Technology, smartphones promoting violence against girls – Gender equality advocate

Gender equality advocate and Executive Director of Boundless Hands Africa Initiative, Titilayo Ogunbambi, talks to LARA ADEJORO about the need to end gender-based violence

The Federal Government has made several pledges to end discrimination against women and gender-based violence. What is your assessment of its efforts so far?

 Recently, the Minister of Women Affairs, Pauline Tallen, assured Nigerian women that the President would implement the court judgment reserving 35 per cent of appointments in public offices for women groups. So far, so good, the President has been taking some actions to end gender-based violence and support women’s issues in Nigeria. You will recall that during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, the Nigerian Governors’ Forum declared a state of emergency on the increasing rate of sexual and gender-based violence in the country. The Federal Ministry of Women Affairs is also doing a good mainstreaming of gender, including gender-based violence data harmonisation to paint a clear picture for proper planning. We have seen a significant increase in the number of states that have domesticated the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, and also the national gender policy was reviewed last year. More can be done by domesticating these laws and states, understanding the rights and roles of the local government, and education is critical for all stakeholders. I recommend that all hands be on the deck, and gender should keep on being on the front burner for the government and all government agencies that have a role to play in ending GBV.

 How will you say the VAPP Act has fared so far in Nigeria?

We are making some level of progress because some states have domesticated the VAPP Act. The journey to achieving this progress has been a rigorous one, involving advocacy activities, dialogues, consultations, reviews, etc. Obviously, there have been a lot of setbacks with some states but I see progress with the law as it is the first to clearly prohibit all forms of violence against persons in private and public life and provide maximum protection and effective remedies for victims and punishment for offenders. However, just as many other laws in Nigeria, the VAPP Act faces the issue of implementation and lack of funding, while some existing laws are also contradicting the act, for example, the Penal Code in northern Nigeria, which allows husbands to beat their wives for correctional purposes. So we need to ensure that other laws are amended properly to address the issues of laws overlapping in some states. To make the needed progress, we need to continue to engage all stakeholders. It is not just about making the laws, cultural beliefs and traditional practices have to be eroded for us to see the shift from the status quo and also demand accountability to ensure implementation by all stakeholders and service providers. It is not enough to pass the law, the gap in enforcing the VAPP law is also critical and has to be addressed for us to see progress in ending gender-based violence and achieving gender equality in Nigeria.

 It seems reports on GBV are focused on mostly females rather than males. Why is that so?

If GBV happens to more women than men it is only natural to see reports indicating more women. GBV is a human rights violation and a public health problem affecting both males and females. Statistics have also shown that globally, as many as one out of every three women, while in Nigeria, 30 per cent of girls and women aged between 15 and 49 are reported to have experienced sexual abuse. Due to social norms and beliefs about GBV, men and boys normally do not speak up and report their encounters, hence, it is hard to get accurate data that can answer the question of numbers. This just means that we need more efforts and necessary intervention on GBV against men.

What role does education play in preventing gender-based violence?

Education plays an important role in preventing and reducing gender-based violence. Studies have shown that women, with at least secondary-level education, are less likely than their uneducated peers to experience violence. In addition, men with at least secondary education are less likely to perpetrate violence than their less-educated peers. The school, the family, and the peer group represent one of the primary agents of socialisation during childhood to shape a child’s life. The educational system needs to combine formal and non-formal education and vocational training, to have the potential to address gender inequalities and prevent GBV. The educational system must work to empower girls so that they decide where, when, with whom, and how they want to define themselves as women and not follow socially established definitions. But more importantly, educating men to help men internalise that biological differences are not sufficient justification for considering one (male) gender as being above the other (female). Therefore, more important than detecting and acting on sexist behavior by women is that boys learn that being born male does not, by nature, grant privileges over women.

 As a gender equality advocate, what has your experience been like?

Ten years ago, I started this advocacy where women who spoke against inequalities were labelled rebels. Family and friends wondered why gender equality was an issue. I knew societies that value women and men as equals are safer and healthier and show more economic growth. Though a challenging process, remaining relevant while solving social problems can be tasking and discouraging. What kept me going was the power gained through each experience and each life that was saved from the shadows of GBV. I consistently capacitated myself with relevant skills, knowledge, and networks that played essential roles in amplifying my work to keep being constant and sustainable. I have a bachelor of science degree in Public Administration from the University of Jos, Nigeria, and a master of arts in International Development and Policy from the University of Chicago, United States. My career spans the private sector as a procurement professional in both the oil and gas and telecommunication industries and the public sector. I have also worked at Pathfinder International, supporting the Nigerian and Ethiopian portfolio, and interned at the United Nations Department of Global Communications. African Section. My work is recognised globally as a multiple award-winning girl-child advocate, a UNWomen Nigeria Beijing +25 Eaglet, and a 2021 Mandela Washington Fellow selected by the United States government as an outstanding young leader from Sub-Saharan Africa.

 It seems the world is somewhat drifting from physical GBV to social media GBV. What is your take on this?

Online gender-based violence can include unwanted sexual remarks, non-consensual posting of sexual media, threats, doxing, cyberstalking and harassment, and gender-based discriminatory memes and posts among other things. According to a survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, 38 per cent of women have felt threatened on social media, a percentage that climbs to 45 per cent among millennials. In my opinion, both physical GBV and GBV via social media are still being encountered by people, especially young girls, and adolescents. This has just been amplified by access. Before now, a lot of people did not have access to as many digital platforms that are available now. Development has created accessibility to smartphones that have enabled aggressors to develop new forms of emotional blackmail and control. For example, right from when I was a kid, there were bullies in my schools and communities and I believe now they have just found a more efficient way to carry out their acts.

 The psychological impact of online violence and abuse is disturbing, what should be done to curb this?

Education is the most effective strategy for cubing the psychological impact of online violence. Young children are exposed to the use of the internet, hence, we need to catch them young. Focus on early age knowledge, skills, and resilience, teachings on good use of the internet, and positive life coping skills. And anyone affected by online violence should seek help through therapy. There is still a low therapy help-seeking culture in Nigeria. Still, the best way to access expert therapy services is to do an online search, find available options, contact them and ask questions to ascertain their qualifications before you make a choice.

You founded Boundless Hand Africa Initiative for Women and Children in 2016. How many people have you been able to reach out to with advancing gender equality issues?

Over the years, through various interventions, Boundless Hands Africa has advanced the health and well-being of gender-based violence survivors women and girls by facilitating access to sexual reproductive health information, services, and psychosocial support to survivors of sexual abuse, Nigerians living in underserved communities. We lead these efforts through capacity building, education, sensitisation programmes, partnerships with service providers, and policy advocacy by leveraging technology and the media. We have provided psychosocial support and access to justice to 178 women and girls, survivors of sexual abuse, and implemented over 28 education and sensitisation programmes and empowerment initiatives that have reached over 25,000 people online and through our face-to-face programmes.

 You launched a book on sexual and gender-based violence. What propelled you?

Having worked as a gender-based intervention expert for a decade, I have designed and implemented various interventions focused on preventing GBV and providing support for survivors. In every case, I felt the exact amount of pain the survivor felt. Any woman or man, irrespective of age, skin colour, religion, and economic or social status, is at risk of GBV encounter, and the untold stories of GBV had to be told. I wrote ‘Emerge’, an educational weapon to teach women and girls how to break the circle of gender-based violence and create that beautiful future we all dream of. My book is a call to action encouraging everyone to be part of the solution.

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