Call her a freedom fighter or call her a women’s rights activist and you would be right on both counts. Mrs. Itoro Anaba-Eze is anti-rape advocate of national and international repute. In this encounter with The Interview she describes the journey to founding the Mirabel Centre where victims are provided all necessary support to pick up the lives again. It’s a must-read.
You drafted the first ever Domestic Violence Bill in Nigeria and engaged in advocacy campaigns for its passage into law in 12 states and at the National Assembly. What prompted you?
I trained as a lawyer and started work at Vanguard. Then I worked in women’s advocacy with the late Mrs. Bisi Olateru-Olagbegi. After that I went to LEDAP and my responsibility was the women’s programmes. I drafted the Domestic Violence Bill and took it to the National Assembly, followed by the states. In Akwa Ibom, a female legislator challenged me, saying that women would not use the Bill as a tool. I went to the streets to find out what the response would be. While some said they wouldn’t use it, others said they might consider it. Of course, it was new, strange and not culturally correct and all that, so I was not surprised that people said no, I was more interested in the people that said yes. It would be unjust to deny those who want to do something about domestic violence the right to do so.
The Domestic Violence Bill is not a criminal one. It is more for the survivor. There was nothing of the sort at the time and it was necessary to change that. It defines responsibilities for the police. They have a duty to record and assist the survivors of domestic violence, to allow them to get the necessary services and to make referrals. It also empowers the court to make an order for maintenance. In the first instance, it is not about arresting the perpetrator; it’s about keeping the survivor safe. Some aspects of it have been incorporated into the Violence Against Persons Protection Act signed into law by former President Goodluck Jonathan.
Between then and now, what has changed?
There are challenges. How many women are really ready to use it? Will they, for example, take protection order against their husbands? Then also the police – there is a tendency to advise survivors to go home and settle the matter. Then, of course, there are the usual challenges when it comes to women’s issues and the judiciary and the criminal justice system still there. But NGOs are simplifying the law, taking it to communities and talking to people about it. It’s about evaluating it, seeing what the challenges are and seeing how we can better enforce it. That’s also why the Lagos State government has the Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team. Mirabel Centre is a core member of the team. What the Response Team does is expedite action when such issues come up.
You also founded Blue Ribbon, first-ever all-male advocacy group campaigning for women’s rights in Nigeria; how did that happen?
Blue Ribbon programme was one of the first programmes that I took up in Legal Defences and Assistance Project (LEDAP.) I came across a White Ribbon campaign in Canada and thought it would be good in Nigeria. I wrote to the Canadian Embassy to have a seminar on the role of men in domestic violence. We invited many people from different backgrounds and that was how we started.
How are the men getting on?
They are getting on well but Blue Ribbon is domesticated in LEDAP and all the information is with them.
Mirabel Centre, the first-ever sexual assault centre in Nigeria, which you co-founded, also turned three recently. How has the journey been so far?
I cannot tell the story of the centre without this story: while we were on Allen Avenue looking for responses about the Domestic Violence Bill, I met two teenagers. Something struck me and I spoke to them. One of the girls had been repeatedly raped by her father and had nowhere to go. I couldn’t let it go. Interestingly, at the same time I was invited by the British Council to attend a seminar in the UK on domestic violence and this included a site visit to St. Mary’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre. When I got there, everything came together for me. I got back and wrote to the British Council that we needed to do something for victims of domestic violence. That was in 2003. It was ten years after that we started. In the years we were trying to set up, we kept talking to donors, updating our knowledge, networking and the rest. I almost gave up, hoping and praying that people would get in touch. Department for International Development (DFID) got in touch and finally we began to believe it would work. They thus became the only funder and committed for three years.
We started with training of doctors and nurses because forensic medical examinations need specific skills. Then on 25th November, the UN Day of Elimination of Violence against Women, we did a public launch.
Last year, we held a conference for just men, entitled “Are you man enough to say no to rape?” Everyone, all the speakers, were men. We wanted them to talk about it and how men can be actively engaged. We need men to come out and speak against rape. It will have an impact.
Working with the police has been an eye opener. I had the normal wariness about them but had the need to meet the then DPO of Adeniji Adele. His name is Monday Agbonika and he changed my entire perception of the police. He outlined his vision and they now set up an FSU in five stations in Lagos State and trained members of the unit. They work closely with us and have a trained and committed staff. About 70 per cent of our referrals come from the police. The FSUs are growing and we will have more of those stations.
How did you come about the name, Mirabel?
Many people ask me that question and I tell them that it’s not my name; I don’t even have an English name. And Itoro does not mean Mirabel. We sat down together and thought of the kind of name we would want. We wanted something with a positive feel and one that would be easy to pronounce for people of all backgrounds but also a little bit catchy. I thought of the Mirabal Sisters from the Dominican Republic who were assassinated on the same day. That day, 25th November, is now the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in their honour. We didn’t have the authority to add sisters so here we are – Mirabel! And our logo is a butterfly. It represents our clients who come in suicidal and fragile but by the time we are able to assist, they leave here flying.
There was a time that funds for running the centre became a source of concern; do you have new donors now?
Funding is always a concern because all our services at the centre are free. We don’t have new donors so it is difficult to keep open without funding. We are lucky; the staff have personalized their work and actively seek funds. I am looking at farming as a means of revenue to sustain the centre. We have cut salaries but everyone is understanding and that is one of the benefits of transparency because they know exactly what is going on.
How old was the youngest sexual assault victim you managed at the centre?
The youngest was four months old and the oldest about seventy years old. I believe the youngest perpetrator was four years old. They seem to be getting younger.
Four months old is shocking! How do you deal with that?
A client walks in, there are always a client. We deal with it. We give the counselling support and the medical support. For a child, both the child and the caregiver and sometimes even the entire family are supported. It’s not a one-cap-fits-all; it all depends on who the client is.
It must sometimes be quite harrowing to hear these cases day after day. How do you deal with that on an emotional level, while also separating your professional from your personal?
For us, confidentiality is key. Outside the centre, we don’t have to maintain a relationship. We will not initiate the contact. That said, African culture is naturally warm, and a client might be the one to make contact but we always remember that we can’t talk about the case. That’s why also at the centre, the counsellors are the case managers. I don’t know the clients and only get to interact when they come for Survivors’ Forum. It’s difficult to walk away, though. Their problem becomes your problem. Secondary trauma is a major issue.
In terms of emotional support in dealing so closely with such pain, how do you get support? Is it perhaps religion that gives you that strength?
I am religious but sometimes that takes a back seat. There is so much temptation to succumb to bad religious views and opinions. For instance, you have a rape situation and a religious leader calls me to beg me to forgive the perpetrator. I tell him to go to hell! This person is going to suffer the consequences of this act for the rest of their lives and you’re telling me to forgive? We are not the ones to forgive; it’s God that forgives. In the first instance, religion can disempower the survivor; you need to be careful. You should not force your religious views on another person; you let the person choose.
As regards handling clients’ pain, I have to think about how much people can take before it gets to them. In January, for the first time, we went for a retreat. We will be looking for more things to do as a team. Every month now, we take a day off and have time together to relax. We have ‘Counsel the Counsellor’ where they can also have the opportunity to offload to someone. We also try to get the Friends of Mirabel to help out.
We know that women and children are usually the most affected when it comes to sexual assault; however, men are also victims. Have you had cases of men coming to Mirabel Centre?
We have had 42 male cases. It tends to be male-on-male violence. It is more difficult for men to speak out; they blame themselves and don’t want to reach out because it seems culturally more acceptable for women to be the victims.
What, in your opinion, is responsible for the recent surge in sexual violence cases?
I believe there is more reporting. To say categorically that there is an increase would mean a comparison of data and we don’t have figures for that. Maybe in five or ten years’ time, there might be basis for comparison.
Do you see the situation getting better anytime soon?
People are talking about it and I think it’s getting better in terms of awareness and response. Three years ago, there was nothing; no support service at all at any level. Then it would have to be joining a queue at a hospital like any other patient and repeating your story time after time.
What is the joy you derive from the work that is done at the centre?
Knowing that children and women on the streets have a place to go where they will not be judged, where they can be believed and where they know that people are always there for them. If we have supported 1,700 people and 1,700 people tell me, ‘God bless you,’ surely God will bless me. You see people that are happy: that gives me joy. There is joy in knowing that we are a part of that happiness.
One of the best testimonies that I can share is of a girl who was pimped to her uncle by her father. When her uncle travelled, he started to rape her. Between the two men, she had seven abortions and with the last one her womb was removed. All this happened before she turned eighteen. She dropped out of school. After receiving treatment and support from the centre, she became a different person. She came back to us when she needed money for her exams. When she was walking out of the door, she turned back to her case manager and said, ‘I will make you proud.’ I said, ‘Yes, yes!’ I remember that girl and I feel like jumping. We did something and now she is able to say, ‘Yes this happened to me but it does not define who I am.’
We have an amazing client. She was a widow and lived on the streets for about a year. I was able to raise money to get her accommodation. Her twelve-year-old daughter was raped there. That really pained and hurt her. She brought her here and they were supported. Now that vulnerable woman has become a community activist. She has been supporting survivors. She knows that Mirabel Centre constantly needs funds and organized other survivors to go to the Ministry of Justice together to protest and ask them to support the centre. This is a lady with no formal education. I am looking for ways to build her capacity because she has potential. And you know what? Her granddaughter is called Mirabel.
My joy is knowing that I don’t have to be there for the centre to work. When we started, I had all the information. Now it’s me that calls them (laughs); it is a thing of joy.
The low conviction rate of sexual offenders in Nigeria is worrying; what can we do to change this trend?
We have had five and I think there will be more as there are a lot of cases in court. There is a need to keep on speaking out and to fine-tune the processes that stop justice being done.
Have you had cases of survivors coming with pregnancies resulting from rape? If yes, how did you deal with such cases?
We have had but what we don’t do is to take decisions on behalf of a client. We give them information and let them know the options available to them; but they will decide which option. For every minor, we report to social development (office). Government has its own responsibility in that regard, so it is not within our control but we continue to offer support and also support the parents.
What are the three most important lessons you’ve learnt about Nigerians and sexual assault in the last three years of managing Mirabel Centre?
Bring up your girl-child to be empowered. Let her have an opinion. Allow her to challenge. I always say that I like stubborn female children because rapists are afraid of them. But we must also raise our sons correctly because we need them to respect women. I’ve learnt that a lot of men out there can take a stand against rape.
When we started, people doubted it would work. I’ve learnt that individual strengths vary. Collectively, women have the strength to resist, withstand and make progress. The most empowering thing is to believe that your mother supports you. It is possible for an NGO to work successfully with government, and in working with the police, I have come across many that I can say that I am proud of. Let me also add that I have learnt that it is possible to get good and committed staff without having any prior connection. I have to give credit to my colleagues. They are not my staff, they are my colleagues. They share the vision and personalize it and run away with it. I have learnt how insignificant I am: if I am not there, the centre will carry on. It’s not about me.
The Mirabel Centre can be said to be an interventionist project; will there ever be a time in this country when such an institution will no longer be necessary?
There will always be a need. There is no society yet that has eradicated rape. That is scary but it’s the reality. However, reporting has increased.
Who are your role models?
The person who has had an intense influence on my life is my mother. She was an orphan and a child bride. She had her first period in her marital home. She had no formal education. She told herself that she was going to be the last to be illiterate in her family. She made sure that all seven of us got a good education. We are all graduates. She didn’t try to stop me, she encouraged me and any strength that I have, I got from her. I remember that I was a picky eater as a child. She empowered me by allowing me to learn how to make my food the way I liked it. She didn’t force me to eat what she had made. In her own way, she did her all. She’s my inspiration. I get my stubbornness from my father.