Abuja, Nigeria – On February 3, Khadijah Adamu, a 24-year-old pharmacist in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, told her Twitter followers about a harrowing case of physical abuse, detailing claims of how an ex-boyfriend almost killed her.
“It was a burden that I was carrying around for two years,” Adamu told Al Jazeera. “Talking to people didn’t work, praying didn’t work, nothing worked, and to make matters worse my abuser refused to leave me alone.”
Fakhriyyah Hashim, an entrepreneur and development worker in the Nigerian capital Abuja, noticed Adamu’s tweet and replied with empathy, adding the hashtag #ArewaMeToo.
Arewa is the general term used to refer to northern Nigeria, which has a majority Muslim population and a conservative society where issues surrounding sex and sexuality are rarely discussed in public.
Soon, young women and men from the north started sharing experiences of rape and abuse on Twitter, using the hashtag.
Some tweets even named the alleged abusers.
For conservative northern Nigeria, where women are typically meant to be seen and not heard, I think the bravery of the women is similar to a revolution.
Drawing on the success of the global #MeToo movement, which started in late 2017, the project’s founders hope to break down cultural, economic, social and institutional barriers, which stand in the way of addressing sexual abuse and harassment.
“We don’t talk about sex because we have this perception that we are a morally upright society,” says Hashim, who leads the #ArewaMeToo movement.
“We want to be angry, but we don’t want to show it. We don’t want to come up with objective resolutions on how to approach a lot of these problems.”
For now, #ArewaMeToo is fledging but plans are under way to put up a more coordinated fight. Three men and seven women, including Hashim and Adamu, lead the team.
Local chapters are active in the cities of Kano, Maiduguri, Niger, Sokoto, and Zamfara.
They have received more than 100 messages from young women and men, writing to share their experiences.
“You have to be open with them and tell them the legal implications if it turns out to be false information,” says Khadijah Awwal, one of the team’s four lawyers.
They ask for “concrete evidence” such as chat records, photos, medical reports and sometimes request members to visit their office to verify their identities.
Once they are satisfied with the authenticity of a victim’s report, they connect them to NGOs that offer psychosocial support and legal aid.
As the campaign unfolded on social media, one of the leaders, Maryam Awaisu, was arrested by police officers with the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (or SARS).
A man who had been named on Twitter for allegedly abusing several girls had complained about defamation.
The police wanted to access Awaisu’s phone and laptop, and took her to another city for questioning.
Today we rallied together in Minna to walk against sexual abuse, in the quest to push #ArewaMeToo outside social media. Grateful for a great and passionate team. Next week, we begin the secondary school visits for awareness and enlightenment for students. #ArewaMeToo pic.twitter.com/Jmq5Y0FFK3
— Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu (@WaasiShaffii) March 2, 2019
Awaisu’s teammates raised alarm on Twitter as Amnesty International condemned the arrest and called for her release.
“I foresaw it because you cannot talk about these things that nobody dares to without consequences,” says activist and writer Awaisu, who was later released.
She believes the arrest was “intentionally done to intimidate us”, but reaffirmed her commitment to the cause.
Isa Sanusi of Amnesty International Nigeria says the #ArewaMeToo team, and its allies, “must not be silenced or punished for the vital work they do”.
She added: “It is unacceptable that women working on behalf of these victims are subjected to intimidation and online bullying, and we fear that these actions may prevent victims of sexual violence from pursuing justice.”
Al Jazeera contacted officials at the justice and women affairs ministries in the northern states for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.
‘Not the way to go about it’
While survivors and activists have welcomed the movement, critics have accused the campaigners of bringing “disrepute” to Islam and “executing a Western plot”, while others blamed survivors for dressing “indecently”.
Some of those accused have also hit back.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, a man who has been accused of sexually assaulting women says he was “surprised and shocked” by the allegations, which he denies.
“I have been described as a serial rapist among other things, which to date, no one has proved,” he said.
“Social media isn’t an avenue to prove one’s innocence or guilt, so I have deliberately refused to say anything online since this very well-planned campaign of calumny started against me.
“Again, if the end game for the alleged accusations was justice, that wasn’t the way to go about it.”
Beyond social media
Beyond naming and shaming, the activists want to address the root causes of sexual abuse and push for reforms.
They have so far used the momentum to take their message to schools, markets, local communities and radio stations.
They have also approached traditional and religious leaders to win their support.
Betty Abah, director of the Centre for Children’s Health, Education, Orientation and Protection (CEE-HOPE) NGO, believes social media is a “powerful and effective tool” in amplifying issues such as sexual assault and can help in getting justice because “nothing unsettles a sex predator like an outspoken victim.”
The “ripple effect” of the initiative will be felt for years to come, she said.
“For conservative northern Nigeria, where women are typically meant to be seen and not heard, I think the bravery of the women is similar to a revolution.”
Although Nigerian law does punish sexual offences, survivors have cited inefficiency in the legal system and social stigma in preventing justice.
“From my experience, the biggest barrier hampering justice daily in Nigeria is … the determination of law enforcement officers to scuttle justice,” says Abah.
“This is particularly true with the police. We have had several cases where we found ourselves applying the same battle tempo against the perpetrators as well as the police who attempt to stymie justice after obviously taking bribes.”
Going forward, #ArewaMeToo campaigners are pushing for state assemblies in the north to adopt the Child Rights Act, which was passed by Federal Parliament in 2003. It outlawed intercourse with anyone below 18 and stipulated lifetime imprisonment for offenders. But only 26 out of 36 states have adopted it; all the remaining states are in the north.
“It is important that we get as many prosecutions as we can,” says Hashim, “because that would make people believe that the system works and nobody is untouchable.”