Amiable Josephine Effah-Chukwuma is the executive director, Project Alert On Violence Against. She founded the non-governmental organization in 1999 and ever since then, the passion she has for the organization has not waned. She is still thrilled by what she does. “What thrills me most about Project Alert is our ability to put smiles on the faces of numerous girls, women and families who come to us feeling life is over for them. The Support Services Programme, SSP, of the organization though challenging, as we have to deal with several institutions in the society – family, police, courts, cultural, religious etc. – is the one that thrills me the most. Giving hope to the hopeless; challenging cultural norms, breaking the silence and encouraging women to speak out; getting justice for these women etc., thrills me so much. The smiles the women give me; the ‘thank you’; and ‘God bless you’, make me go home daily, a very satisfied woman. Touching lives through Project Alert, thrills me,” she assured. You wonder how she came to develop a strong concern for women and children, so much so that she is a strong voice for them? “I was born into a family of six girls, with parents who believed so much in their girls and gave them sound education, even up to university level. Love radiated in my home while growing up, and I never saw my parents quarrel or fight one day. However, in the community we lived, I witnessed one or two incidents that raised my curiosity while in secondary school in Lagos (Our lady of Apostles Secondary School, Yaba). One was a couple in an inter-racial marriage (Yoruba woman and Ibo man). Very peaceful family they used to be, until the man died, and suddenly everyday there were regular quarrels and cries from their house by the woman as they prepared to bury the husband; and after the burial. One day, the late man’s brothers came and were carting things away. I asked my mum what was going on and she couldn’t or wouldn’t explain it to me.
I knew something was wrong. The kids, who were agemates of mine and my siblings kept crying and clinging to their mum. The second incident happened during my first year in the university. My roommate was dating a third year student and she would always go out with him. On a couple of occasions, she would return with bruises and red eyes and I would ask her what happened. She would say, they had a fight because of what she did. And I would ask her what happened? What caused the fight? Why did he have to beat you; couldn’t he just talk? Do your parents beat you this way? I would ask her. She would keep off the boy for a little while, and the next thing you know, she was going out with him again. I was angry; I hated the boy; and made sure I was out of the room anytime he came visiting. “These two separate incidents formed me. I had so many unanswered questions about the treatment of girls and women as I grew up. Though brought up in a protective, safe home; I was witnessing several abuses of girls and women and was even wondering at one point, if it was a crime to be a woman,” she enthused. She acknowledges that it is a daunting task being a female activist/crusader for the rights of women in a society such as ours. “Hmm, being a woman and fighting for the rights of women in Nigeria is interestingly challenging. First you are seen and perceived as a radical, a rebel trying to disturb or change the order of things. Nigeria is a patriarchal society where male domination is the order of the day. Culture, tradition and religion are used to justify the abuse of women’s human rights. Women to a large extent, are socialised to be seen and not heard; and submitting to the dictates of men (as fathers, brothers, husbands and even sons). “So, as a female activist fighting for the human rights of women and girls is not easy. One of the major challenges is culture and tradition. People tend to think culture is static, especially those aspects of culture that discriminate against and violate women. Women themselves have been socialised to seeing themselves as second fiddle; unable to think and plan for themselves without a man; accept violence in the home as normal; and not have a say in both private and public life.
Thus, I am always confronted with this culture challenge. I have over the years tried to sensitize people that in a situation where there is conflict between human rights and culture, human rights have an upper hand. Human beings make culture and not the other way round,” she stressed. She mentioned yet another factor that tends to bring women down. “Yet another challenge is the manipulation and misinterpretation of the holy books – Bible and Quran – to justify acts of violence against women; and why women should condone and not speak out when their rights as human beings are being abused in both the public and private spheres. Religious manipulations are being used to batter women into submission. Women, young girls in particular and children in general, are the number one victims of some fake pastors and religious leaders, who abuse them physically, sexually and psychologically under the guise of removing witchcraft; treating barrenness etc,” she said as a matter of fact. She is not done yet. “The slow workings and corrupt nature of the criminal justice system, starting from the police, to the courts and prisons in Nigeria, is yet another challenge to human rights work. Justice delayed is justice denied. Several female victims of physical and sexual violence, do not achieve closure on their victimization because of corrupt practices by some officers in the justice system; and prolonged nature of the cases in court,” she gesticulated.
“Poor funding for NGOs doing human rights work, especially in the area of practical support services, is yet another challenge. Governments at all levels do not provide funds for human rights work,” she asserted. How did she feel remembering that for a long time before the birth of Project Alert, women’s issues were not given adequate attention? You may ask. “Honestly I don’t know how female victims of violence used to fare, before the advent of NGOs such as mine. I shudder at the thought that there was a time when abused women or girls had nowhere to go to; who to talk to; and where to get help generally. At the time we started, we were the first NGO to focus exclusively on violence against women. Before we came into existence, the issue of violence against women was treated on ad-hoc basis, as an exception rather than the norm. Domestic violence, sexual violence and harmful traditional practices were shrouded in a lot of secrecy and silence. Nobody wanted to talk about them, for fear of stigmatization,” she said. But now, is there a reduction in the abuse of women since 1999 when Project Alert came to be? “I would not say there has been a reduction, I would rather say there is more awareness about it; more willingness to discuss it openly, report its occurrence and seek justice and help. Silence which used to be a weapon in further perpetrating acts of violence against women has been broken. Fathers, brothers, sons are all seeking help for their daughters, sisters and mothers,” she nodded. Most often it is difficult to help women when they are in dire need because they bottle up things and don’t speak out. “The question we should ask ourselves is why do women keep quiet about their victimization.
The answer to that is very clear: they do not want to be subjected to secondary victimization. Primary victimization is the violent act itself (domestic violence, rape, assault etc.) while secondary victimization is the blame and the shame. If we want female victims of violence to speak out, then we must have structures and processes in place to deal with the issues professionally and in an accelerated manner. Why should I speak out about my victimization if I am sure you will be of no use to me,” she said. This amazon said she has been moved to tears severally due to some emotional problems of people (women and girls) she encounters in course of work. “Of course there have been cases that have moved me to tears. These include cases such as incestuous defilement of children by fathers; acts of domestic violence that have resulted in maiming and death; forced child marriage that almost resulted in the victim killing herself,” she recalled. Did you ask about women battling low self-esteem in adulthood because of abuse they faced while growing up? “There are several women like that, who due to the various abuses they experienced while growing up have lost their self-esteem. This is common, especially in adults, who were sexually molested as kids. They grow up not having confidence in themselves and believing they are not capable of doing anything. Such women need to undergo counselling that would help them gradually regain their sense of self-worth, dignity and confidence,” she said, finally.
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