In Nigeria there is an increase in sexual assault against girls and women. Despite this increase coupled with an extremely low conviction rate for rape and sexual abuse, very few are doing anything to combat this problem. Enter Mrs Itoro Eze Anaba, the founder of Mirabel Centre, the first Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) in Nigeria. Festus Iyorah writes.
In the year 2000, a year after Nigeria’s return to civilian rule, Nigeria’s National and State Parliaments sprung into action: presenting new bills, raising motions that would enhance our newfound democracy.
But very few bills or motions were presented on domestic violence against women and girls in Nigeria, and none had been signed into law.
That was when Mrs Itoro Eze-Anaba, a lawyer keenly interested in lobbying the Nigerian government to outlaw domestic violence drafted the Domestic Violence Bill (DVB), the first of its kind in Nigeria.
“I went to 12 states in Nigeria to lobby its passage into law. I also went to the National assembly. So, while I was working with Lagos State, I decided to test the bill by going to the streets to talk to people. Then I came across a 14-year-old who told me a story that was so touching, she said her father had been sleeping with her since she was 11. She said when she summoned the courage to speak with her religious leader, he didn’t believe her, leaving her with nowhere else to go,” she said, adding that the experience was what she needed to start the first rape referral centre in Nigeria.
In 2013, Eze- Anaba got funding from the Department for International Development (DFID) of the British Council, to establish the first Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Nigeria and the second in West Africa. The centre is operated by the partnership of justice, a non-profit organization of professionals who share a commitment to equality, justice and globalization of human rights standards
Before the end of 2013, Mrs Eze-Anaba opened Mirabel Centre to provide free medical services and rehabilitation for rape victims in the commercial city of Lagos.
Welcome to Mirabel Centre
Mirabel Centre is located at Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH), just next to the teaching hospital’s central mosque.
The small building has a security man, saddled with the responsibility of ushering in clients and visitors. Indoors, Mirabel centre is a long dimly lit corridors lined with two rooms (a room for the staff to work and an examination/observation room), including a small cubicle that served a waiting room.
At the waiting room, a Plasma Television is placed at a vantage point to entertain visitors and clients. At the top left wing from the entrance is the Mirabel centre’s pledge bank scrawled with “I SAY NO TO RAPE” and visitors’ autographs who had signed a pledge to stop rape.
During my stay there a frame placed against the wall caught my attention. It reads: The poor deserves right to justice.
Here’s exactly one of the good works Mrs Eze-Anaba has been doing since she opened Mirabel centre in 2013. At the Mirabel centre, free medical treatments, drugs, transportation refunds, HIV/AIDS test, pregnancy test has been provided to survivors of rape and sexual assaults.
“The youngest person that has been to our centre is an 18 months old baby, who was raped and the oldest person is a 70-year-old grandma who was raped by her son’s tenant. Majority of the people that come to the centre are between the ages of 11 and 15,” she said adding that boys are also included.
“The argument that rape only affects women is not true, because we have over 15 boys in our centre that were raped by men. They have come to our centre to receive treatment.”
Since 2013, Mirabel Centre has provided free support services for more than 1,500 rapes cases in Three years. However, only four perpetrators have been convicted.
In Nigeria, it’s pretty hard to indict perpetrators and cases of sexual assault stay pretty long in court.
“Cases stay so long in courts that parties are tired and see it as a waste of time. Even the police are not equipped to source and provide evidence in court and survivors are pressurized to drop cases,” she says.
With the consistent campaign and efforts of Mrs Eze-Anaba, the Nigerian government has started to sit up and respond to issues tied to domestic violence against girls and women,.
In 2014, the immediate past governor of Lagos state, Babatunde Fashola signed an executive order making it compulsory for witnesses to report sexual violence, at the same time establishing a sex offenders’ register. Also, in 2015, the former president Goodluck Jonathan signed the violence Against Persons Prohibition bill, making rape punishable by life in prison.
“It will be criminal to close down Mirabel centre”
With the help of a grant from the Department for International Development (DFID) of the British Council, Mirabel centre has treated more than 1500 rape cases in the city of Lagos.
But in May 2015 the funding came to an end, shifting Mirabel centre at the verge of closing down at the tail end of 2015.
After the funding came to an end, Mirabel centre started a crowdfunding attempt on GoFundMe that attracted $12, 401 raised by 287 people in 18 months.
“Somebody has once asked me, what we will do if the money is no longer there to run the free services; the person was asking if we were going to fold-up. But my response is that we will not fold-up, it will be criminal to do that. There are so many people that need the services,” she says.