Kemi DaSilva-Ibru, the gender balance advocate giving hope to survivors
Dr. Kemi DaSilva-Ibru is a specialist Obstetrician and Gynecologist with a medical back-ground that extends to Public Health. She is a qualified physician with over 15 years’ experience in private practice, where she dedicates her time addressing the needs of expectant mothers and women.
DaSilva-Ibru also runs a non- profit organisation, the Women at Risk International Foundation (WARIF) that successfully tackles the issues of gender based violence, rape and trafficking of young girls and women in communities throughout Lagos State and across Nigeria.
She graduated from the College of Medicine, University of Lagos and completed her postgraduate training in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Howard University, Washington DC. She received her Master’s degree in Public Health from the Bloomberg School of Public Health, John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland. She has expanded her expertise beyond the field of Obstetrics & Gynecology with her participation in post-graduate medical courses in various specialties, and is an alumnus of the Lagos Business School, Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos.
She is currently undergoing a PhD Degree in Gender based Violence; Public Health & Policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom.
She is a member of the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria, the American Medical Association, Medical Women Association of Nigeria, the Association of Public Health Physicians Nigeria and the Faculty of Public Health; UK . She is also a member of the Institute of Directors, Nigeria.
Notable awards and recognition include WIMBIZ top 100 Most Influential Women in 2017, Leading Ladies Africa – 100 Most Inspiring Women in Nigeria 2018, Orange Active Citizen –2017
25 People Pioneers Brands, International Women’s Day 2018; recognition by British Council in Nigeria; Exceptional Women Past and Present ; Woman of the Year 2019 ; Her Network.
DaSilva-Ibru is a strong advocate of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls and is known for her unmitigated passion for women’s rights which has shaped her life and has led to her establishing WARIF. The Foundation is one of the nation’s foremost anti sexual violence organisations that raises awareness and addresses the prevalence of rape and gender based violence in Nigeria through the development and implementation of a series of initiatives, targeting both the intervention/treatment of affected girls and women, as well as providing effective preventive measures in reducing this problem.
She believes that it is our primary social responsibility, to ensure that globally, all young girls and women live in a society free of rape and sexual violence.
Growing up and influence till date
Growing up, I always had a special interest in healthcare as a future career as both my parents were healthcare professionals. The opportunity of being able to treat those in need is one I tend to gravitate towards, as my interest continued to grow. After medical school, I obtained my specialty in Obstetrics and Gynecology and my patient population became young girls and women. In time, I began to appreciate more and more the plight of disadvantaged women and their needs that were not being met. Although, establishing the WARIF organisation came later, I had already started to find means in my medical capacity of filling some of these gaps.
15 years dedicated to addressing the needs of expectant mothers and women
I have had the opportunity to serve countless women in need of my professional assistance over the years and more so, the utmost privilege of delivering healthy babies. With my patient population being women, I have also had to offer assistance to patients that needed medical attention as result of physical or sexual violence perpetrated against them. This service was one I continued to offer, alongside my career as a specialist Obstetrics and Gynecology pro bono, in my private practice.
Over the years, I have continued my practice which I still run today and I have successfully been able to incorporate a weekly schedule that includes attending to the needs of both my OBGYN patients and the WARIF organisation.
Setting up WARIF
Over the years in my practice, I have witnessed first-hand and assisted a large number of women and young girls who are survivors of rape, trafficking and different forms of sexual violence. Many of them, some as young as 2 years of age, endure these harrowing acts more than once, by individuals well known to them such as a family member and often times in safe havens such as in their homes and schools. As a result of this, a significant number of women deal with the immediate effects such as new onset of HIV cases and unwanted pregnancies as well as the long term consequences of a lack of self- worth, low esteem and adverse effects to their mental well-being like depression and suicide and their social development. To suggest this is a problem in Nigeria is a vast understatement where 1 in 4 girls before the age of 18 would have experienced at least one violent sexual encounter; however what appeared to be missing I felt was a structured and more holistic approach to addressing the challenges these women.
Appreciating the need to fill this gap, led to my establishing WARIF, a pan-African, non-profit organisation established in 2016; in response to the high incidence of child sexual abuse and sexual violence against girls and women in various communities across the country. This overarching objective of the foundation is achieved through the implementation of immediate and preventive initiatives that all have the hallmarks of the successful ‘WARIF Approach”. This unique strategy, addresses this multifaceted problem through the design and implementation of a series of initiatives under 3 pillars including Health, Education and Community Service.
Will you say it is living up to what you envisaged from inception?
I believe indeed it is. In a country of 200 million people with half of the population being women and about 60% under the age of 24; we are dealing with approximately 10,000 cases of rape and sexual violence and majority go unreported. With the establishment of the WARIF organisation and the implementation of these initiatives under our pillars, we have successfully implemented a survivor –centered approach which offers immediate health and medical intervention through the WARIF Rape Crisis Centre, as well as preventative measures under the education pillar with the design and implementation of educational training programs for the adolescent boy and girl child. Sensitization of law enforcement with our gender sensitization programs and tackling the problem in the rural areas with the implementation of our community projects, under our community service pillar, has also resulted in successful outcomes as measured by the impact to the target group, the increase in services provided and the awareness raised on the issue of gender based violence in Nigeria. These moderate successes have contributed to the shift in the needle in the right direction.
The stigmatisation and the shroud of silence that surrounds cases of sexual violence and rape in our communities often times make it difficult for the young girls and women to seek help. She is made to feel guilty and is reluctant to visit the WARIF Centre to get the necessary medical and psychosocial care needed.
Funding is also a huge challenge and one we are constantly seeking. Being a Non-Government Organisation, all our services and initiatives are offered at no cost to the survivors we assist and we rely solely on donor funding from corporate bodies, private organisations and the goodwill of private individuals.
However, counter balanced by this, are the ever present proud moments of seeing the sheer joy and relief on the faces of young girls and women we serve, saving them from unspeakable horrors and watching as they raise their head, and speak out their truth without fear; or being able to change the narrative of young adolescent boys who had the prevailing mind-set that abuse was normal. Inspiring them through our programs to be protectors and not perpetrators. This is truly rewarding.
From your daily observations, would you say that Nigerians are extensively aware of the alarming cases of gender based violence or many are playing ignorant?
I believe that in spite of the increasing number of cases being recorded by different organisations both State governments and NGOs, and the fact that more platforms are being made available to allow survivors to speak out against GBV, there still exists a cultural stronghold that plays a key role in the lack of awareness of the magnitude of rape and other acts of sexual violence in our communities. Our patriarchal society and our traditional norms encourages the stigma attached to these acts; keeping the woman silent, feeling ostracized and ashamed of an act she had no say or control over. It leads to many of these cases going unreported and perpetrators would continue with impunity and no form of accountability. These same cultural norms that are still prevalent in many parts of the country also encourage these harmful practices against women; so communities are either colluding in the rape culture of silence and in denial as to the extent of the issue or in other cases create an enabling environment for the perpetrator by turning on the survivor by “victim blaming”, again forcing her to keep silent about her abuse for fear of this reprisal.
With the ongoing pandemic, what are the challenges that some women/girls are likely to experience?
With the COVID-19 pandemic and the restriction on movement as a result of the mandatory lock down, a volatile environment exists in households where survivors are forced to now quarantine with their abusers. This has led to an increase in the number of reported cases of violence against young girls and women. The added anxiety and frustrations over financial uncertainty with a large informal sector of our nation relying on daily earnings to survive; and worries about security and health, contributes to this volatile environment. This increasing isolation of women with violent partners as a result of the continued lockdown also separates them from the social networks and support groups that can help and limits the resources that can best assist them. This leads to a perfect storm for intimate partner violence behind closed doors.
This situation of the lock down, has also meant that schools have been closed and majority of children, who are survivors of child sexual abuse, and who use school as a refuge are now forced to stay home and locked in with their abuser, with no means of help and escape. This has also led to an increase in the cases of child sexual abuse.
Nigeria’s role in cases of gender based violence
With the global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries are in lockdown, with around four billion people now sheltering at home. It’s a protective measure, but it brings another danger as we are now seeing a shadow pandemic of growing violence against women.
Nigeria is certainly not excluded. With the implemented lock down directive and the restricted movement issued in some States, including Lagos, this confinement has led to an increase in the number of cases of Gender based Violence being reported as more women are forced to quarantine with their abusers.
This precarious time fosters tension and strain in the house hold that is already volatile, with added anxiety and frustrations over health and financial uncertainty. The organisation in response to this has implemented safety measures. The key component is the WARIF Rape Crisis Centre, our Sexual Assault Referral Centre which we have successfully kept open. This is a safe and friendly facility where all survivors are encouraged to walk in and access our services free of charge. Located in Yaba, it is run by full time qualified personnel and offers immediate medical care, forensic medical examinations, medical tests such as HIV and post exposure HIV drugs were applicable.
Counselling services are also available to assist survivors and social welfare services are offered to survivors in need of accommodation, legal advice and aid as well as vocational skills acquisition.
During the COVID -19 pandemic, availability of PPE kits by the WARIF management to all frontline workers is paramount. All medical personnel are provided with adequate protection when assisting women at risk as well as to prevent cross contamination between the frontline worker and survivors. This would limit the transmission of the infection in the community.
In spite of the skeletal service being run presently and the restricted movement, we have seen in one week, 10 survivors visit the Centre.
The WARIF 24-hour confidential helpline which is manned by experienced counsellors, during the third week of the lock down, noticed a 64 % increase in the number of calls. 72% were from women experiencing one form of violence or the other and 28% were male survivors. The highest percentage-41%, was as a result of domestic abuse.
How important is it for government and other organisations not to deny this reality and fight against this vice?
It is critical that the government recognizes the importance of this issue, now more than ever during this pandemic. The services provided by organizations like WARIF to address the violence against women should be considered as essential services as access to sexual and reproductive health services, which would include gender based violence services are being scaled back. I am pleased to say that this has recently been recognized by the Federal Government of Nigeria.
Are the laws in Nigeria helping survivors to either speak up or protect them after they do?
The laws in Nigeria with regards to rape and the protection of women certainly exist. The penalty for rape is life imprisonment. Last year, there was also the launch of a National Sex Offender’s registry for all perpetrators who are convicted.
In Lagos State specifically, the Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) made up of a select number of ministries such as the Ministry of Justice and related regulatory organizations such as law enforcement to address all aspects of sexual and domestic violence in the State, is active. As an official member of this regulatory body, WARIF works with the DSVRT and other NGOs to reduce the number of these cases in Lagos State.
There is also the provision of gender desks with specially trained police officers in some police stations across the State to address cases of gender based violence and minimize the cases of rape and sexual violence seen.
And at WARIF, we have also implemented a Police Gender Sensitisation Program where almost 700 police officers have been sensitised on the proper protocols and referral systems of cases of rape and sexual assault.
I believe what we need to help survivors, is a more concerted effort by of all those playing a role, in ensuring better implementation of these laws with an increase in the prosecution rates against perpetrators.
Why the strong advocacy for gender equality and women empowerment? How important is it for women to be empowered?
Traditionally in Nigeria, women are placed in the stereotypical role of being seen as subordinate to men and this inequality is often times encouraged by our cultural norms and practices. In our society, the scenario that exists in many households is a woman being subservient to their husbands, fathers and other male relatives. This disparity in the power dynamics, in these households encourage acts of sexual and physical abuse as women are made to feel powerless and are hindered in their ability to make the right choices in preventing these various forms of abuse from occurring, to themselves and their children or to be able to carry out the actions needed to end the abuse.
Another factor that has led to my strong advocacy for women, is our society’s attitude towards survivors of rape and sexual violence. Women affected are not encouraged nor are they empowered to speak out about the atrocities they have had to endure. They are made to keep silent and feel guilty. More often than not, we ‘victim blame’ by questioning their role in the act instead of addressing the crime for what it is. This perpetuates the shroud of silence that persists and is associated with these acts and encourages the prevalence in our society.
Gender abuse is not peculiar to females alone
As a society, we do spend more of our time discussing how many women are raped in a community or how many school girls are harassed and unapologetically so, as young girls and women are traditionally the more vulnerable group. But we should also be asking how many men rape women in that community and how many school boys harass young girls. In a country where 1 in 10 boys will experience at least one violent sexual encounter before age 18, we also need to be asking other pertinent questions like the number of boys being sexually abused and the services available to address this. WARIF has already started asking those questions and finding solutions and answers to them. We actively support young boys through initiatives such as The Boys Conversation Café, an educational initiative that targets adolescent school boys; ages between 12 -16, by shifting the focus of attention from educating girls and women on the prevention of and protection against sexual violence and rape, to teaching boys and men about the prevalence of sexual violence, positive masculinity and the prevention of sexual abuse, we are changing their mindsets, empowering and preventing them from becoming survivors and perpetrators in the future. In addition, by recognizing that these are acts that can be perpetrated against young boys as well as young girls, this gives them a platform to speak out and report these cases. The response with the boys who have already participated in this initiative has been very positive and it is our intention to take it into as a many boys secondary schools as possible.
Being an NGO, how are you able to sustain the organisation with all you do?
The WARIF organisation is a nonprofit organisation which relies solely on donor funds and grants awarded for specific initiatives. We have been fortunate to partner with international organisations such as the USAID and UN Women and local partners like the ACT Foundation and other corporate bodies who have been very helpful in assisting with the implementation of our programs. Concerned private individuals who donate on a regular basis also play an invaluable role and we are very grateful. Given the sheer magnitude of the problem however, we are constantly in need of more of these types of collaborations.
How frequent are false rape claims seen in Nigeria
False rape claims have been evident both globally and less so in Nigeria. Although we don’t have statistics to support the numbers locally, globally, an average of 8% of false rape claims have been made. This is also a travesty of justice that typically stems from an act of revenge or another common scenario is a young teenage girl trying to get out of trouble, so she cries rape, which is usually then reported by a parent and this adversely affects the life and liberty of the perpetrator that’s is falsely accused. It must be noted that false rape accusations very rarely lead to wrongful convictions and jail time and the general thinking is the fact that, the numbers of these claims are so insufficient when compared to the number of real rape cases that are never reported, nevertheless, all cases should be taken seriously and investigated.
To address this, we all need to be sensitized to the provisions of the laws and the issue of consent in order to understand what is considered appropriate and what is not. Secondly, legal measures should be adopted to address such cases of false accusations to discourage them from happening.
How can sexual harassment be prevented at school, workplace and in the home?
At the WARIF organisation, under the educational pillar, we implement specifically designed educational programs for both the boy and the girl child which are age appropriate. During the adolescent years; the importance of knowledge, awareness and empowerment of the girl child in preventing these acts of violence is highlighted and the changing of the adverse attitudes of young boys toward sexual harassment and violence through our mentoring educational programs is the focus with adolescent school boys.
With regards to university students, we have recently engaged in a partnership with the EU/UN Women under the Spotlight Initiative- promoting ending sexual violence in 4 tertiary institutions in Abuja and Lagos. Existing policies are being reviewed and the introduction and strengthening of reporting structures will be established. The involvement of both the school authorities and student bodies will be coordinated by the organisation and the provision of safe spaces will be set up in these institutions.
In the work place, provision of anti-sexual harassment training and sensitization programs like the WARIF Sexual Harassment Sensitisation Program in the Work Place is strongly advocated, this serves to ensure that all employees and the management are sufficiently protected and a proper transparent reporting system is in place.
In the home, the responsibility rests on parents and guardians to prioritize the safety of their children by being mindful of who they entrust the care of their children to. By also educating their children with life skills, this enables them to speak up and be assertive. They should also be taught to recognize appropriate and inappropriate behaviour from individuals, especially adult family members or otherwise.
Hope for the abused
There is hope and even seen more now with organisations both international and local as well as governmental and non-governmental partnering and collaborating to address the issue of gender based violence together.
Violence against women can happen to any young girl or woman. Regardless of her circumstance, her race, colour, cultural or ethnic background, educational level, religious affiliation or socio economic class. We are all at risk and so we all have a role to play in the fight against gender based violence. It is our collective responsibility to live in a society free of rape and sexual violence.