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‘To overcome vulnerability, women must dismantle barriers to their liberation’

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia
15 January 2022   |   4:20 am
My childhood was characterised by experiences that defined my path as a child that fearlessly advocated for the rights and protection of other children within my age group.

Omowumi Ogunrotimi is a multi-disciplinary legal practitioner and gender justice advocate. She founded Gender Mobile Initiative, an organisation leveraging technology to complement the policy and programmes of government and other stakeholders to advance gender equality and eliminate gender-based violence. In 2020, she was appointed as the Deputy Head of the Sectoral Committee on Women and Gender, African Union Economic, Social and Cultural Council (AU-ECOSOCC) Nigeria. Ogunrotimi has worked in over 50 rural communities implementing sexual and gender-based violence prevention models and advocating safe space for vulnerable populations, particularly girls and women. Her most recent and profound work is focused on driving system-wide changes to prevent sexual harassment in learning environments. In April 2021, she led the Gender Mobile team to launch a mobile application that is now being implemented in over 100 higher educational institutions across Nigeria. Ogunrotimi is also a member of the Ekiti State Gender-Based Violence Management Committee. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her passion for gender advocacy as well as efforts being made to seek redress.

Share with us your journey into the legal world.
My childhood was characterised by experiences that defined my path as a child that fearlessly advocated for the rights and protection of other children within my age group. As the last child, I was the closest to my father and this gave me the rare privilege of interacting closely with his friends who made permanent imprints in the legal profession. Having unfettered access to such robust support base and my love for activism nurtured my interest and love for the practice of law as a tool for social engineering. I pursued my aspiration with vigour and grit, and I am proud of what I have achieved within nine years of call to the prestigious Bar.

How did you develop the passion for gender justice? Did you have any experience that shaped you decision?
I experienced a bout of sexual abuse at the age of 14 by a ‘trusted’ neighbour. I sought and accessed professional help, which sped up my recovery as a little girl. Despite my parents’ support, I wasn’t shielded from the repressive stigma, which impressed on me the need to keep silent and not disclose the experience to anyone around. This harrowing experience came with flashes of what I could make out of the social advocacy space. One year later, a childhood friend was also raped by a friend of the family who lured the girl into his house at about 9 p.m. When she reported the sexual abuse to her family, her mother gave reasons the girl should not report the incident to the public. And chief among the reasons was that the girl contributed to the successful perpetration of the crime by her entering into the guy’s apartment at a late hour. She got pregnant from the rape and later lost her life while trying to abort the pregnancy through unsafe method. The raping and the shaming she endured, and her eventual death inspired the work we do at Gender Mobile Initiative today. This constantly fuels my passion as a gender justice advocate.

What are some of the activities of the Gender Mobile Initiative and how has it impacted your drive for gender advocacy?
We have several activities under our programmes that are largely hinged on our thematic areas. These include Gender Justice and Inclusion; Women Economic Empowerment and the Gender-Based Violence Prevention Programming, Policy Advocacy and Service Delivery. In the last four years, we have heavily invested in learning environments through interventions in primary, secondary, and tertiary educational institutions. For instance, our Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Programme (CSA) runs a series of outreaches aimed at providing age-appropriate sexuality education as well as preventing and reporting child sexual abuse. Schoolteachers and counsellors are also trained on adequate response to the needs of children. Our Adolescent Hub Programme for in-school adolescents runs a six-week curriculum-based prevention programme geared towards equipping adolescents with the tools, skills and resources to prevent and respond to SGBV while catering for the physical and psychological wellness of the victims. Our Campus Safety Initiative is aimed at strengthening the mechanisms of tertiary institutions to address sexual harassment. The standard is measured by the institutional courage demonstrated to take complaints seriously, sanction perpetrators of sexual assault and protect victims and targets from possible backlash or reprisal. The initiative adopts a participatory approach that engages every member of the Campus community as actor and partner through a range of activities such as town-hall forums, peer model, intergenerational dialogue and mentorship, and capacity building sessions. These activities have further revealed the scale of the problem and validated some of our approaches, thereby impacting our drive for gender advocacy. This has created a system that enables us to identify gaps and consolidate on the gains for more culturally appropriate programming response. Our adoption of technology has fostered the design of culturally relevant interventions, which continue to position our effort as evidence-based and data-driven.

From your experience, what do you consider a limiting factor in gender justice?
There are several limiting factors such as adverse gender norms, religious and cultural beliefs rooted in patriarchy, lack of uniform legal regime/framework that prioritises equality and dignity of humans as sacrosanct and inalienable, lack of requisite political will and resources to implement and enforce relevant and legal framework and presence of a culture and climate that is permissive of gender injustice and feminisation of poverty. Interestingly, these factors are interconnected and addressing one will have a ripple effect on others. As a country, we have an avalanche of policies and legal frameworks such as the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), the VAPP Act, Child Rights Act, National Gender Policy and state policies on addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV). However, these laws are not being implemented to the letter. This is exacerbated by lack of accountability mechanism that is citizen-driven and human rights-based.

Your team launched a gender mobile app in 2021 to prevent sexual harassment in tertiary institutions. What has been the impact?
It is important to acknowledge that the past few years have witnessed a global reckoning for perpetrators of sexual harassment, especially by abusers who wield significant power over the abused. The BBC sex-for-grades video and the growing body of research portray Nigeria’s ivory towers as the centre for power-driven sexual harassment. The asymmetrical power relations plaguing institutions of higher learning reinforce the need to design a dedicated reporting system that guarantees the confidentiality and security of the target, victim, or bystander. This informed the launch of a demand-driven mobile application for case reporting, data generation and effective case management. This effort is a vital piece of the Campus Safety Initiative that anchored on a tripartite approach of policy advocacy, bystander intervention and technology adoption. We have recorded tremendous impact, particularly with securing the buy-in of institutions of higher learning to adopt the platform as a formal channel for reporting. The Campus Pal App has created a sense of community and shared responsibility in ending sexual harassment through the safe space and matching folder features. In general, the App is critical in improving institutional response and promoting transparency in case management. With this app, victims will muster the courage to report, and perpetrators will be sanctioned thereby stopping repeat offenders.

Women are most affected by all forms of violence. How can they live above this vulnerability?
Living above this vulnerability requires government and duty bearers to take a decision that the lives of women are worth saving. Violence against women is a function of a system that relegates women and enables patriarchy to thrive. Overcoming this vulnerability requires a mutually reinforcing and complementary approaches aimed at dismantling the barriers that impede the political, social, and economic liberation of women. This includes challenging traditional norms and harmful practices such as early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, widow maltreatment, male child preference and wife beating. This can be done by making a series of measures such as promptly reporting cases of violence of any kind, sexual harassment, and the likes, to relevant authorities instead of staying silent. This can be achieved by strengthening feminist movements to amplify the voices of women to speak against the varying forms of violence.

What inspires you?
What inspires me and keeps me going is being a member of a great community tackling the world’s most pressing social challenges with innovation, passion, grit, and purpose. On many days, we wake up to heart-wrenching news of women experiencing one form of abuse or the other. This is always a powerful reminder of the work that needs to be done. However, we derive strength in the number of girls and women that have exited the doldrums of neglect and abuse as a result of our effort as an organisation.

As a successful woman who is living her dreams, what is your advice to other women who are struggling with getting a hold of their passion?
I like to reference the popular line credited to Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, in her book titled ‘Lean in’. As women, we are confronted with a lot of external barriers widely known as glass ceilings. However, we fail to address the internal barriers (sticky floor) that hold us down in perpetuity. They include low self-esteem, failure to use our voices in a way that amplifies our strength and imposter syndrome that trivialises our successes and belittles our wins at both individual and collective levels. You wonder why women attribute their wins or success to luck while men attribute their promotion and feat to their skills and prowess even in work settings. It is a long walk to freedom and equality. And as women, we need to leverage our numerical strength to catalyse the power of solidarity. We need to build alliances that foster intergenerational mentorship and constantly seek avenues for knowledge and skills acquisition. While we hold on to mentors, we must also be mentors to those coming behind us. I urge every woman to keep leaning in and keep their hands raised at the table.

What is your life Mantra?
My life mantra is embedded in the Ubuntu ideology of ‘I am because you are’. This is the basis of my belief that no woman is truly free until all women are free.