‘If you see something, say something’
Meet Emalohi Iruobe the woman encouraging university students to speak up against sexual violence
The dynamics are shifting, spaces are opening up and the conversation is expanding. There are people fighting to push sexual violence against women completely out of all spaces. The fight is strengthening more and more each day. Meet Emalohi Iruobe, the founder of Tribe XX Lab which is a co-working and wellness space in Lagos exclusively for female-led businesses to provide budding female entrepreneurs with an opportunity to thrive in their chosen paths.
In this interview, she shares with us Tribe XX Lab’s new initiative I GO TALK which is focused on exterminating silence surrounding sexual violence against women, especially female students in universities in Nigeria. The ‘XX’ in Tribe XX Lab represents the genetically assigned chromosome for females. She discusses the power dynamics in sexual violence experienced by women in universities and seeks to educate more people on approaching these situations with the right mindset and equipping people all over with the knowledge to navigate this messy plane.
Emalohi stays sharing “Make una talk o!”
If you see something, say something.
Could you tell me about yourself and how Tribe XX Lab came to be?
Hey, I’m a human being interested in preventing and ending gender based violence against women especially in Nigeria. Education-wise, I am an attorney, professor and tribe xx lab was really just a direct response to the Nigerian Senate striking down the gender equality bill that came up in 2016 and just basically saying that women are not equal to men and passing a bill like that was against our cultural values.
I lived abroad for all these years and I moved back to Nigeria and it was just really difficult to get office space or a space where I could work without needing to pay one or two years rent up-front; without needing a male chaperone: you know, you have to be somebody’s wife, daughter, baby mama, whatever it is. So that led me to start Tribe XX Lab. I recognised the privilege I had even though I still needed a male chaperone to help me co-sign on a place but that’s how Tribe XX Lab started out; to give women a leg-up. It’s a community space where we share work, resources; we give access to funding.
Our current and pressing initiative right now is our grant from Voice. Voice Global is a donor agency that is supporting a project we created at Tribe XX Lab to prevent and end sex for grades in universities in Nigeria. After the BBC documentary by Kiki Mordi came out last year, that really spurred something in us to craft a project where we work through direct action to say this is not okay. You can’t keep doing this to women and young people in universities, they need to graduate because it’s not that you just stop this person from getting their grade, it’s that they don’t graduate and their access to employment is lower and that leads to poverty and that leads to generational poverty. And so the effect of sex for grades is far reaching and Voice believed in a project we wanted to do and funded this project called ‘I GO TALK’ and I named the project I GO TALK as a way to encourage people in Pidgin English that “make una talk o!”. The idea is nobody says anything but me, I would talk. And it’s like a double-edged sword like “hey listen, if you do anything to me, I will talk and if I see you doing something to somebody else, I will talk”. So it’s basically saying don’t be a bystander. You know, another reason why rape culture exists and continues to thrive in our society and our communities is this idea of silence so our project with I GO TALK is to encourage people to speak up; not only for yourself but as a bystander: you saw a professor do this to someone, you should tell on the professor.
And so we are here to provide the support; legal support for victims, psychosocial support, and also encouraging them and letting them know that they have this community where they have access, and we are here to help them and fight for them.
Our project also involves us providing peer to peer counselling for victims, and now also explaining the new sexual harassment bill that passed in July. And what the bill was specifying was basically a response to the sex for grades and the Association of Universities was at the hearings almost everyday saying this bill should not pass. I mean, why would a student body group, that is supposed to care, say they shouldn’t pass a bill that protects students from sexual harassment.
Part of our projects in I GO TALK is explaining to students what their rights are under the law and letting universities also know what their responsibilities are. And it’s not an adversarial thing. So it’s not all students against the university. It is all of us; university students, faculty in Nigeria; against sex for grades, against rape culture, against gender based violence against women and girls and young people.
So that’s my long spiel (chuckles).
I GO TALK is a new initiative by Tribe XX Lab. What us the focus of the initiative, who are your target audience and why now?
So our target audience is actually everybody in Nigeria. But the people we want to help are our stakeholders: the people we want to empower with knowledge and skills to say no to my professor, you can do this or to say I have a right to an education our students in universities everywhere in Nigeria, grants focuses on University of Lagos, University of Ilorin, and University of Benin. But we are creating open source documents and programming that anyone can replicate on their campus and we are making it available for free.
This is because the idea is to let students be empowered to say, “Oh, actually, there’s a lot that says, you can’t ask me out on a date, Professor Whatever-your-name-is and if you keep failing me in this class without any reason, then these are the resources I have at my fingertips to get
As regards to “why now?”; there’s never a bad time or too late time to tackle gender based violence.
Last year, in October, when the BBC Sex for Grades documentary came out, by the time we watched it and re-watched it and we saw the impunity with which these professors, who by the way are still teaching in University of Lagos (Unilag). Some of our stakeholders are students in Unilag, and we have two staff on our team, who are current students of Unilag, who have told us first hand that one of the professors in the documentary still teaches, and she had run into him at the ATM on the Unilag campus.
And so “why now?” is this is the time and with COVID-19, you’re trying to pivot students who were in school to online learning and a lot of women are facing increased violence, because they are indoors and they’ve lost their source of income. So “why now?” is it can never be late. And after that BBC documentary and gathering all the information and trying to find a way to make sure that this documentary just doesn’t become one of the things that we just watch, and nobody does anything further. That was why we applied for this grant, created this program and were blessed and qualified enough to be granted the funding to actually carry out this program. And we have so many programs coming up under this push and campaign to exterminate silence(#xxterminatesilence), which we’ll be inviting you to. We have lots of panels we had a virtual festival during the lockdown, in which we engaged young feminist leaders from every group from Stand to End Rape (S.T.E.R Initiative) to Kiki Mordi (who actually did the BBC Sex for Grades documentary), to psychologists and doctors who talked about the far reaching effects of gender based violence in universities. We did explainers about the sexual harassment laws, and we will be carrying out these programs till the end of the year. Some of them are going to be physical, some are going to be virtual. But the idea is to have a human impact and actually reach students who may have been affected by this, to reach students who are about going to university to let them know, “Hey, listen, we have done this work for you, so if you encounter someone that does this to you, these are the resources for you” you know.
So really, that is why it is urgent and necessary to take action now and with the world changing the way the pandemic has made us realize a lot of our systems and the way we view the world do not really work, it is really urgent to keep changing and pushing this narrative that you can’t stop a whole person’s future and their life in school, who’s already even disadvantaged, by demanding sex for grades.
In the universities you mentioned you work with, there are no private universities, only public universities. Is there a reason for that?
So we actually did not include private universities in our pitch, not because they are excluded, but we realize that with private universities, it may be harder to receive access, because they are private. So when we made our pitch, we said these states and federal universities, however, it’s very, very important to note that our materials and our campaign and all the stuff that we’re doing is free for anyone to replicate, you don’t even have to write to us. All you need to do is to go on our website, look at the resources you need and replicate it, you can spread it out to your own network in your own university to say, “Hey, listen, if Professor does this to you, this is what you can do.”
There are helplines, the are resources, they can contact us directly, they can reach out for support, they can join our Whatsapp group where we blast out information on GVV networks, resources where you can connect and meet up, survival support meetings and legal support meetings.
So yeah, these are all the things that we have. So we it’s not that private universities are excluded. But penetration wise, we felt it might be easier to hold federal universities accountable than a private space.
But we do hope to penetrate private universities, I mean, we have University liaisons who work with us and we’re hoping to get some from a private university who are willing to say, “Hey, I will be a liaison at this university and spread the word about how sex for grades needs to end” in reality, not just because they passed a law now, you know, because that’s the other issue, you pass the law in Nigeria, but then there’s no enforcement. And this is why this work is also important that, if you don’t even know that something is illegal, or there’s recourse, then you kind of still battle with that demon.
Based on your experience and the journey so far, how would you describe the handling and the general culture towards sexual violence in Nigeria?
In general, the idea is that women who have faced sexual violence, were asking for it. There’s a lot of rape apology happening and so a re-education and relearning is required, especially with our male counterparts.
So a lot of men always want to say “not all men”, but that’s not the point. The point is, okay, so you, you’re not a rapist, your father is a professor, whatever. You’ve never heard of anyone that was sexually harassed in the university. But if you ask a young lady “has any professor ever pitched to you sex for grades?”, they all know at least one other person apart from themselves, who a professor has reached out to for sex in exchange for good grades. So it is very, very important to change the idea that women who are targeted, ask for it in any way. So we’ve noticed that there’s a lot of rape apology, there’s a lot of trying to excuse it and then the biggest thing is that people just want it to be swept under the carpet and they want you to shush about it. And this is why I GO TALK is the slogan, is the hashtag (#IGOTALK) we’re pushing on social media, with our platforms and our content, saying “Talk o! Talk! Talk! Talk!” because if everyone wants to keep it quiet, then how are we going to get rid of this terrible smell if we’re burying and hiding the bodies?
The general issue is that people would rather not talk about it so pushing it in their face to say no, this is really important to talk about, it’s what’s needed and it’s what’s happening in my experience in the work that I’ve been doing.
What are some of the issues women are facing in the university environment? And could you give specific examples?
Tribe XX Lab works with a lot of young people, Generation Z specifically. Everyone on our team went to university in Nigeria, and is a recent graduate so all of them have first-hand experience. One of our team members, while in University of Ilorin was constantly harassed by a professor who told her that he will never pass her project on till she sleeps with him and she actually stayed an extra year trying to avoid this professor. So we have these experiences of people constantly making students repeats classes they’ve already taking, because the student refuses to have sex with them, or a romantic relationship with them.
Second of all, we have also experienced students who come forward during our discussion forums. So we’ve have veteran discussion forums where students come and talk about the experiences and actually name professors that they’ve gone through this situation with.
In one of our discussion forums, there was this whole issue about “who cares? as long as you’ve passed out, and you managed to survive it, well, you don’t really need to bother trying to help other people behind”. And so the purpose of I GO TALk was to say, “well, you survived it, but did you like it?” You did not. So it is important to clear the way so that people coming behind us don’t have to go through it. That way we clear the stink.
So these are some of the real challenges women face, they actually made to repeat full academic years. For example, one of our team members had a professor who was her department head, who had to sign off on everything in total for her to graduate. We’ve also had a volunteer who never graduated University all because of this sex for grades matter. So it’s a really serious issue.
And then there are also people who are of the school of thought that “Well, girls want to sell their bodies anyway. So the ones who wants to sell their bodies for grades, why should we care about them?” but that’s not the point. They can never ever really be making the decision to sell their bodies because the relationship is not equal. Your professor always has power over you. So in the same way, it is still sex for grades, even if you are the one who offered yourself to your professor.
The issue of sexual violence against women is one that we’ve seen tends to draw lots of noise in a bid to drown out the voices that need to be heard. So have you encountered any direct resistance? And what are the recurring challenges that you with this initiative?
Okay, so direct resistance? No, not really, what we have seen is that men or those who identify as men are worried about being accused of rape, because a lot of the behaviors that are normalized in our society are actually assault and harassment. So we haven’t had any direct pushback. But we’ve had like a couple of Nigerian musicians block us on social media because we had called them out for statements they had made. What happened with the musicians was that we found their old tweets where they were promoting rape culture. Peruzzi was one of them and there were a couple of other social media influencers who used their own mouths to say they are rapists. So what we were trying to say was that this is not proper that you have this platform and you have people who look up to you, it is not proper to push and say that it is okay to rape women, that women are only objects for sex, to demand their bodies from them in exchange for anything. So that’s really been the only push back if I can call it push back. But I think it’s still momentum because we were able to bug him enough. Even Brymo blocked us and some others, which, at the end of the day, it means that we made some impact in doing that.
But I don’t think that stories about gender based violence make a lot of noise. The thing is that the issue is very, very widespread and so accepted that women are less, it is so accepted that “na so dem dey like am”, all of those things that helped to make it harder for women to come forward and say this happened to me, this was my experience, or I didn’t graduate because of this, or I should have graduated with honors, but I graduated almost barely at the bottom of my class.
One of the other experiences of one of our volunteers was that there was a a coalition with other professors. So the one professor who went into have a relationship with her, who she refused then poisoned all her other professors’ minds against her and so she was just consistently failing every class. And it’s just so stupid and annoying. And if you watch the BBC documentary, one of the professor’s said to the girl that “when I’m done with you, I’ll pass you on to another professor.” So that is another level of trafficking that we’re not even talking about; that the student is such a commodity, and she has no power. And “until I say she can graduate, she cannot graduate. So I would rape her every time I want and when I am done, I will pass her on to another professor”.
That is a network of terroristic gender based violence happening in universities in Nigeria, and nobody is doing anything about it. I mean, after the BBC documentary by Kiki Mordi that has garnered over 5.1 million views on YouTube, how can the professors still be working?
So at the end of the day, more noise needs to be made, more re-education that women are not less, more taught that the power dynamics are stacked so much against women that you stop them from getting higher education, they dropout, their economic status goes lower, they become poor.And as women continue to remain economically disadvantaged, the world will never reach the level of wealth it can. 70% of the informal sector and economy is run by women and 32% of those women are in university. Do you know have any uni girls have a side business either selling wigs, weave, whatever it is, their clothes, they resell, they are influencers; these are all these are all entrepreneurs making money. And then if you depress them, you mess with their minds and they can’t graduate, you are stealing the future of this person and their generation.
So it’s really, really a big thing. And our goal with this I GO TALK program is really to get as loud as possible, for this hashtag to go everywhere and for people to say “yes, I go talk now, Professor so and so did this to me”.
We had one of our panels and one of it was a three generation panel. We had women that were Baby boomers, Millennials and Generation Z exchanging ideas and conversation. And one of the Baby boomers said, this exact same thing happened to me when I was 17, 42 years ago. In Nigeria, I mean, just imagine that it is so widespread, it is so normal, it’s so normalized, that more noise needs to be made. I mean, look at how D’banj is still free. Like after everything that happened and that lady was courageous enough to step up and say “I go talk, D’banj did this to me.”
You know, so at the end of the day, more and more noise needs to happen. More people need to know that this is not okay. Now, more people need to not be desensitized to hearing about, rape or trauma of women and students in university. They need to understand that if these girls can graduate from university without hindrance, then they move up to the top with merits. They can get better jobs, they can get better NYSC postings.
It’s not just the grade. That is the problem. And that is the main reason why we are saying to everyone, even if it’s not you it happened to, speak out about it, shout so that other people will know and to stop the impunity with which this abuse happens.
What is I GO TALK’s vision moving forward; what can we expect to see in terms of growth and reach?
Okay, so our plan moving forward is we’re going to be having events in a week’s succession in which every day we’re doing panels, discussions, expressions, concerts, basically, mounting a campaign through arts, media, activism, community engagement, encouraging people to talk encouraging people to take the I GO TALK pledge on our website, encouraging men to take the pledge to be a “Manbassador for her”, encouraging our community to speak up to say, “Stop that! Don’t do that!”, to believe women.
Going forward, we would like to reach over 1000 university students just in Lagos State alone. And we’d like those numbers to replicate across all the states in Nigeria, especially through our virtual platform. Because the beautiful thing about digital media and digital spaces and digital communities is that their reach is exponential.
So our goal is for people everywhere to just join the pledge, take the pledge, and be reporting anonymously to be talking and saying “I go talk. I saw somebody do this today, I stopped it.” “Somebody tried to do this to me today, I stopped it”.
Supporting survivors, believing survivors, we also have funds to provide psychosocial support through survivor group counseling, where we talk about tactics with a psychiatrist, a Board Certified consultant psychiatrist who’s on our staff, we also have legal support clinics. So if there are students, who wants to take legal action, who have gone through any type of sexual assault or harassment in universities, we also have resources to help those students.
And finally, we want as many people, the governor, Lagos state to take part in the gender sensitivity workshops that Tribe XX will be putting on, which is basically understanding the sensitivity in gender and inherent bias against women that lets rape culture thrive.
And so with I go talk, we hope that we can reach just a critical mass of just 1000 women in Lagos only, and then an unlimited number of up to 10,000 across the country, we hope the hashtag #IGOTALK goes viral, because we know what we are doing is not only for Nigeria, anyone anywhere that has suffered or is suffering or wants to encourage their communities to stop the silence around rape culture, wants to encourage people to speak out so that when you remove the veil and silence, and this thing is put out in the open, maybe that will bring an end to it.
So when I go talk, we’re just encouraging everybody to talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, attend our workshops, understand your inherent bias, and take the pledge and promise that in your circle, you be the influence to say “I go talk o, if you do that thing” or even the one that talks to say, “hey, do you know that thing you’re doing this is actually harassment?” So that is our goal and our vision. Because what I’ve also seen is a lot of people are sympathetic, but they don’t really know what to do so but you need to move from just sympathy to actually strength in numbers to organizing, it is enough that we sympathize. But now let’s organize for change.
Let’s stand by these women. Let’s explain these laws to them, let’s explain their rights to them. Let’s hold the government accountable. I would love for the governor to take Tribe XX workshops and make it mandatory for all the gender based violence and sexual violence units that Lagos state has created. I think even when the officers or law enforcement in charge of hearing about sexual based violence cases, knowing how to respond to victims, understanding that some things there’s nothing like family matter or “na school matter”. So this is our goal and our vision.
We’re also building a documentary of our work as we’re going on. And that documentary will premiere in December. And so there’ll be a lead up of activities almost every week, and weekend up to the month of December where we’re pushing out this campaign encouraging people to exterminate silence and to talk.
I’m really hopeful that we would make some serious and real impact because women need to be free to really reach their potential. I mean, with all the opposition and oppression women face, look at what they have achieved already.
So imagine if there was more freedom, you know?
I GO TALK