How My Organization Curbs Violence Against Girls

Ruth Okoirhon, a woman in a navy blue shirt and red skirt, speaks before a classroom full of girls in uniforms of light blue shirts and navy blue skirts. The girls are seated in rows of chairs.

Photo Credit: Ruth Okoirhon

Ruth Okoirhon trains a classroom of girls for International Day of the Girl Child.

In Nigeria, Ruth Okoirhon's organization Filles-Couvrant prioritizes girls' safety and enhances their rights.

I have been in the observer seat for a long time; it is time to be in the driver’s seat. I want to be a part of the solution to violence against girls in my community.

Ruth Okoirhon 

I narrowly escaped sexual violence at age 15. At the time, I couldn’t label the traumatic event due to a lack of knowledge. I was shaken but grateful that it didn’t happen. As much as I would have loved not to mention the incident, it shaped my decision alongside my life’s purpose to become a changemaker. In hindsight, that horrific experience propelled me toward gender equality advocacy. 

My story occurred in secondary school when I escorted my friend to visit her male friend after school hours. While I waited for her, a young man in his twenties who was a friend of a friend was supposed to keep me company. Then, the unimaginable nearly happened.  

He started making advances on me. Confused and inexperienced, I rebuffed him, even as he continued to pressure me. He turned violent and tried to force himself on me to pin me down. My scream alerted my friends in another corner of the apartment. They rushed into the sitting room and shoved him off me, embarrassed that he would try something that despicable. I was dumbfounded at how things got ugly in the blink of an eye. I would never have pegged him as a perpetrator by his unassuming look. 

I narrowly escaped, albeit shaken. The incident left me with rhetorical questions: Would I recover if he succeeded? Would I have been able to stop him if we were alone? What if this was not an isolated event? Has he abused other teenagers? Could I have stopped him if I had self-defense skills? I was finally able to access therapy years after the incident. But I lived with the trauma for many years.  

A 2021 United Nations Women report states that 48 percent of Nigerian women have experienced at least one form of violence since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Nigerian Government enacted the violence against persons (prohibition) Act (VAPP) 2015 to protect people against various forms of violence. As of March 2021, it has been adopted in 22 out of the 36 states in Nigeria. The Act seeks to eliminate existing cultural beliefs that initiate and sustain the prevalence of domestic violence in Nigeria. But despite the Act’s enactment, violence still prevails, fueled by impunity and a flawed justice system. 

For instance, a poll conducted by NOIPOLLS in July 2019 revealed that most Nigerians (85 percent) believe there is a high prevalence of rape in Nigeria. This is a worrying situation.

I was born and raised in a community that limits women from exercising their agency. Being the third female child in a patriarchal society where equal opportunities are still far-fetched shaped the discovery of my purpose to become a changemaker. My late father was a feminist, which was rare for a man of his generation. He was an advocate of gender equity and supported his daughters unreservedly. 

I fondly recall how my father celebrated his daughters on International Women’s Day. He encouraged us to aspire to and vie for leadership positions. I became the first female president in a faith-based youth organization, despite the gender discrimination I faced at the time. This victory inspired other women and paved the way for my work. 

My initiative, Filles-Couvrant (Girls Covering), is a community safety campaign designed to prevent violence against girls in the Police chaplaincy Elere community, Lagos, Nigeria. Filles-Couvrant will prevent sexual and gender-based violence by equipping participants with the resources to identify it, call it out, and prevent it from happening to other girls. The participants will become ambassadors in their community, receiving a club membership badge to impact other girls.

The campaign's secondary goal is to establish a membership club with 25 ambassadors that will expand beyond the project’s location across Lagos state. We need to raise girls to understand their agency and not be afraid to exercise it – girls who would also go above and beyond to lift other girls to flourish into confident women. 

I shudder when I listen to women narrate their experiences of gender-based violence. Despite their level of awareness, cultural factors and the fear of stigmatization prevents many of them from seeking help and pursuing justice. Social conditioning has empowered all forms of gender-based violence, as girls are conditioned to perceive themselves as the weaker gender in my community. Cultural and religious beliefs stifle women’s agency and predispose them to violence.

Some women blame themselves for the violence men perpetrate against them. They attribute it to their mistakes or lack of submission; thus physical violence is regarded as a corrective measure for “bad behavior.” Women tend to go above and beyond to prove their worth, blaming themselves for societal ills at the detriment of their well-being.

There is a lack of equal opportunity in Nigeria due to traditional values that place men ahead of women. From an early age, men are taught they take priority over women. Additionally, there is a lack of access to self-defense training for women.

I had firsthand experience with these societal barriers while growing up; it would have been tougher without parents who believed in gender equality. Our parents provided all four of us girls with equal access to education alongside our brother and a platform to exercise our agency. 

Gender rights organizations purport that gender equality might not be achieved for 300 hundred years. While this might be frightening to us as changemakers, we should not be deterred from making an impact, one person at a time. 

With pain in my heart, I recall the stories of Iniobong Umoren, a young job seeker who was raped and murdered by a man who posed as an employer. I also remember the rape and murder of Mary Uwaila Omozuwa, a 22-year-old undergraduate student. And other young women and girls whose dreams ended abruptly because of violence. 

These stories and my own shaped this change-making journey. I believe organizations and individuals aren’t doing enough to document women’s stories of sexual assault and violence. More support is needed to help women find their path and write their own brave endings. It would go a long way to see these stories make headlines in the mainstream media, beyond the social media hashtags.

This is part of my driving force for creating this initiative to help girls stay safe. 

I have been in the observer seat for a long time; it is time to be in the driver’s seat. I want to be a part of the solution to violence against girls in my community. 

This is a clarion call to girls’ empowerment. Help pay it forward by supporting our initiative to empower women. Would you become a community member by supporting and amplifying the movement? How about donating to the cause? In what ways are you supporting girls to exercise their agency?


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