No Place For Discrimination: These Traditional Leaders Are Standing Up For SGBV Survivors In Their Communities

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BORNO, NIGERIA: The decade-long insurgency in Borno state, northeast Nigeria, has had a devastating impact on the lives of many women, including Yagana Ibrahim*, a mother of five who was captured and enslaved by Boko Haram terrorists.

After four years of captivity, Yagana Ibrahim* finally managed to escape from the clutches of Boko Haram, only to face further hardships in the form of stigma and discrimination. With no family or husband to turn to, she relied on the kindness of strangers who directed her to Simari, a displacement camp in Jere Local Government Area (LGA).

When she arrived at the camp, she found herself an outcast, with people afraid to associate with her. They referred to Yagana as ‘Matan Boko Haram’ which means the wife of terrorists. “It hurts me so much whenever people call me that, others tried to assault me sexually but I never knew that people could be punished for doing such.

“At that time I don’t know why but I became very fierce. Little things upset me and I constantly beat my children,” she told The SolutionsPaper“One morning, I was beating my child when someone from the neighbourhood came in and told me that the community leader wanted to see me. I followed the man not knowing that they reported me because of how I used to treat the children.”

Yagana describes meeting with Bulama Bukar, Simari’s community leader, as a turning point in her life. She says that it was tragic that she had to go through so much pain before finding help.

“Bulama Bukar asked me to meet him the next day and he brought me to the safe space. The caseworker there told me that I could go to jail for maltreating my children, and I was wondering how.”

Yagana started attending psychosocial support sessions offered by Women in New Nigeria and Youth Empowerment Initiative (WINN). It was there that she came to understand the extent of the abuse she had suffered during captivity and the realisation that those who had stigmatised her could be held accountable for their actions.

No Discrimination

Despite the toxic societal norms and stigma that exist around SGBV, Yagana says women in Simari have come together so she and others like her can feel safe and heard. “Unlike before when people didn’t like to associate with me, women from the safe space were the first to start making me feel safe,” Yagana told The SolutionsPaper

“None of them treated me like an outsider and they engaged me in all their activities in the community even before I knew some of them. Whenever they are going to places like naming ceremonies they will ask me to come along with them.” 

Bulama Grema, a community leader from Muna Dalti, believes that understanding the harm caused by stigmatising survivors is the first step in addressing the issue and creating a more supportive environment for survivors.

“When WINN first came, one of the key things they taught us was the need for us to comfort the survivors, and give them confidence. So, we get to understand that once the environment is not comfortable for the survivor he/she will not open up or even seek justice, and so we sensitise our people over that by emphasising in our awareness creation that the survivors didn’t choose for it to happen,” Grema explains.

Some of the survivors during their weekly interactive session at the WGSS. Photo: Rukaiyatu Idris/The SolutionsPaper

WINN’s intervention in Yagana’s community gave her access to useful information that changed her perspective on SGBV. “When I first started attending the counselling sessions, it was a one-on-one conversation. Initially, I didn’t respond to all the questions asked until after I observed how they talked about things that were similar to my experience.

“It was there that I understood that people have been violating my rights and some even assaulted me. Then, I believed nothing could be done because I never knew these are punishable offences,” Yagana notes.

Compared to when we started, there is a great change in their reception of GBV survivors,” Hauwa Grema, a case worker at Simari community, says regarding the impact of the initiative on the people in the community. “Their understanding of referral pathways and all other things related to GBV including reproductive health has changed.” 

WINN’s Fight against SGBV

In the rural communities of Borno state, reporting cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) to authorities is often discouraged by traditional leaders due to cultural taboos around discussing such issues.

Bulama Bukar believed that reporting SGBV would bring shame to his community and damage its reputation. “Back then, we didn’t want our communities to be known for immorality as leaders,” Bukar says, “so we concealed all cases related to GBV though we had limited knowledge of its effects.

“I have been a community leader for about ten years but I did not follow such cases or forward them to any authority. All I do is comfort the victims and make them understand that what has happened cannot be changed,” he told The SolutionsPaper.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that globally, one in three women experience gender-based violence (GBV) at some point in their lives. In Borno state, the latest figures show that over 700 cases of GBV were recorded in a single year.

Hajiya Zuwaira Gambo, Borno’s commissioner for Women’s Affairs noted that “because people are now aware of their rights, people report much more than before. If you remember some years ago, victims are always on the defensive, people would say it is a thing of shame but now victims are coming out to report to Bulamas and law enforcement agencies.”

Although WINN, a not-for-profit organisation was set up in 2010, the “Women and Girls Safe Space” (WGSS) initiative was introduced by WINN in December 2022.

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“I often visit such communities for routine community-based engagement where I talk to them about the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP),” Lucy Dlama Yunana, the Executive Director of WINN, told the SolutionsPaper.

“To my surprise, after the discussion, a man followed me and asked, ‘So, it is punishable by law for a man to beat his wife?’ and I said yes, he said he never knew about it.” It was what prompted her organisation to adopt the use of the WGSS.

Since 2022, WINN has built at least one safe space each in Simari, Kolori, Muna Dalti, Muna Moforo, and Muna Ethiopia communities. These spaces support women and girls to recover from SGBV, and access support, safety and opportunities. WINN also equips the survivors with financial and business skills such as tailoring, liquid soap production, beads making, and pomade making. 

Hanged banners with hotline contacts at Muna Dalti. Photo: Rukaiyatu Idris/The SolutionsPaper

WINN has also introduced local approaches to reporting cases of SGBV, making the justice system more accessible to all. Bulama Bukar stated that they now have direct connections with security personnel and the Human Rights Commission which allows them to seamlessly report and scale cases.

“We have the WINN’s hotline, police line as well as the human rights office. The organisation makes these all accessible for us but all our activities we do [it] through a strategic process. Our first contact person whenever we have such cases –either sexual abuse, intimate partner violence or any form of gender violence– we report first to the organisation,” Bulama Bukar explains.

Bulama Grema spoke about how WINN’s intervention changed his and his community’s perception of SGBV, “We usually don’t talk about SGBV because we see it as a taboo but after a series of engagements with this organisation, we learned that the silence we maintain is very harmful because offenders will continuously take advantage of getting away with what they did.”

Grema explains his community’s approach. “All of us, about ten community leaders alongside WINN officials, we deliberated and agreed on how we can tackle the issue, we then delegated two to three women leaders in each community who will be like our ears in the communities and also we mobilized the women on confidentiality and charged them to reach out to the women leaders for any issue. 

We adopted this method because we want these women to open up and talk about their experiences, especially intimate partner violence, most of these women wouldn’t want to talk about such issues, so we believe that bringing their fellow women will enable them to develop courage,” Grema adds.

Mama Hafsat Helma, a woman leader from the Simari and Muna Moforo communities, spoke about her role in engaging with the communities and reporting cases. “We talk to our fellow women and girls at the safe spaces because we were trained by the organisation on immediate response to sexual abuse which includes not washing the survivor but rushing the survivor to a hospital immediately.

Mama Hafsa Helma, a community delegated women leader at Simari in Jere, Borno state. Photo: Rukaiyatu Idris/The SolutionsPaper

“We also forward the cases to community leaders or we report directly to WINN officers because they are the ones responsible for directing the cases to either human rights or the police,” she explains.

More Challenges to Face 

Despite its successes in other communities, WINN still faces obstacles in some communities due to the lack of interest and rejection of its interventions. 

In some cases, the communities have been resistant to change and reluctant to accept WINN’s efforts to raise awareness about SGBV and empower women and girls. This resistance can be due to cultural or religious beliefs, or simply a lack of understanding of the initiative’s mission.

Women and girls in the community will gather but after some moments, they will start leaving one after the other, they will not talk, they will not respond, when we first came to the Muna Dalti, we operated for about four months without recording any case related to GBV,” Usaka Adamu Sambo, WINN’s official explains. 

Sambo further added that WINN was able to resolve this challenge through repeated efforts to create awareness and engage elders in the community. “But after they have seen how the community leaders are engaged they started opening up and in less than 1 year, from November 2022 to October 2023, we recorded 25 cases.”

Other challenges such as start-up capital for beneficiaries who had learnt livelihood skills posed a barrier to utilising the skills. To address this challenge, the organisation started providing starter kits to those who have completed the training. For example, individuals who learn tailoring skills are given sewing machines to help them start their businesses. 

Yunana, WINN’s Executive Director said the organisation is planning to introduce adult literacy classes for women at the various WGSS in Borno. It also plans to extend its operations to other vulnerable women and communities in parts of Cameroon and Niger. 

As for Yagana, she is now more knowledgeable and is learning tailoring and self-resilient skills, “I am now engaged in this safe space. I come almost every day where we learn a lot of things and interact with fellow women, and I have seen how the other set receives starter kits after the training. I know I will get a sewing machine after the training and that will be enough for a woman like me.”

Names with asterisks are names of sources that have been changed to protect them.

Editors’ Credit

Lead Editor: Zubaida Baba Ibrahim

Sub-Editor: Precious Ewuji

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Rukaiyatu Idris is a freelance journalist from Borno, Northeast Nigeria. Her niche in reporting includes but not restricted to; Gender and education, among other Humanitarian issues. Her stories on gender issues were featured in international online media outlets, such as AWiMNews and International Policy Digest. Rukaiyatu writes opinion articles for national dailies, also reports as a contributor to The Humanitarian Times.


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