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Rivers state, Nigeria – On a morning last February, eight-year-old Aminatu Zana – whose real name has been concealed – was raped in her hometown of Kano, Nigeria’s second largest city. The alleged perpetrator was no stranger: a neighbour, who used his familiarity and a bar of chocolate to lure the child into his room, then threatened her if she spoke of his crime.
But bloody traces of his assault on Aminatu’s garments gave him away. Her widowed and impoverished mother, Salima, dreaded going to the police but was encouraged by her neighbours to press charges. That itself was uncommon, as due to fear of stigmatisation and lacking trust in legal pathways, many victims in this part of the country do not pursue justice.
Aminatu’s story is too frequent in Nigeria, where rape and sexual assaults are epidemics but remain a taboo – especially in the north, where conservative societal codes govern a predominantly Muslim population.
The scale of the problem drove software developer Sa’adat Aliyu in August last year to launch Helpio, an Android mobile phone application designed to help combat such crimes and break the cultural barriers feeding it.
“I noticed that rape and sexual assault are rampant in Kano and most victims do not have anyone to run to, nor know how to report the cases,” Aliyu told Al Jazeera.
Victims using Helpio can remain anonymous, she explained, and they can gain “immediate access to a network of counsellors like doctors, sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) activists and legal representatives who follow up the case to ensure justice is served”.
Support is immediate and free, and being the only such software in Hausa, the main language spoken in the region, this help is – in theory – accessible to more than 30 million people living in Nigeria’s north.
Non-victims can also use the app to learn how to protect themselves and family members from potential threats. There is also a hotline for those in need of immediate help.
Helpio’s launch came as COVID-19 lockdowns spurred a “shadow pandemic”, according to Adamu Abbas, Kano lead at Connected Development (CODE), a platform that works with government institutions to enhance public services, and which has been working on raising awareness to curb rife SGBV numbers.
During the pandemic, “victims could not report cases due to lockdown and restriction of movement”, Abbas told Al Jazeera. Unavailable transportation and limited access to overstretched healthcare discouraged victims from reporting, he said.
In 2018, Nigeria was ranked the world’s ninth most dangerous country for women, according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey.
Reflective of such ranking are the staggering SGBV rates. A 2019 survey by NOIPolls, a Nigeria-based public polling and research organisation, showed that a third of Nigerian women have experienced at least one form of sexual assault before turning 25.
UNICEF figures show that one in four girls and 10 percent of boys have been victims of sexual violence. Of these children who reported violence, UNICEF noted, fewer than five percent received any support. In 2017, the most recent figures by Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics showed 2,279 cases of rape and indecent assault had been reported to police.
For Kano, numbers have not been any better. Human Rights Network (HRN), the local civil society organisation that helped Salima report her daughter’s rape to the police, told Al Jazeera it received 626 reports of sexual assault throughout 2019 and 2020.
Meanwhile, the state’s centre for the rehabilitation of rape victims, known as WARAKA-SARC, addressed 2,125 cases between 2017 and 2020. Between January and March 2021 alone, WARAKA received more than 200 reports of sexual assault, its director Sanusi Aliyu told Al Jazeera, with 85 percent of the victims younger than 15 years old.
The state centre is one of the recent government measures targeting SGBV. Established by the Kano state government in late 2017, it offers free medical services to victims.
However, limited resources mean the two doctors, two nurses and three counsellors that make up its staff are overwhelmed, Sanusi said.
Harsher penalties for sexual-related crimes have also been either ratified or considered on both federal and state levels. In July 2020, Kano’s lawmakers approved a motion to add castration to a 14-year sentence for rape in the state’s penal code.
The following month, the federal criminal law was also amended, increasing SGBV punishment from 10 years in prison to life imprisonment, and removing a two-month deadline for victims to legally pursue their assailants.
“Rape cases are high in Kano because nobody has been jailed for life,” Fatima Lawal Aliya, human rights activist and Kano state coordinator for Women Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), told Al Jazeera. “If you arrest abusers today, before you know it, they are out committing another crime,” she said.
Aliya, Abbas and HRN are among many pushing for Kano to adopt the Violence Against Persons Prohibition act (VAPP), a federal law passed in May 2015, sentencing rapists to up to life in prison, and creating a sex offender register. The law has been under deliberation in Kano state, since.
Criticising the “absence of strong laws”, Ahmad noted that apps such as Helpio overcome another challenge. “A lot of survivors shy away from reporting cases due to fear of attacks by perpetrators,” she explained.
According to NOIPolls’ 2019 poll, northern central Nigeria including Kano state has the country’s second lowest rates of reporting SGBV to the police – only half the victims do. Fear of stigmatisation, the survey showed, prevented 46 percent of those who did not report, while 14 percent were scared of being blamed.
Helpio’s feature of anonymous reporting “would encourage survivors to report cases”, Ahmad reported.
But since its launch last summer, the application only drew roughly 1,000 users due to limited publicity. Aliyu, Helpio’s developer, hopes that recent support from the federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, along with the National Information Technology Development Agency, would help raise awareness of the software in rural areas and to make it available for iPhone users too.
Usman Mukhtar, a Kano-based user, said he had recently been introduced to it and already learned tips on how to detect if someone was being sexually assaulted, such as grooming and child sexual exploitation.
Abbas, whose CODE organisation trains women to use digital tools like Helpio to report sexual crimes, also pointed out that victims in remote areas with unreliable internet networks cannot rely on such platforms. Alternatives like unstructured supplementary service data could make it more practical, he suggested, and Aliyu told Al Jazeera that it is being considered as an upgrade in upcoming months.
“Helpio is but one of several grassroots initiatives to help fight SGBV. We’re all doing our part to put an end to sexual assaults for all and make Nigeria safe for everyone,” Aliyu said.
This story was produced in collaboration with Egab