On the 3rd of February, Khadijah Adamu a 24 year old pharmacist in Northern Nigeria would spark a nationwide conversation when she shared the story of her physical abuse. Fakhrriyyah Hashim, a social activist and community development advocate replied to her tweet with the hashtag #ArewaMeToo. In days following the initial tweet, hundreds of people would use the hashtag to share harrowing details of rape and abuse exposing an underbelly of undiscussed sexual violence in Northern Nigeria.
The term Arewa is the general term used to refer to Northern Nigeria. The region, which has a majority Muslim population is conservative and issues surrounding sex and sexuality are rarely discussed. The ArewaMeToo initiative (now also an offline movement) seeks to inspire a paradigm shift in the perception and reaction to sexual and gender based violence in Northern Nigeria. The initiative’s ultimate aim is to break the silence and cycle of abuse to impact institutional reform.
In light of Sexual Assault Awareness month, I interviewed Fakhrriyyah (co-convener of the initiative) to get her insight into the campaign and lessons from the journey so far.
Read her responses to the ten questions below.
1. You created the hashtag #ArewaMeToo in response to Khadijah Adamu’s story on Twitter. Since then, hundreds of survivors have spoken about the abuse they’ve experienced from their partners, family members and Arabic teachers to name a few. Did you expect the hashtag to generate the momentum it did?
Not quite, but when it did it presented a golden opportunity as we kept gaining traction. For us to keep the momentum of the conversation we had to take it offline to strategise on ways to stamp out abuse by breaking the silence, not just online, but into the nooks and crannies of our society.
2. What is your response to people who have concerns about publicly naming ‘alleged’ abusers as a legitimate process for justice?
I think it’s not a bad thing that people are questioning us. It means as a society we are critically thinking about certain things. I just wish it was spread across every aspect of our society, where we question our politics, governance and even cultural practices with the same critical lens. In a country like ours, publicly naming abusers may seem like the only avenue for justice because perpetrators have always gotten away with abuse except in very few cases.
We make sure to verify accusations before we broadcast them but that isn’t enough.
We must be able to take persons accused before a court to ensure the legitimacy of accusations.
3. A culture of secrecy and shame helps abusers to thrive and #ArewaMeToo gave a lot of people (men and women) the confidence and courage to share their stories. What tips and advice do you have for creating safe spaces online and offline?
A lot of young people came into our DMs to share private and sensitive aspects of their lives on Twitter and other social media platforms because they felt safe. Offline many people were able to find safety in the company of their friends that shared the same experiences.
It made them feel like they were not alone in the world.
Organisations like NEEM foundation have really amazing support groups that are confidential and help people feel safe outside of their screens and I would recommend checking them out.
4. Worldwide, cultural and religious sensitivities about sex and sexual abuse can be barriers for survivors seeking justice. What are the most prominent barriers in Northern Nigeria and how does the movement support survivors to tackle them?
The stigma of coming out as a survivor is still a major problem and especially within unsupportive groups like one’s family and close associates. Personally, sharing my own story was an attempt to shed a little of that stigma.
Pairing survivors with mental health help is one of the ways we are trying to aid them to work through their traumatic experiences.
We have been able to pair a few with notable organisations such as Mentally Aware and private therapists at no cost. We are trying to co-ordinate so more organisations are able to offer their services to survivors. Hopefully when our website is live we’ll be able to do more with pairing survivors with mental health therapy and legal aid, which we have done with a few cases.
5. In the period since the movement started, what story has stayed with you or had the most impact?
All of them. For someone with a lousy memory, most of the traumatic experiences shared with me ring in my head. Most recently, I was called to a rape case that happened in Abuja involving an 11 year old girl. It was a really terrible feeling and I had to clench my fists to stay in control of my emotions, there was a lot of anger there.
6. What has been your biggest challenge with the campaign so far?
Turning an organic movement into an organised/ offline initiative is strenuous. It takes a great deal of time and effort. Ensuring that mistakes are minimised in an effort to structure and build beyond that organic essence can be challenging but incredibly educative.
At every point it has been and still is a learning process.
Leadership isn’t a piece of cake. Carrying such a massive load on your back forces you to reconcile with the kind of environment you’re working in and also the people you have to carry along in the work but it’s a great learning process.
7. One thing I love about your social media (particularly Instagram) is the joyful presence you have. How do you take care of your mental health and what helps you to overcome challenges?
I think when you’ve seen the world through a certain lens you discover that whatever exists in the world is created out of people. The energy I want I find in myself and I push that out. It’s a great deal about finding emotional balance and accepting that you can only control things from inside and just running with the flow of things. I put myself out there and somehow when you’re open to the world, it accepts you and you learn to navigate through it. When I get down, I think about the beauty out there and I find peace.
8. If you could change or create 3 new policies in Nigeria particularly in relation to women and sexual violence, what would they be and why?
Nigeria’s constitution is misogynistic by design and as long as we do not review it, we cannot systematically rid ourselves of violence against women. The gender equality bill needs to be passed because it elevates the status of women. The VAP (Violence against persons) act protects women in the sense that it recognises other forms of abuse and it provides some protection to an extent. We are going to be working on pursuing the domestication of these laws including the child rights act which protects children from a range of abuses which the North has been very aversive to. The important thing is making these laws work through implementation and you can only do so by strengthening institutions.
9. In 5 years, what is the impact you envision the ArewaMeToo movement having in Nigeria?
An awakened society that allows for conversation on gender based violence. We can only counter such a scourge by allowing for dialogue which we are beginning to see and people are listening.
We reduce the severity of sexual violence by attaching a great deal of irrelevance to the negative impact it has on communities and society as a whole.
In 5 years, we envision institutional reform that disallows normalisation of sexual and gender based violence. We want to spark a revolution of minds where university students are at the forefront of reform and we have started by engaging this niche of our society’s greatest manpower. We want young people to take the mantle of leadership by being at the forefront of creating solutions to attack our society’s scourge.
10. How can people support the movement and what kind of steps should we all be taking to create a more safe and just society for women?
In the next few weeks, we are going to be rolling out components of the ArewaMeToo initiative and working with different stakeholders to ensure proper implementation. We want to carry everyone along at every point and that is why we are properly documenting everything we’re doing.
We want everyone to claim ownership of this scourge and be able to identify themselves as part of the solution.
Getting the conversation going is very important to ensuring continued attention of the prevalence of sexual and gender based violence in the North.
Some tweets from the ArewaMeToo campaign
This interview is particularly important to me because of the story of Nusrat Jahan Rafi, a 19 year old girl who was burned to death in Bangladesh earlier this month for refusing to drop sexual harassment charges against the headteacher of her Islamic school. She was lured to the rooftop of her school and with her hands tied, doused in kerosene and set alight.
In the ambulance fearing she might not survive, she told her brother “The teacher touched me, I will fight this crime till my last breath.” Nusrat died four days later in the hospital.
There’s so much work to be done to rid our society of sexual violence and as Fakhrriyyah mentions in the interview, we all have to claim ownership of this scourge and identify ourselves as part of the solution.