Exclusive interview with Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi a rape survivor and the founder of Stand To End Rape Initiative (S.T.E.R)

Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi is the founder of Stand To End Rape Initiative (S.T.E.R), an NGO she founded out of the pain and injustice she suffered as a rape victim.

 Ayodeji was raped by election touts in 2011 when she was undergoing the mandatory NYSC programme. The touts wanted her to collect bribe and compromise on her values,and when she refused, they set her up and raped her.  Ayodeji was a virgin when the incident occurred, and she remembers feeling helpless and ashamed especially because the authorities were of no help.

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 However, she has become a testimony and is dedicated to helping other rape victims overcome their hurt and ordeals. With S.T.E.R, she has reached over 200,000 people providing pro-bono medical, legal, mental health, educational and empowerment services.She won the 2019 Commonwealth Young Person of the year for the amazing work she does with her NGO. 

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She opens up about her inspirations, future expectations and how she feels about her recent milestone and if there is one thing we took away from our meeting with her, it is that she is a survivor with a purpose…

 How do you feel to have been awarded Young Person of the Year by Commonwealth?

It genuinely feels great to do work in the grassroots and receive global recognition for it. It is a huge deal for me because I was the only West African to win and the only female among four finalists. It is rewarding for the Stand to End Rape initiative and a challenge to keep unveiling the culture of silence and creating a support network for survivors of gender-based violence in Nigeria.

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The Foundation S.T.E.R has been in existence for how long?

The initiative first started as an online hashtag in 2013, with the aim to deconstruct the culture of silence and provide a platform for survivors to feel emboldened and safe to speak out about their experiences. Within the space of nine (9) months, it morphed into a not-for-profit organization in the year 2014. On June 19, 2019, STER Initiative will be five years!

 What inspired this movement?

This initiative was spurred by the need to create a safe space for survivors to receive support. As you know, pre-2013, it was difficult to openly talk about sexual violence and even more difficult to find places toreceivesupport or trust the system to provide it. I was tired of this! Why must sexual violence survivors, the majority of whom are women, be violated and shamed to remain silent about their experiences while the perpetrators run free, and the victims cannot receive holistic support? Why is the society comfortable with saying rape is a shameful thing, but will rather blame the victim and not the person who committed the crime? Violence against women has economic, physical, health and mental health implications, but why is this not on the front burner and a national concern? STER Initiative was founded not only to bridge that gap but to really create a systemic change in our society where the masses are more enlightened about this issue; actions are in place to prevent and seek redress and policies are available to eliminate violence against women and girls.

I was also inspired by a lady named Bunmi, among others, who bravely shared her sexual violence experience and defied the norm. I knew there was so much power and change our stories and voices could bring.This is why we are a movement of young people demanding access, change and justice. There is so much power to destabilize the ‘norm’ when young people decide to fight back against oppression and injustice.

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You have been on this journey to see women can feel safe in their communities for five years or more, are you satisfied so far?

I feel satisfied to some extent. Times and culture are changing,and there is an awarenessof the need for safe spaces for women and girls in Nigeria. Before now, domestic violence was categorised as a family issue,and women refrained from leaving abusive homes, but today, with more awareness, things are changing. Speaking about one’s experience with rape was so difficult, but today, many feminists are changing the narrative and breaking the patriarchal hold on women. Is the community a 100% safe for women, absolutely not? Women and girls are still continually abused within their homes, harassed on the streets, in the workplace, schools to mention a few.

Can you enlighten us on the harm associated with genital mutilation?

Female genital mutilation/cutting is another grievous violation on women and girls which has so many consequences. Performing this archaic practice on a girl-child has not only physical consequences but also has physical and mental health implications. Asides from the excessive loss of blood, most times, circumcisers use unsterilized sharp objects such as razors and knives on more than one person.That is unhygienic and increases the risk of contracting HIV.

While this is the most glaring immediate harm, there is a range of harm FGM causes to its victims. Considerably, most victims suffer from dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse), sexual dysfunction, and complications during childbirth, which most times results in vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) to mention a few.FGM is a human rights violation and has no benefit to the health and well-being of women and girls; rather it causes more harm.

For women who might have experienced any of these things such as rape, genital mutilation, domestic violence, how can they get in touch with you for assistance?

Contacting Stand to End Rape Initiative for assistance is easy. We can be called on the phone, visited at the office, sent an email,and we are just a DM away on social media. For ease, these are our contact channels:

 

  1. Social media platforms – @StandtoEndRape (on Twitter, Facebook,and Instagram).
  2. Phone: 08095967000, 08130320270, 08188576948
  3. Email: contactus@standtoendrape.org, standtoendrape@gmail.com
  4. Office address:

Do you think the situation at hand gets worse every day?

This is difficult to say as a higher levelof awareness brings a greater consciousness on issues. Years ago, many believed that harassment in the workplace (a boss hitting on them as it was called then) is normal and acceptable, so also, was the notion that when someone lavishes you with gifts, you are indebted to them and your body is the price. These and so many other narratives were entrenched in our belief system and society. However, with more awareness, victims are coming forward to share their experiences and deconstruct the rape culture which seemingly has contributed to the increase in reportage and is perceived as “the situation being worse.” From the cases we have received, we have identified that the majority of the violations are perpetrated against children and some have been years and years of abuse without an outlet to air it. So yes, the situation is terrible as it is and we are hoping more awareness, legal frameworks and behavioral change communication will help reduce the prevalence and importantly, the incidence of sexual violence.

Speaking up is a great problem for those women faced with these issues because society finds a way to blame them, what can be done about that?

All we need is a social re-engineering of perceptions, beliefs,and values. A society that blames the victim of a crime is as guilty as the perpetrator. So, women should not be blamed for a violation or silenced to bear domestic violence because it is a family issue. Any act that limits, threatens or maims women is a violation of their rights and society must speak against such. No more should practices of FGM or domestic violence or requesting for sex in exchange for an employment offer be seen as a rite of passage. As individuals, we must use our platforms to speak against such violence and within (y)our different spaces demand and act better towards women. Gender equality should no longer be paid some lip service or only focused on March 8th – because it is convenient.

What exactly motivated you to embark on this journey?

I was spurred by the need to bridge the gap between survivors of sexual violence and receiving support. For too long, women had been silenced and forced to live in shame for violence done against them, so I saw the need for society to think differently and abandon its archaic belief system. As such, I began to deconstruct rape culture through information and ensuring women can receive medical, legal, mental health and any other form of support they could require.

Do you agree Nigerian laws can do better to serve as a support system for WOMEN?

Oh absolutely! The law over the years has however been used as an instrument to limit the capacity of women and keep them as second class citizens. Why should safe abortion be illegal for victims of sexual violence and incest? Why should women have to ask for laws to enable them to engage in family planning to help them plan their lives better and our Federal Legislative arm will reject such a bill? It goes to show that once Laws are progressive, they can indeed be a good support system for women and girls.

We are aware STER also focuses on educating males of all generations about consent, how is that going?

 Men are gatekeepers of certain patriarchal beliefs and as such, educating males about consent, bodily autonomy,and gender-based violence is so important. This has been an interesting journey for us as it has been an opportunity to teach young boys in schools and communities differently and contributing to building the next generation of #HeforShe advocates.

You liaise with government bodies and personnel to push this forth, how well is the support and cooperation you get?

There is room for more support as the existing system has not really collaborated with Stand to End Rape initiative as much as required, but we keep working and hope that someday, the government will see the need to collaborate because synergy is vital.

You are working on passing a bill to ensure students in Tertiary institutions are not harassed by lecturers, how soon is that feasible?

There is still a long way to go with this Bill as the Senate Assembly has passed it,butit is awaiting passage from the House of Representatives. However, we are working on reviewing the Bill before the house and re-introducing it as there are loopholes in its implementation that we have identified. The change could take a process, but it is feasible. We must create a system where our students are not harassed, forced into sex or graded based on their refusal to concede to abusers by lecturers.

Are there centers by STER Women can go to for assistance?

Stand to End Rape Initiative does not have a center. However, we do collaborate with several centers to provide support to women across Nigeria – including shelters.

Final words to women?

Be bold, be strong. Sooner than later, we will achieve a safer society for us all.

 

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