Survivors Lead the Charge in Nigeria’s Fight for Gender Justice

Despite promising new laws and a 'state of emergency' for sexual violence, justice remains elusive for survivors in the country

Survivors Lead the Charge in Nigeria’s Fight for Gender Justice
Dorothy Njemanze, founder of the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation, handles numerous sexual violence cases that have fallen off the police’s radar. (Hussein Amri)

When the police refused to investigate the rape of her 13-year-old daughter, Bisi (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) decided that she would make a case that they couldn’t ignore. Outside a police station near Bwari, Nigeria, she took off her dress, wrapped it around an officer’s neck, grabbed his AK-47 and ran.

“I needed something to happen,” Bisi told New Lines from her home on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. “Instead, the police said I don’t have a case.”

Bisi’s daughter, Tolu (also a pseudonym), was raped in November 2016. After being lured into a car, she was violently assaulted by a neighbor, nearly 30 years her senior, over the course of several hours. It would be nearly nine months before Tolu racked up the courage to tell her mother what had happened to her. “He told me I would die if I told anyone, so I kept quiet,” Tolu said.

Her abuser’s threats seemed credible. He was an elder, a neighbor and a trusted family friend. She would see him often as she walked the dusty roads that connected her home with her school, her mother’s shop and the local church. After the rape, she started seeing him everywhere — he lingered outside her school and followed her home several days each week, ostensibly to spend time with her parents. Several weeks after the rape, he slapped her in front of his friends for refusing to greet him on her way home from school.

Yet it was the delay in reporting that would cause the police to dismiss the case. The officer said that Tolu must have “enjoyed” the assault, Bisi recalled. Video recordings of subsequent interactions with the police, filmed by activists who confronted them, support her account.

“They said, ‘This would be a good case, but your daughter has spoiled it,’” Bisi said. “But how can you say a 13-year-old girl who was trapped in a car enjoyed what happened to her?”

Under Nigerian law, Tolu could not have consented to sex, since she was a child at the time of the rape. The crimes were also covered by promising new legislation tackling sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) — the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, or VAPP, passed into Nigerian law just two years earlier.

But the law felt meaningless for Bisi and her daughter on that sweltering day in August 2017. “I didn’t have anything in my head but to attack the police, so at least there will be a fresh case,” Bisi explained. “So I removed my clothes and attacked two of them.”

West African women have a long history of using their bodies as sites of political protest, from struggles against patriarchy and colonialism to postcolonial political protests. The “naked curse,” as it’s known, is a protest of last resort — when all other avenues for recourse have failed, women disrobe to instigate political action. In the early 2000s, hundreds of women in the Niger Delta stripped naked to protest the environmental destruction and corrupt practices of foreign oil companies, forcing settlements where previous protests had failed. ​​During the Aba Women’s Protest in the late 1920s, hundreds of semi-naked women took to the streets across southern Nigeria to demand changes to colonial policies that had impoverished their communities. Over 50 women were killed in the crackdown that ensued, demonstrating in no uncertain terms what this form of protest symbolizes — that women have reached a point where they are willing to die in pursuit of their cause.

“Because I was naked, they were so scared,” Bisi recalled, laughing softly. Such acts are usually done in groups, but Bisi’s lone act of protest would connect her with a group of women who are also putting their bodies and lives on the line to help survivors of gendered violence.

As Bisi fought with the police, a young man cautiously approached, handing her a phone number scribbled on a piece of paper. He said he heard about her daughter’s case and knew someone who could help. “To this day, I do not know who he was,” Bisi said.

The number belonged to Dorothy Njemanze, the leader of a grassroots collective of sexual violence survivors that works 24/7 on a shoestring budget to help other victims and survivors across Nigeria. The Dorothy Njemanze Foundation (DNF) offers free legal, medical, economic and psychosocial support services to other survivors. Eight members of staff (who are often volunteers, due to DNF’s struggle to raise enough funds for salaries) work around the clock responding to calls for help from sexual violence survivors failed by government institutions that are supposed to protect them.

A young woman and survivor of sexual violence with her daughter in the DNF shelter. (Hussein Amri)

In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, most countries, including Nigeria, registered a significant uptick in reports to police of gender-based violence alongside plummeting rates of prosecution for these charges. A similar trend occurred in Nigeria after VAPP was passed in 2015. Despite the new law, prosecution rates remain remarkably low compared to other violent crimes. Prosecutions may not be an ideal measure of justice, but they suggest a widening gulf between victims’ expectations and measurable outcomes.

There are lessons here, both about the limits of the law and the promise of a new kind of feminist civil society. Nigeria’s laws have been written and rewritten, the country’s #MeToo moment came and went and, more recently, the government declared a national “state of emergency” for gendered violence. Yet, in practice, much of the work of providing care, safety and justice to sexual violence survivors is being done not by the government but by survivors themselves.

The first time I met Dorothy, she was recovering from malaria in her home near Abuja. It was an early evening in late February, the tail end of harmattan season, when the sand that blows southward from the Sahara mixes with smog and coats the sky in a thick orange haze. Abuja’s electrical grid had collapsed again and Dorothy’s apartment was dark.

Even in illness, Dorothy is an imposing figure. She is tall with bright eyes and a wry smile, always dressed to the nines. As we spoke, her phone buzzed incessantly on the couch, and she took frequent breaks to respond to calls from colleagues and clients.

Like Bisi, many Nigerians find DNF through Nigeria’s “whisper network.” Dorothy’s personal WhatsApp number circulates on social media and by word of mouth among people trying to help each other in the aftermath of gendered violence. Dorothy has developed a reputation as someone who can “make things happen” for victims who have been failed by state institutions.

That reputation is backed by data. According to my analysis of 125 of DNF’s case files, nearly 70% of all cases were reported to the organization by survivors after they tried unsuccessfully to report them to Nigerian law enforcement. The data shows that DNF managed to instigate some form of official action in about 30% of those cases, though that figure may be higher. Officials often don’t follow up with DNF after they have referred a case, so the foundation will find out later from clients about what actually happened. In about half of cases, DNF managed to help clients with longer-term security arrangements, such as moving house or finding shelter. They are enforcing negotiated settlements or restitution in about 10% of nonviolent cases that didn’t enter the formal system.

“It’s a misconception that victims do not want to report,” Dorothy told me. “Many do — but it makes no sense to ‘speak up’ if no one is listening.”

By her count, Dorothy has been arrested dozens of times, usually because an accused abuser has caught wind of her efforts and paid off the police. During Nigeria’s COVID-19 lockdowns, she was arrested without charge and accused of “impersonating a first responder” when she was caught breaking curfew to assist a victim of domestic violence. Her colleagues have also been arrested as part of efforts to pressure them to drop cases, particularly those involving powerful men.

She is harassed in other ways, too. During our first meeting, we were interrupted by a knock at the door. A man stood in the doorway claiming to be her landlord’s lawyer and served her an eviction notice. When he left, Dorothy led me to the window where we watched him walk down a potholed road to a group of six men under a mango tree. He spoke to them briefly, then turned and pointed toward the balcony where Dorothy and I were hidden behind tinted glass. She said that the landlord uses these men, who she described as “bored and unemployed,” to watch and intimidate her. “They don’t like the work that I do,” she added.

There is no clear distinction between Dorothy’s work and her life. Her living room walls are papered with posters, handwritten lists, diagrams and flowcharts. The shelves in her bedroom, where she often works after nights of responding to distress calls, overflow with a miscellany of legal documents, stationary, clothing, film scripts, cooking spices and photography equipment. Before she found herself at the forefront of Nigeria’s struggle for gender justice, Dorothy was an actor, a filmmaker and, of all things, a stunt driver in Nollywood, Nigeria’s flourishing film scene.

As we spoke, people filtered in and out of the living room with a rhythm that suggested the house was the center of something; both headquarters and safehouse at once. A pro bono lawyer let himself in and sat down at Dorothy’s kitchen table. Two young women burst through the door chatting animatedly. A toddler wandered into the room, eyes bleary from a nap.

Two years ago, DNF had 13 staff. All are survivors of sexual violence and many were former clients determined to give back to the organization that helped them. Yet, today, only seven remain. A combination of high risk, intense stress and low pay (about 50,000 naira per month, or just over $100) means they suffer from intense burnout. DNF struggles to obtain funding from large donors for staff salaries and one of the most important aspects of their work — emergency response services. During months where funding is scarce, staff will give up their salaries to ensure DNF’s work can continue.

The DNF shelter’s administrators take a break from managing daily life for its residents. (Hussein Amri)

“Donors find it easier to fund seminars and ‘empowerment’ workshops,” Dorothy told me. “They say the things we work on are things the government is supposed to be doing.”

Dorothy established DNF in 2011. That year, a law enforcement body called the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB) was established by the minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Bala Mohammed, to help him turn Abuja into a “world class city.” His vision evoked cities like Dubai, with its glittering skyscrapers and opulent city centers.

The urban poor had no place in Mohammed’s vision for a modern Abuja. The AEPB harassed and detained street vendors, unhoused people and persons with disabilities. Women were arrested for simply being outside at night, accused (without evidence) of being sex workers. Many, including Dorothy, were sexually assaulted during these arrests. Dorothy and three other plaintiffs went on to win a landmark ruling against the Republic of Nigeria for these abuses in a regional court under the jurisdiction of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The ECOWAS ruling came two years after VAPP was passed. VAPP was the longest-pending bill in the country’s democratic history and significantly expanded narrow definitions of sexual violence inherited from British colonial law. It also included many progressive prohibitions on domestic violence, including outlawing “forced financial dependence” and emotional and psychological abuse.

The fact that VAPP was passed at all is largely thanks to Nigerian feminist activism, including by DNF.

Changing the law is one thing but ensuring the law provides safety and justice for survivors is quite another. “Law is just the first step,” Dorothy said. “We needed VAPP, but it isn’t yet working for survivors.” Today, DNF focuses less on changing laws and more on the practical side of justice.

The day after the incident at the Bwari police station, Dorothy invited Bisi and Tolu to her office. After recording their account (DNF keeps meticulous records), Dorothy called a doctor she knows at a police-run hospital in Abuja. This doctor was also a sworn officer with a senior rank. The police refused to address the matter until the doctor referred the case to another senior officer in Abuja. After her referral, an investigating officer was assigned to the case and told to press charges.

Bisi described feeling both vindicated and heartbroken by the doctor’s professional assessment that Tolu had been raped but, for a brief moment, she believed that they were finally on the right track.

This sequence is typical at DNF. Dorothy has cultivated a quiet network of allies within the Nigerian police, the prosecutor’s office and other institutions that have reputations for mishandling cases of gendered violence. These undercover feminists work within their own institutions to support victims and survivors amid challenging circumstances.

But, just as a new law is no guarantee of justice, neither is an open case file. In Tolu’s case, the police prosecutor assigned to oversee the case “became a problem.” He began to sexually harass Dorothy, then started pressuring Bisi and Tolu to withdraw the charges.

Without DNF’s support, the pressure might have worked. It wouldn’t have been the first time — Bisi recounted how, on three previous occasions, she had been pressured into dropping a domestic violence case against her husband. He had abused her for years but, in 2019, he left her so severely injured that the police arrested him, only to release him several hours later. “After, he become emboldened,” Bisi said. “He realized the police wouldn’t do anything to stop him.”

Like so many domestic violence cases in Nigeria, Bisi’s case disappeared under pressure. She was used to being let down by the law but, when it came to her daughter, she wasn’t going away without a fight.

When Tolu arrived for her first day in court in August 2017, the morning sun would have illuminated the building’s eastward entrance, topped with an art deco statue of Lady Justice. The latter looms over the entranceway, a sword in her right hand and scales in her left, her eyes covered with a blindfold.

The police prosecutor led them to the foot of the statue and pointed upward. “You see her?” Tolu recounted the prosecutor’s words. “She is blind. She can’t see you. She can’t see what happened. You should drop this case.”

Bisi added, “I don’t know the meaning of that blindfold. But he interpreted it to mean we don’t have a case. Our emotion is not enough. My daughter doesn’t have proof enough.”

The symbol of a blindfolded Lady Justice, which is normally understood to mean equality under law, began as a joke. It first appeared in a satirical 15th-century illustration where a court jester, representing a bureaucrat, covers Lady Justice’s eyes with a strip of cloth. The joke was that if justice needed anything to weigh evidence and dole out fair consequences, it was clear sightedness. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that the image shed its ironic meaning and took on its contemporary interpretation — a fantasy of fairness in deeply unequal societies.

The women of DNF hold no such fantasies. “We are a feminist organization, and so we recognize that everyone experiences different kinds of oppression based on their identities and specific situations,” Dorothy told me. In other words, the very opposite of blindness.

DNF’s feminism is scrappy and pragmatic, but larger questions of power are never far from anyone’s mind. The organization is “survivor-led” in a dual sense: Members are themselves survivors of sexual violence, but they also follow the lead of victims and survivors in each case. They spend time and resources trying to discern how power imbalances might influence choices survivors make in the justice process. Focusing on what they call the “particularities” of survivors’ circumstances helps DNF map and manage the power dynamics that might affect someone’s ability to freely choose what they want or need after violence.

“Our job is to help people see their options. We trust they have agency, but they have to be in situations where they can make free choices,” said Priye Diri, a former client of DNF who now works as a case manager for the organization. “Some people might want an abuser arrested and taken to court. For others, justice might just be to get out of that situation.”

Priye Diri (left) and Nenette Ebi (right) planning care and access to justice for DNF clients. (Hussein Amri)

For Bisi and Tolu, justice meant getting out of their community, into a safe home where Tolu’s abuser and Bisi’s husband couldn’t find them. DNF scraped together funds to pay their rent while Bisi tried to get her business back up and running. But, once they were safe, justice also meant criminal accountability.

Bisi’s experience is no anomaly. Officials I spoke to cited countless examples where victims and survivors who reported their assault were pressured into dropping their cases. Usually, this meant the abuse would continue or worsen. I reviewed dozens of reports that began with desperate pleas for help, only to be followed up weeks later with a letter requesting that charges be dropped.

“I have forgiven him,” wrote one woman whose husband’s beatings had previously left her in a coma. “I wish to withdraw my case.” In several cases, the women became unreachable. In one instance, an investigator worried the victim might have eventually been killed by her husband.

Officials said that conditions for survivors to make free, informed choices include basic safety, economic independence and access to shelter. But, for most survivors, these conditions are largely out of reach. There are only three functioning shelters in Abuja, accommodating far fewer people than the United Nations’ recommended ratio of one shelter per every 10,000 people. Law enforcement data I reviewed showed officials try to keep victims/survivors in “closed” shelters for as long as possible if they decide to press charges. They know through experience that if victims return to their communities, they will be pressured into dropping the case and their efforts will have been “wasted,” in the words of one prosecutor.

Yet insulating survivors from pressure comes at a high price. Closed shelters are designed to protect victims from their abusers, but this means residents cannot freely move in and out, so they must quit school or their jobs. I read many letters from survivors requesting release from shelters so they could continue with school or work. These letters often accompanied requests to have the case withdrawn.

DNF opened a shelter during the COVID-19 lockdown. Since August 2020, their shelter has served over 150 women and children. The shelter is basic but clean and bright, with a liveliness that comes with having many young children living together under one roof.

One of the residents, a teenage girl living with her baby daughter born of rape, has been living in the shelter for over a year as she undergoes a criminal trial against the man who assaulted her (he threatened to kill her and her baby unless she dropped the case). The additional cruelty of sexual violence is the long shadow it casts over the present, forcing survivors into impossible choices between pursuing accountability and just getting on with their lives.

All the shelter’s current residents would be in danger if their abusers were to find them. Residents were grateful to be safe but also described feeling “stuck,” unable to continue with their usual routine. Law enforcement seems unable or unwilling to enforce protection orders for victims, which could allow residents to continue with their lives while also pursuing justice. “I have never seen a protection order work,” Dorothy told me.

DNF isn’t opposed to nonjuridical forms of justice, at least not in principle. Under certain conditions, community-based resolutions rooted in Nigeria’s myriad cultures can help survivors achieve safety and justice. But they are also suspicious of claims that local communities are immune from the same kinds of power imbalances that plague the formal justice system.

The women of DNF see formal law as one form of power among many that compete for primacy in the lives of women and girls. From this perspective, the law doesn’t sit at the top of a neat hierarchy of rules. Instead, law is embedded within a network of unwritten rules, which shapes how people think about different types of violence and which victims really matter.

While power, in all its forms, is so often concentrated in the hands of men and the state, DNF’s members do not see themselves as powerless. Tolu, who is now 19 and works as a case manager at DNF, believes that power is the ability to make problems for people with power.

“In this country, creating wahala is how you get people to do their work,” she said, using a Nigerian colloquialism that translates to worries or problems. “Power is creating wahala for powerful people.”

DNF has different tactics for creating problems for the powerful. They broadcast negative interactions with police on Facebook Live or shame institutions on social media. At times, they even conduct citizens’ arrests. Dorothy calls senior officials within her quiet network of allies to ask that officials who mistreat or fail victims are held accountable. “Even if you have no resources you can still shout and say someone is doing the wrong thing,” Dorothy said.

Measuring the overall impact of DNF’s work is difficult because so much of it involves creating conditions for justice rather than measurable outcomes. What is clear is that DNF makes it harder for cases to disappear. While perpetrators work to silence cases, DNF makes cases proliferate.

It’s exhausting work. All of DNF’s members described having days when they think they can’t continue. They are sent horrific images of violence from people who are desperate for help and often arrive on the scene to find people brutally injured. They struggle to raise funds to continue their work, let alone access support for themselves.

I asked DNF’s members what a good day looks like in this line of work. They said a good day is when no case is reported — but most days cases are reported, so they have to settle for smaller wins.

“A good day is when we feel like we’ve made the system respond,” Priye said. “Abusers think nothing will happen to them, and often they are right. When you see something actually happen that can be really powerful, even if it doesn’t end in a conviction.”

When I asked Dorothy how she stays motivated when there are few substantive signs that Nigeria’s sexual violence situation is getting better, she replied simply that somebody must. “If I wasn’t doing this, I would be complicit with those who allow the violence to continue. We keep saying, ‘just one more case.’ It’s like a drug.”

Five years, two judges and two prosecutors later, Tolu’s case drags on in court. I asked her if she had considered withdrawing her case, given how long it’s dragged on. “You get tired, you feel stuck,” she sighed. “At first you look forward to your case. But then the years pass, and it loses value. You have to move on with your life.”

Each time she shows up to court, Tolu is forced to sit across the room from the man whose violent acts against her are etched in her memory and continue to influence the contours of her life. She has missed so many school days in court that she’s lost count — she almost missed a final exam because of a conflicting hearing. In spite of all that, she says she won’t drop the case. She doesn’t want her rapist to evade accountability and she knows what the case means to her mother and to Dorothy.

Even if he isn’t convicted, Tolu believes that refusing to allow the case to disappear has had several positive outcomes. For one, “the label of him as a rapist won’t leave him easily,” Tolu told me. In their old neighborhood, parents now keep their children away from him. Dorothy added that Bisi’s persistence and willingness to talk about what they went through is helping to “break the culture of silence” around sexual violence, particularly in poor communities.

Tolu might feel stuck, but she certainly doesn’t act that way. For months, I watched as she offered survivors the same tenacious care and support that DNF offered her and her mother. She responds to survivors’ calls for help, plans and conducts rescue operations and helps survivors bang on the doors of justice institutions that would prefer to keep them out. I listened as she reassured her clients in her low, calm voice and watched her walk them through the baffling web of bureaucracy that springs up around survivors in the aftermath of violence. She speaks with a compassionate stoicism of someone beyond her years.

I asked her if she found it emotionally difficult to be continuously confronted with cases that resemble her own. She does, but Tolu believes her experiences have helped her assist others because survivors feel more comfortable opening up to her when they learn that she can relate to their experiences.

I asked Priye what made her want to work for DNF after being a client. “For me there was a lot of anger. But you can also be angry at systems. Nothing happens if we’re not working to change systems,” she said. “Some people don’t want anything to do with us after being clients. Others want to channel their experience into helping others.”

Whether it’s the 2014 mass kidnapping of schoolgirls from Chibok, in the northeast of the country, or the systematic abuse of women in Hollywood, reporting on sexual violence tends to focus on extremes. Extreme cases can be powerful instigators for change — they spark social movements and expose the logical endpoints of the violence roiling just beneath the surface in the lives of so many women and girls.

But the story can’t end here. The endemic, “ordinary” forms of sexual violence experienced by Bisi, Tolu and countless others continue, and patterns of sexual violence and justice outcomes suggest that laws often aren’t enough. Survivors are demanding more than justice systems can provide.

DNF recognizes that justice won’t simply trickle down from the existence of a new law. If law is to be a meaningful tool for victims to pursue justice, people like Dorothy are going to have to be there every step of the way, naming and managing power inequities that persist despite laws that are intended to upend them.

In spite of all they are up against, Dorothy and her colleagues believe that the power structures that foster sexual violence are never as fixed as they appear. Patriarchy, too, has its cracks and contradictions, and it’s in these cracks that the women of DNF dig in their heels, carving out footholds from which they can continue their fight for gender justice.

The fight takes place in what Dorothy calls a “lacuna,” which is several things at once — it is the space between the hope of law and the reality on the ground, but it is also a way of naming the profound uncertainty about whether their work is actually shaking the structures of inequality that contribute to gendered violence.

To show up in the lacuna day after day takes courage and a degree of comfort with ambivalence that most would not be able to bear. DNF’s hope is tempered by experience, but it isn’t entirely gone. Some days, it’s enough to simply be here, in spite of it all, making problems for people with power.

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