One evening in September 2019, the parents of Chinaza (last name withheld) went to church, leaving her alone at home in Suleja, Niger state. Not long after, an elderly male neighbour came in and raped her. The then 12-year-old became pregnant.
The incident enraged her parents, who took the matter to court, along with a medical certification of the rape. But the court has perpetually adjourned the case, a regular feature of Nigeria’s slow judicial system, and their hopes of getting justice are evaporating.
But while waiting for justice, they were also running for their lives.
The perpetrator, according to Chinaza, is looking to kill her and the baby, to bury evidence of his act. After months on the run, they got in contact with D.N. Foundation, a private shelter for sexual and gender-based violence (GBV) survivors in Abuja, the country’s capital, in 2020.
Mother and child have been living in the shelter since then. “Since I came to the shelter, my mind is [at] rest because there is security,” Chinaza, now 15, told Al Jazeera. “When I was at home, we were running around for where to sleep.”
A broad pattern
Her story is part of a broad pattern of violence against women and girls in Nigeria.
In 2018, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey ranked Nigeria as the world’s ninth most dangerous country for women. The United Nations has also said up to 48% of women and girls in Nigeria have experienced one form of violence or the other.
During the COVID-19-induced lockdown in 2020, several reports revealed a spike in intimate partner violence, up to 69% across the country. In June 2020, after Vera Uwaila Omosuwa, a 22-year-old microbiology student and 18-year-old Barakat Bello were raped and killed in the space of five days in different parts of Nigeria, social media users began the #WeAreTired campaign.
Nigeria's Lagos reported an estimated 40% increase in rape and domestic violence in 2020 as the COVID pandemic took hold.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) June 11, 2021
So during the lockdown, Dorothy Njemanze, a GBV survivor, decided to ramp up operations at the nonprofit she runs, by launching a shelter for other survivors with nowhere else to go.
Back in 2012, Njemanze had founded D.N. Foundation partly to sue the dreaded Abuja Environmental Protection Board, a regulatory agency which has been repeatedly accused of gross sexual violation of women and girls in Nigeria’s capital.
The foundation had operated mostly as a legal entity helping survivors unable to access justice and sensitising women about their rights.
But when the pandemic hit, Njemanze and her team were inundated with calls from survivors, so they started sheltering them in hotels and crowdfunding online for donations – the lifeblood of the shelter till date – from June 2020.
After about two months of this, the foundation took the next step and began one of Abuja’s very few shelters for survivors.
Since August 2020, it has provided accommodation to 153 women including minors.
A three-bedroom duplex with two living rooms, it has a 14-bed capacity but is currently being inhabited by 25 survivors, including some children. Yet administrators say there are about 40 active cases they are monitoring outside the shelter and with just eight first responders, they are struggling to keep up.
A typical day at the shelter is rowdy with first responders attending to several needs of each survivor. On some other days, staff are working round-the-clock – sometimes partnering with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) – to remove a minor from an abusive environment.
The responsibility to manage the emotional, physical and medical needs of survivors from the “absolutely insufficient” donations the foundation gets has put a lot of strain on the team, she said.
“It should be noted that the first responders that work with us are grossly underpaid,” she added. “But because it is survivor-led, people are willing to do the work just because they know the need.”
Its work remains essential in Abuja, a city of more than 3 million residents, which has only one government-run shelter for survivors of sexual violence – a four-person capacity facility. Only a few of Nigeria’s 36 states even have any shelters.
Nigeria’s National Health Act, signed into law in 2014, mandates the government to direct 1% of the consolidated revenue fund, an account operated by the federal government, towards health and emergency services.
Civil society organisations and pro-women groups say the Nigerian government does not abide by this provision and that this has led to the lack of supportive systems for survivors. The lack of shelters is a factor for the widespread rate of violence against women, they add.
Still, Olujimi Oyetomi, director of press at the Ministry for Women Affairs insists that the government is doing enough to support survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
“It is not that the [number of] shelters is inadequate nor is it a pointer to government’s inaction,” he told Al Jazeera. “It has to do with people not reporting cases of gender-based violence.”
Fewer cases being reported may also be due to a lack of protection for women who have already reported abuse, said Wuraoluwa Ayodele, founder of Women Safe House, a non-profit safe house for women in Ibadan.
“We see people speak up every now and then,” she told Al Jazeera. “How many have got justice and how many of them are safe? The government cannot feign ignorance.”
While the shelter gives survivors respite, Njemanze warns that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution for the survivors.
Some survivors are longing to pursue personal dreams including returning to school or their previous employment.
Victoria, a 36-year old mother of four and previously on the receiving end of domestic violence from her husband, said she left in order not to raise her children in an abusive home. Unable to get accommodation on her own, she stuck around with her abusive partner for years – just like millions of other Nigerian women – before finding out about the shelter.
“I had been leaving the house so many times and I would go back,” Victoria told Al Jazeera. “The more we went back, the more things got worse. It took a lot of courage to [finally] leave this year.”
She wants to be reintegrated into wider society with her four children but financial constraints mean she is once again stuck.
“When we are talking about a survivor-friendly society, shelter is one of the things we need to look out for. And when you look at states without a single shelter, we have not even started,” Itoro Eze-Anaba, the founder of Lagos-based Mirabel Centre, Nigeria’s first sexual assault referral facility, told Al Jazeera. “You can imagine a situation where we don’t have [NGO shelters] at all.”
For now, Chinaza, Victoria and others at D.N. Foundation can thrive in suspended reality, away from the lives they have fled. But thousands of others remain stuck in situations of violence without the option of a shelter nearby, and Njemanze is worried about this.
“When we tell people, ‘leave to live’, when they leave, where do they go?” she asked. “What system is in place to make sure they are not jumping from frying pan to fire?”