigeria. Additionally, I am curious if these stereotypes vary based on cultural factors such as ethnicity and environment (such as urban versus rural communities). Could you provide more information on these topics?


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

Thank you for your question. In Nigeria, we have many different cultures and tribes, each with their own narratives and social norms for women. However, on a larger scale, women's rights are not respected in rural areas. For example, some cultures expect a woman to sleep with her deceased husband's corpse and drink water used to wash his body. Conversely, if a woman dies, her husband is not expected to do anything. In other cultures, a woman is expected to shave her hair and wear black for months after her husband's death, but men are not held to the same standard.

In my culture, women's rights are not well respected. The President and his wife live in separate rooms, with the wife living only in the kitchen and bedroom and not contributing economically or academically to national issues. However, there are a few traditions where women's rights are respected. For example, Amanda Ideche, the author of "Half of a Yellow Sun," was recently named the first female chief in our community. This was a symbol of respect and regard, but some people still opposed it, saying it would destroy our culture.

My gender should not limit my ability to hold certain positions. However, even in 2023, women are not able to hold certain positions in our culture, and this is reflected in our political space. We have fewer women in power than men, and while we are making progress, we still have a long way to go. We are fighting to be seen, respected, and to hold certain positions, one step at a time, in one culture at a time.


Zoe Calyer

Your article on COVID-19 discusses how the pandemic has led to an increase in incidents of sexual violence and child marriages in Nigeria. Could you provide an update on whether these conditions have improved in the country following recovery from the pandemic?


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

I am unsure if we can say that we have fully recovered from the pandemic, even though we no longer wear face masks. When women or survivors are in close proximity to their abusers and cannot receive help, cases of abuse are likely to increase. Unfortunately, our response to COVID-19 was not as well-planned as in other countries. Shelters were shut down, and hospitals were only open to COVID-19 cases, making it difficult for women to receive medical attention. Police officers enforced lockdowns, and the court system was closed. At that time, survivors could not access justice. However, now that institutions have reopened, we are doing better, but there is still work to be done. We have more sexual assault centers, but they are not well-equipped. Cases have started to pile up in family courts, and there are still many systems in the government that need to be fixed. Civil organizations are trying to fast-track these cases and gather evidence as quickly as possible. Child marriage is still an issue in our communities, but policies have improved. However, there is still little implementation, and there is a lot of work to be done. Our research on the status of women's rights in Nigeria shows that most states do not have a coordinated response team. We need to work together to fix these systems and ensure that survivors receive the help they need.


Katie Siddons

I read your article "The Prevalence of Sexual Violence in Nigeria (2018)" and noticed a high rate of 44.9% in Gombe. I am curious as to why there is such a high prevalence of sexual violence in Gombe compared to other regions.


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

This issue is not unique to Gombe. As a Muslim state, Gombe has a higher incidence of intimate partner violence and child marriage. When young girls are married off at the age of 13, their bodies are still growing. When their husbands demand sex, the young girls often refuse because they are young and may get injured during intercourse. In this culture, when victims of abuse try to seek help, their abusers usually refuse to grant it and may end up beating them. When victims attempt to leave their husbands and return home to their parents, they cannot come back home since they are married and must stay with their husbands. Sometimes, when they do return home, their fathers chastise or beat them and force them to return to their husband's home. When domestic abuse victims return to their partners, they continue to experience abuse. Violence is used to force sexual relations and intimacy, leading to further abuse. For older women, sitting is not allowed. Let me paint you a picture. I work in this community, mainly in Nigeria. When we have meetings with men, women are not allowed to sit at the table. Men sit at the table, and women stand nearby. When men speak, women are not allowed to respond. If a woman does something unacceptable to her partner, she may be beaten or raped. Culture and religion play a significant role in people's well-being and safety, causing increased violence. The money markets are where parents borrow money and use their children as collateral. Women are often confined to their homes and may be unable to show their faces. If a husband sees his wife talking to a stranger, she may be beaten. Violence is prevalent throughout the country, particularly in the Northern States. This is why there is an increase in abuse cases in Gombe.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

Earlier today, I spoke with a woman from Liberia who argued that the focus should not solely be on the number of women in parliament, but rather on the quality of women we elect. Do you agree with this statement? Is it more important to have qualified women in Congress than an equal representation of genders? Additionally, do you believe Nigeria is prepared for this change, and are there enough qualified women candidates available?


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

I agree that the number of women in office is not the only concern. It is equally important to consider the number of women in positions of power. These two factors go hand in hand. Even if qualified women are elected, they will still be outnumbered by men in office. This results in bills and policies regarding women being rejected by those in power. Therefore, while quality is important, quantity is equally important.

In Nigeria, women face numerous cultural, social, and economic challenges, putting them at a disadvantage. To address this, we need more women in politics and positions of power. This way, policies and views that represent the majority of Nigerian women can be implemented across all aspects of society. Unfortunately, the current election shows that Nigeria is still unprepared for this change. We must work towards increasing the number of women in politics and positions of power.

The question of "What is quality?" is critical. For instance, a mechanic who comprehends the needs of their community but lacks perceived quality may not get elected. Therefore, quality in politics means understanding the needs of one's constituency, articulating them, and enlisting the help of capable individuals to implement policies that safeguard their rights or improve their living conditions. Essentially, politics is about representation and maximizing understanding of constituents' wants and needs. We need to be more realistic in our solutions. We don't necessarily need only highly qualified women, and we can learn and adjust accordingly. So, while I understand the original question, we simply need more women in office to achieve better representation. It is important to consider statistics such as the number of educated women, girls currently attending school, and females employed in leadership roles.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

It's interesting to note that they insist on having qualified women, but they don't seem to insist on having qualified men. I find this quite intriguing. What are your thoughts on this?


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

Yes, this is because men are often perceived as natural leaders, while women are often perceived as nurturers.


Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

I have one final question, which we ask every individual we interview: Imagine you wake up tomorrow as the President of Nigeria. What is the first thing you would do with this power?


Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi

Yes, that's a brilliant question. I think the first thing I would do is take a look at all the policies related to women's rights and begin proposing changes to them. But since I'm more of a policy person, I would prefer to serve in the House of Representatives.

 

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