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‘We need laws stringent enough to deter rapists, compassionate enough to protect victims’

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Stephanie Linus (OKEREKE), an award winning actress, filmmaker and entrepreneur, is the Executive Director of Extended Hands Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that helps facilitate free treatment for women and girls with obstetric fistula. Her acting abilities and tenacity has over the years earned her the reputation of one of the best actresses in Nollywood and African continent at large.

In 2014, she released an advocacy movie, Dry which focused on Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) conditions and under aged marriage among young women in Africa. The English and literary studies graduate from the University of Calabar, who also attended the New York Film Academy, Los Angeles, in 2015 started a TV reality show, Make Me Fabulous, which is an unscripted, love filled and one-of-its-kind. The programme helped rekindle the spark in marriages from newly-weds to old couples.

On a special invitation from the Queen of England, she was one of the guests that attended the 2015 Queens Young Leaders Award in Buckingham Palace, where 60 young people from across Commonwealth Nations were honoured. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, the actress shares her thoughts on the rising cases of rape in Nigeria and her new initiative, Hygiene First.

You just launched a new initiative, Hygiene First, what’s the motive behind the campaign?
The Hygiene First campaign was formed out of a strong desire and urgency to awaken our consciousness about our personal and community hygiene. As Nigerians, I believe we all have roles to play in making the entire country a lot cleaner and more habitable. This campaign has a unique approach of inspiring better habits. What we do repeatedly becomes our habits, so we want Nigerians to have better hygienic habits; it starts with making little changes. We want everyone to know that the cleanliness of our environment is not someone else’s responsibility, but ours. Cleaner communities would have a huge positive impact on our health and make us feel proud of our nation. This is an important mission for me as a graduate of Environmental Studies. I decided to champion this cause because the Change starts with us.

Is this your way of ensuring that more people keep COVID-19 pandemic at bay and flatten the curve?
We hope that the implementation of this campaign helps not only in preventing the spread of the Coronavirus, but much more. Coronavirus is one of many communicable diseases that can be spread from person to person; we have several others that are still plaguing us today. By practising good personal and community hygiene, we can greatly reduce the frequency of our hospital visits. Good hygiene saves lives.

With the rising cases of rape and sexual violence, what are your thoughts as an advocate?
My heart aches for these women; the stories I have heard are heart wrenching and should never have happened. They are so rampant and damaging to the extent that Nigeria is now being tagged as having a rape epidemic. This is because we have had a culture that keeps blaming victims. Rape, we can all agree, is damaging and I’m glad that many girls and women are now speaking up. Now, we need our government and policymakers to step in and ensure these victims get justice. The laws should be stringent enough to deter rapists and compassionate enough to protect the victims. The role of parents is also particularly important. We need to be watchful, to listen to our children – both boys and girls, and give them the freedom to express themselves. We also need to educate young people and those, who are more vulnerable in our societies.

What do you consider a barrier for women seeking justice?
As long as we, as a nation, continue to blame victims, we will prevent women from speaking out about their hurtful experiences, which is the first step in seeking justice. Women need to feel comfortable about speaking out, and to do so at the right time. We have seen a lot of women find their courage years later, which makes it more difficult to prosecute the cases. A culture that shames rape victims attaches a stigma to them, making them think the sexual assault was their fault. Thankfully, technology has helped to amplify the voices of these victims who use social media as a tool to tell their stories. Now that a lot of women are speaking against rape, it is giving other victims the courage to speak up. I believe this would result in an increase in the allegations becoming criminal cases that actually get to the law courts. This way, justice can be served.

How in your opinion can survivors of sexual violence live above the hurts?
It’s never going to be an easy task to move on like nothing ever happened. Survivors of sexual violence need to be heard and acknowledged and see their abuser brought to justice. In addition, an apology from the abuser is pertinent; saying sorry doesn’t wipe away the anger, but it goes a long way. Some victims want to know that an abuser is remorseful and won’t inflict that pain on someone else. Many abusers need to understand the gravity and consequences of their actions; they need to be educated to realise the extent of pain they are inflicting on another person.

The survivor also should forgive herself/himself and sometimes, that requires drawing strength from other people through therapy or counseling; bottling up the pain only results in bigger problems. There should be structures in place that help survivors find the support they need whether emotional or physical.

In your 2014, you released award-winning movie, Dry, which addressed issues around FGM. How have you been able to leverage on it to drive your advocacy?
Dry is more than just a movie; it’s an advocacy tool. And since its release, that’s all we have been focused on. We have taken Dry across the world and it has been instrumental in contributing to major policy changes and awareness creation on fistula, child marriage, maternal health and more. Dry was instrumental to the ban of child marriage in Gambia. We have also highlighted the importance of quality maternal health in Nigeria and we have begun to see many traditional rulers and policymakers taking this more seriously.

Our biggest success is the lives we have changed. Dry was the inspiration behind the Extended Hands Foundation, a charity organisation I started, which has so far provided free fistula surgeries to fistula patients in Nigeria. The film has been translated to different languages and we have screened it in several Nigerian communities, including Sokoto and Borno. The impact it had so far has been overall positive, but we are not relenting. Our goal is to eradicate fistula and improve maternal health care in Africa.

Are you looking at doing the same for rape? Do you think the industry should also look at speaking about the ills of rape through movies?
In Dry, we also addressed the issue of rape. The character of the young girl, who was forced into marriage, did not know anything about sex. Her husband raped her repeatedly until she got pregnant and had fistula. Also, the character I played – Dr. Zara – was raped as a young girl by her uncle; she also got pregnant and had fistula. With more people speaking up now, the ills in our society are being illuminated. This is what we set out to achieve with Dry and I’m glad that more people are bold and saying, ‘we have to stop this.’

As an actress, your big break into the movie industry came in 1997, how was that experience? I don’t think I considered any point as a big break because I wasn’t looking for one; that was never my goal. I just loved acting and I kept doing it. At some point early in my career, I realised that people were beginning to recognise me in public places; that was probably when it dawned on me that my work was spreading so far. But I did not set out, looking for a big break; I was just expressing myself. Even right now, there are still a lot to accomplish, so, I’m pushing further.

What drives you in all you do?
I know for a fact that there’s still a lot of capacity in me, a lot that I have to offer which I haven’t explored. Knowing this drives me to do more. But most importantly, I strive everyday to ensure that I am doing the will of God specifically in what I have been called to do on this earth. I’m motivated to explore all that has been given to me. I am driven to ensure that I explore all of that.

What in your opinion are the challenges facing women in this society?
Women, just like men, face challenges every day. But I think we should focus on the ability we have inside of us. As women, we shouldn’t limit ourselves in anyway. We need to collaborate a lot more and use the power we have to decide how we want to live our lives.
Being a wife, mother, actress, writer, producer, director and more, how do you fit into all these caps?
Well, it’s just a thing that you do. If you have ability to become all of that, then why not? I, however, try to take one title at a time.

What do you enjoy about motherhood and what has it taught you?
It’s such a delight to have someone, who looks up to you, who listens to you and who emulates you. I feel honored that God gave me this responsibility to make decisions and take care of another human being. Motherhood is just one of the greatest gifts ever.

In your opinion, what do Nigerian women need from the government?
Nigerian women want equal opportunities and protection of their rights. We need a government that listens to us and has adequate representation of women in policy and decision-making capacities. We also need the government to provide structures that empower women with the education, career and resources we need to achieve our dreams.

What’s your life Mantra?
Love; do everything from a place of love.


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