Olapeju Ibekwe is the Chief Executive Officer of Sterling One Foundation. The foundation recently partnered with Live Abundantly and the British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, to launch the 2023 edition of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence in Nigeria. As a movie producer, Ibekwe uses her work within the media and creative space to raise awareness about gender issues, especially gender-based violence, while actively supporting young girls through mentorship and providing business advisory for early-stage entrepreneurs. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE-KORIEOCHA, she speaks on how Sterling One Foundation through partnerships is actively raising awareness about violence against women and girls, highlighting abuse of boys and men, and most importantly educating duty bearers and stakeholders on actions and strategies that will help to end the menace. She also hints at red flags to show that a woman is suffering from gender-based violence.
Sterling One Foundation recently partnered with Live Abundantly and the British Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria, to launch the 2023 edition of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence in Nigeria. Kindly tell us about this partnership and what you aim to achieve.
As you may know, the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that focuses on raising more awareness about violence against women and girls and highlighting strategies for its prevention and elimination. It kicks off on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until December 10, Human Rights Day with activities that spotlight survivors, tell their stories, and advocate scalable solutions to reduce cases of abuse and violence. For our partnership with Live Abundantly and the British Deputy High Commissioner, we are not just hoping to raise awareness about violence against women and girls, but also to highlight abuse of boys and men, and most importantly educate duty bearers and stakeholders on actions and strategies that will help to end the menace. In line with this year’s theme – “UNITE! Invest to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls”, we are living the theme and also looking to galvanize funding for the critical work that is needed to reduce and end the violence. We aim to see a significant increase in awareness on the impact of GBV, improved access to essential services for women and girls who are survivors, improved confidence and knowledge base for women and girls to report unwanted sexual activity and/or violence and get help, an enhanced private sector engagement on gender-based violence, thereby strengthening GBV prevention and response interventions, improved effectiveness to prevent and respond to VAWG, access to funding, vocational skill acquisition, acceleration, and development of enterprise for survivors in partnership with responders and service providers, increased effectiveness of legislation, policies, and accountability systems to prevent and end VAWG.
Many women who are victims of gender-based violence have chosen to keep quiet as a result of societal pressures and other factors. What are red flags to show that a woman is suffering from gender-based violence?
My experience leading advocacy against gender-based violence has taught me that people react to abuse very differently. Most people become withdrawn and try their best to stay away from forming bonds with people. This is often as a result of trauma and the loss of confidence in self. When you speak with women with abusive spouses, you might notice controlling behaviour from their husbands in how they allow them to make personal choices. One surprising dynamic is how some victims become abusers themselves, and start to mete out abuse to people they believe they have some form of influence over. So it is a wide range of things, and this is why we need as many safe spaces as possible. Many of the pains and signs are not physical but psychological, so we need to help more survivors break the silence and end this culture of shame and fear preventing people from getting the help they need.
As a foundation, why did you decide to join this campaign and what do you hope to achieve after the campaign?
Gender equality is one of the focus areas of the Sterling One Foundation and violence against women and girls is a huge threat to progress in this space. The cultural biases that continue to enable people to carry out violent and abusive acts in their different forms and get away with them help no one. We can’t build a progressive society if they remain in place and that’s what we hope this campaign helps us achieve. Reducing violence in the workplace also motivates us as the negative implications of such include productivity loss as GBV (Gender Based Violence) can lead to absenteeism and increased turnover among employees, impacting the company’s bottom line which can affect investor confidence and business sustainability in the long run, or lead to reputational issues that can be avoided. We need more people to understand that we are better off being inclusive and upholding values that make everyone feel safer and empowered enough to chase their dreams and contribute to building a better world.
Statistics show that one in three women and one in six boys have experienced violations, why have these numbers continued to increase instead of decline?
This is a question we get quite often and it is honestly a sad situation to see. Different socioeconomic factors contribute to the seeming increase and the first is the cultural bias I spoke of earlier. Culture doesn’t change overnight. A lot of reorientation efforts go into changing how people think, and act, what they pass on and so on. Yes, there are projects addressing some of these issues, but these projects are not as widespread as the challenges are. We also have the consequence problem. What do I mean by this? Not many states in Nigeria have fully functioning organisations that tackle cases of abuse and mete out the right punishments to perpetrators. If there isn’t a consequence for action, some people won’t feel the need to report their abusers, thus they remain free and most likely continue abusing more people sadly. Lagos is a model state when you think about having an agency with the structure to tackle cases of abuse, but the reach is still not on the level that can cater to the number of cases we have within the state. Of course, there are other factors that heighten the problem such as poor economic situations as shown by the spike in abuse cases during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, so it is clearly a multifaceted problem.
Kindly explain how private-public partnerships can help in the fight against gender-based violence.
There are different aspects to the support partnerships like ours can provide, the first of which is awareness creation. Every organisation has their circle of influence and when we come together for causes like this, we help to create change within those circles. We educate them, and we equip and empower them with the tools and tips to tackle the issues in their immediate environment. This way, we have more champions speaking up against violence and abuse. The theme of this year’s campaign outlines the other key role private–public partnerships play which is around investments and support for projects and solutions that create an impact. Most of the projects leading the fight against gender-based violence are led by civil society organisations, many of which need funding to scale and this is where the private sector can help. As part of corporate social responsibility, more private sector players can help non-profits scale their message and their solution to more people. For instance, as part of this campaign, we helped raise funds for Mirabel Centre, a not-for-profit and Nigeria’s first sexual assault referral centre, to help enhance the work they do and that’s a gift partnerships like ours can give.
Do you think there are laws in Nigeria that need to be amended to aid the fight against gender-based violence, if there are, can you mention some of them?
Absolutely! Before I even get to specific laws, there is the problem of localization based on the fact that domestic violence laws fall under the state legislature and not the exclusive legislative list of the National Assembly. This leaves room for issues to be effectively handled in one state and has abysmal resolutions in some states. There is also the challenge organisations like the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), which are primarily focused on human trafficking but encounter a number of issues of abuse, face in terms of effectively operating in different states, based on the differences per state. Now, speaking to more specific laws, we still have sections of the country where issues of intimate partner violence such as beating your wife for “correctional purposes” is legal. There are other instances where the fines and penalties for rape are lax and reporting structures undefined. You see, legislation provides a solid foundation for effective and coordinated legal action against violence against women and girls.
Prior to the enactment of the VAPP Act, there was no comprehensive legislation on violence against women at the national level. Nigeria only had disparate pieces of legislation, which did not address violence against women or gender-based violence uniformly across the country. A few states had passed legislation on domestic violence, harmful traditional practices, or gender-based violence. A few others had attempted to do so unsuccessfully. Much of the existing legislation was outdated, not sufficiently comprehensive, not specifically directed to this grave problem, and not adequately enforced.
The coming together of more than fifty-five (55) different groups and individuals under the umbrella of the Legislative Advocacy Coalition on Violence Against Women, (LACVAW), eventually helped mobilize action to improve the legislative landscape for violence against women in Nigeria in 2002.
The result of that activism was the signing into law of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act on May 25, 2015, after about thirteen (13) years in the legislative process
The Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act is a law that guarantees the protection of the rights of citizens from all forms of violence in Nigeria. The main thrust of the Law is to eliminate violence in private and public life; prohibit all forms of violence against persons, particularly women and girls who are disproportionately affected; provide maximum protection and effective remedies for victims; punishment of offenders and other related matters.
There are still gaps in the laws, specifically relating to who to enforce the law in some of the states, and what specific penalties are attached to specific violations.
These need to be reviewed and clearly designated.
• The VAPP Act does not offer a universal coverage to all Nigerian women and girls as the uptake by states is generally low across the country
• The challenges to the implementation structures set up by the government ranged from lack of synergy, intimidation, slow judicial process, to inadequacy of interventions specific to various needs or categories of victims.
• Although the Law seems to have helped in the decrease in the incidence of VAWG in some states, the implementation can still be observed
• The laws are more effectively implemented in states where the First Ladies take a keen interest in and contribute to efforts aimed at eliminating violence against women and girls.
• The intersection of disabilities, violence and gender is not often considered in the implementation of the VAPP Act and related laws. As such, response mechanisms do not prioritize persons with disabilities who may experience VAWG differently.
I will recommend by re-enforcing the suggestions and calls made by various knowledge experts in this field and CSOs driving advocacy that.
• National and state governments must make provisions for and approve gender-responsive budgeting by providing the much-needed resources and infrastructure to critical agencies.
• There must be a multi-pronged approach to alleviate women’s poverty to reduce their vulnerability to all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.
• Government should develop an emergency response policy with broad definition of emergency situations to include SGBV during public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.
• The role of First Ladies of states as advocates/champions of the VAPP Act and related anti-VAWG laws should be acknowledged and supported.
• Government agencies tasked with implementing the VAPP Act/Law and/or related laws at the national and state levels should collaborate with the agencies saddled with poverty alleviation to ensure that survivors have access to economic empowerment opportunities.
• There is need for sensitization of the citizens through awareness campaigns and the interpretation of the VAPP Act, including its simplification for citizens to understand.
• Government through the relevant agencies of the Ministry of Education should integrate the VAPP Act/Law in the school curriculum to broaden the minds of children and young people.
These are some of the issues we highlighted in the course of the 16 Days of Activism campaign.
As a movie producer, are there deliberate efforts you have made or are making to ensure your movies teach lessons centred around addressing gender-based violence?
My very first movie, CHATROOM, which we screened at different locations and with different audiences during the course of the 16 Days of Activism campaign is focused on addressing gender-based violence. It is a topic I am passionate about and eager to use every tool I have at my disposal to bring more awareness to and help design solutions for. The tagline of the movie is ‘Break the Silence’ and at every screening, I have been amazed and humbled at how survivors have been motivated to break their silence and commence the process of healing.
Take us through the journey of setting up Sterling One Foundation and what are success stories you have recorded from the foundation especially as it concerns the fight against gender-based violence?
The Sterling One Foundation was set up in 2018 with the mission of tackling the root causes of poverty through investments in health, gender equality, education and youth development, food security and climate action. Our approach has been to be both convener and catalyst, prioritising partnerships with other organisations that share our vision of a more prosperous Nigeria and Africa, while designing interventions that enable progress in the different sectors we are focused on. As part of our work, we supported the launch of Giving.ng, Africa’s first free crowdfunding platform that helps organisations and changemakers eager to make an impact, raise funds seamlessly for their project. We also launched the Africa Social Impact Summit (ASIS) co-convened with the United Nations in Nigeria which brings together development professionals from the private and public sectors, the government, civil society, and international funders to accelerate action on the Sustainable Development Goals across Africa. These initiatives and other projects have helped us directly support over a 400,000 beneficiaries directly and over a million indirectly. Under our gender equality portfolio specifically, we have empowered women farmers in communities affected by floods to restore their livelihoods, helped some women entrepreneurs set up businesses as part of our partnership with Whitefield Foundation and the Coca-Cola Company, empowered women in coastal communities to rid their environment from plastic waste profitably, built the capacity of over 4,000 non-profits across the continent including female-led non-profits, partnered on the first physical Gender Lens Investing training with UNIDO Investment Technology and Promotion Office(ITPO) to deliver impact-driven investments and partnerships, are on the High Level Steering Committee of the Private Sector-led GBV Fund launched by the United Nations Women, supported a STEM bootcamp for girls for two years, while ensuring we mainstream gender balance across every other initiative of ours. We are also very intentional in galvanizing partnerships to accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in our clime across our chosen thematic focus areas.
As a woman, how do you handle gender stereotypes that have continued to be a constraint in African countries including Nigeria?
It is a sad part of being a woman in Nigeria, and I dare say the whole world. Every day, you are faced with systems that work against you, cultural practices that don’t work in your favour, even perceptions and comments from people who see your hard work or progress as an outcome of some other factor other than your brilliance or grit. This is why my advocacy knows no boundaries. Wherever I find myself, I do my best to speak up for women and girls and endeavour that they have safe spaces to be heard and supported.