Abuja’s War Against Women: The crime of being a woman

by Ayisha Osori, Nigeria

Imagine your young adult daughter out for the evening with friends. Sometime after 9.30pm she calls crying hysterically and in the background you hear raised voices. Through the noise she explains that she and her friends were forcibly abducted by members of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) and taken to the Area 10 Sports Complex. You rush there, calling every ‘important’ person you know in the FCT to see what can be done and you are shocked by what you find. A small airless room packed with almost 40 people and your daughter and her friends looking like extras for a horror movie. You try in vain to get them to listen: your daughter and her friends are not prostitutes and the boys in their company, who chased after the vans into which they were thrown, are not customers but friends.

A female policewoman carrying a rifle casually waves her weapon at them and asks ‘is this the way Nigerians dress?’ You look at her in her dirty black uniform with blouse bursting at the buttons and at the women in the room in several stages of undress. There are scraps of cloth all over the floor, like fabric confetti. Other rescuers are in various stages of negotiation with the officials of the AEPB and the discussion is getting heated. Suddenly one of the policemen jumps up and points his gun at a young man’s stomach and says ‘I will waste you here and nothing will happen’. Your phone rings and one of the government officials you had called on your way asks to speak to whoever is in charge…none of the abductors are willing to take the call. You start getting desperate. ‘What do you want?’ Someone pulls you aside. You know a good deal when you hear one; you pay up and know that no receipt will be offered. You are not disappointed.

The main objective of the AEPB is supposedly to ‘make the city safe and clean’. Yet for at least 2 years, the AEPB in collaboration with the Federal Society Against Prostitution and Child Labour in Nigeria (SAPCLN) and the Federal Capital Development Authority have worked with the Nigerian Police and the military to make moving around Abuja extremely dangerous for women. Reports say that under the pretext of ‘eradicating commercial sex workers in Abuja’, employees of the AEPB together with armed unidentified members of the security service have been abducting women from the streets at all hours of the day. Without asking for any form of identification these armed men, grab women, shove them into waiting buses, beat them when they try to resist and take them to pseudo law enforcement centers. There, those who can, buy their way out after being thoroughly humiliated, often only after spending a night without any food or water while those who can’t are tortured into admitting they are prostitutes. Then the real and forced prostitutes are forcibly transferred to an alleged rehabilitation camp for purported sex workers maintained by SAPCLN in Arco Estate, Sabon Lugbe.

SAPCLAN’s raison d’etre is getting prostitutes off Abuja streets and rehabilitating them…a job worth at least 5 million Naira for every 50 ‘rehabilitated’ women according to an African Outlook story written by Ovada Ohiare. And not even the lawsuits against the Minister of the FCT, Senator Bala Mohammed and the AEPB can stem their determination.

While the Nigerian Penal Code makes prostitution a crime, the definition of prostitution provides amongst other things that the person arrested must be found to be ‘persistently soliciting’. How many of these women abducted as they come out of offices, restaurants, houses, clubs or even sitting inside cars can be found guilty of ‘persistently soliciting’?

At the Nigerian Women Trust Fund (WF) while our primary objective is to increase the quality and quantity of women in government we understand that there has to be an enabling environment for the successful emergence of women. Violence affects one in three of all women and girls aged15-24 according to the Gender in Nigeria Report 2012.

Since October 8, 2012, when the WF released its first press statement about the activities of AEPB, there have been marches, petitions and even a mock public hearing arranged by the House of Representatives Committee on Public Hearing on March 7 2013. Mock because not only because of the jokes made at the expense of women but because although the Committee claimed it could not have a proper hearing without the Attorney General at the hearing, promised to reconvene and nothing more has been heard from them since.

The abductions and harassments have not stopped and neither has the work of the WF and all its most active partners such as the African Feminist Alliance to get justice for the women and get the AEPB and its stakeholders to stop the state sponsored terrorism against women in Abuja. If women cannot even exercise their rights to freedom of movement without fear, how will we increase the number of women confident and secure enough to take up the mantle of leadership?

 Ayisha Osori is a lawyer, writer and consultant with over twelve years’ experience in corporate & regulatory practice, change communications and gender advocacy. She is the founder of Advocates for Change & Social Justice and the current CEO of the Nigerian Women’s Trust Fund, a non-profit organization created from a public civil society partnership to increase the quality and quantity of women in decision making. She’s passionate about women girls being able to live a life where there are no limitations to what they want to achieve and believes changing the narratives about females and their role in society is critical.

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