For the Girl Child, It Takes About Nine Lives to Survive Womanhood in Nigeria; an Interview with Prof. Joy Ezeilo
For the Girl Child, It Takes About Nine Lives to Survive Womanhood in Nigeria; an Interview with Prof. Joy Ezeilo
We had an eye-opening interview with Prof. Joy Ezeilo on issues pertaining her stay at UN, her involvement in the fight against gender inequality, gender-based violence, human trafficking and many more. Here are excerpts:
PFM: Please let’s get to know you, ma’am.
Prof. Ezeilo: My name is Professor Joy Ezeilo. I am a Professor of Public Law, and the immediate past Dean of the Faculty of Law, University of Nigeria, and also the Head, Public Law Department. I am the Founder and Director of Women’s Aids Collective, WACOL, and I founded Tamar Sexual Assault Centre, TAMARSAC. I am a former UN rapporteur on Human Trafficking, globally, and I worked in that capacity from 2008 to 2014. I am currently on the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board for Sexual exploitation and abuse, representing the African continent. I have served in different capacities; I have served as a Commissioner in Enugu State and at Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, and many more.
PFM: You said you have worked as a UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, what was the job like?
Prof. Ezeilo: Well, it was a tough job, you have to monitor cases of human trafficking around the globe, but I took it well, having been an activist, scholar for many years, so I had the passion and enthusiasm for it, and that is everything. I had my mandate from the United Nations and I had all the support to do the job.
Human trafficking is a very ugly thing, a modern day slavery, and a lot of powerful people are among the traffickers themselves, who wanted to continue their trade without being stopped. My job was to ensure that the standard set by the UN for member states is met, and also that victims get succor; that part is very important. The approach we adopt is a human right and victim center approach. So, in accordance with UN protocol, to prevent cases of human trafficking, that traffickers will be punished appropriately. In that mandate I was expected to report to UN, I reported to both the Human Right Council in Geneva, Switzerland and at UN General Assembly, every year in New York. In that capacity, you give them an up-to date report on situation. I usually take different thematic approach. If I deal with prosecution, I will have to deal with prosecution; the status of prosecution and the country involved. If I am dealing with prevention, I have to look at different innovations and the best practice I recommend to others. Then I undertake missions and receive complaints from people who either are victims or survivors of human trafficking, looking for justice or redress; and you get complaints about what’s going on, including people who need to be rescued. I take all these complaints, as well as undertake missions on behalf of UN.
Missions are the big deals, you will have to wear a lens for this, to examine a particular country, their compliance, not only to criticize them but to make appropriate recommendations on what they should be doing; where they have gotten right, you say so; where their laws are adequate, you say so; you look at their conformity with international and regional legal framework, then you tell them where the gaps are, but most importantly, you meet with the victims.
I have met thousands of victims around the world and I have undertaken this mission in virtually every part of the world. In my capacity in this work, I travel to over one hundred countries. The pathetic thing as it concerns Nigeria, is that there is no country I visited that I did not find Nigerians in irregular situations. Say Australia to far away Uruguay. You find out that due to travel situations, Nigerians are falling into wrong hands. Human trafficking is like migration gone wrong. People are trying to escape poverty, or even to have basic livelihood and sustainability. Due to this, they fall prey to all kinds of offers that are fake. If you look at the internet, people are offering you some jobs, the victims are not educated, and even the educated also get tricked.
Traffickers are not strangers, they recruit them from the communities. I am just dealing with a case now. It is disturbing and the person is in danger and we are finding a way we can bring her home from where she has been trafficked to in Burkina Faso. You find that Nigerians are trafficked to virtually every part of the world. Nigeria is a source country; that means a sending country, and she is also a transit country and a receiving country, because people from Togo and other neighboring countries are here, you come to Lagos, and you will discover that people are also trafficked into Nigeria. That of transit, my eye got opened to it when I was a Special rapporteur, I was going to Gabon for a mission and I met Nigerians who were trafficked to Gabon. I looked at West and Central Africa, how did it happen to be? They told me they were in Lagos for days, those from Togo and Nigeria, Lagos was the point, what struck me was that they traveled almost the way the Trans-Atlantic slavery was done. They traveled for almost five days, without even standing up. You cannot get up to do anything, you cannot eat, you may eat bread, but you will defecate there, no standing up till arrival at the destination at night to evade security.
Human trafficking is a heinous thing still going on underground, and it affects all parts of the world. We know about the favored countries of Europe where most people prefer as their destination point, but most people are still trafficked within the West African sub region, under the pretense that they want to take them abroad. They pass through Kano, Katsina and move to the Sahara, then to Libya. I went to one city in Italy and over three thousand Nigerians were held in slavery kind of situations. They were into forced prostitution, being exploited. Those that put those girls in the road work and take their daily incomes were Nigerians too. Some are into exploitation, even the men are not spared; you go to some Middle East countries, I was at UAE, you see them working at labor camps, from dawn to dusk for almost nothing, just peanuts.
People are trafficked into sex industry, labor industry, for organ trafficking, for the purposes of adoption, mercenaries for fighting of war, child soldiers, and many other things. It’s appalling that 200 years after the Trans-Atlantic slavery ended, people are still being trafficked; a modern form of slavery going on. That is why the UN and the world is working against it, there is a political will to end it, but some of the countries are not putting their money where their mouths are. If it is a multi-billion dollar business, where traffickers make lots of profit, you don’t fight it with few millions.
But what I find as the missing link is the lack of enough information on prevention. We have to put in enough on prevention, because a cliché says that prevention is better than cure. If people know well the dangers, they will be able to understand. I have seen even educated people trafficked. I met a lady at UAE, a practicing Pharmacist who was trafficked from Colombia to UAE. Everything was electronically done. She saw an offer online, went for it, an e-ticket and e-visa was sent to her and as soon as she landed in UAE, she was enslaved from there, and found three years later. You can imagine how many people get lost through that.
It was a work I did not just do to the best of my ability, but exceptionally well, because of the feedback and support I got from other actors, like Switzerland, Germany, USA; at the end I got letters from many countries, commending my work for the six years. It was for a three-year mandate renewable for another three-year mandate and I got my two terms. It was a good one; you have to go on missions, meet Ministers and Presidents of countries, meeting people at the highest echelon of government, the highest echelon of law enforcement agencies and security, then prepare an e-report for UN. After that, I was also on the Trafficking Victims Board, because it was during my time that a day was set out to commemorate the World Day against Human Trafficking. I also served for three years as a member of the Board of Trustees for Trafficking Funds for Victims at Global Level.
PFM: Away from UN, you seem to be very interested and passionate about the affairs that concern Women and the girl child. Why is it so?
Prof. Ezeilo: My passion for human right and justice led me to even reading law in the first place. I recall my mother being a widow, my eyes were opened to the different treatments given to men and women and the discrimination women face in reality and the patriarchal system inspired me to read law. My father’s death and my mother being a widow and things that happened after that, I made it clear that I was going to be a lawyer, to defend the voiceless, to defend the vulnerable, to defend those who are oppressed. As a law student I was following on other things that was going on, I joined other groups and associations, like Women in Nigeria, and I became the National Publicity Secretary the same way I was for the International Federation of Women Lawyers.
But with all this, I saw there was still a gap. I did a research in 1998. I got the Mercator Fund for Leadership Development. They give you the fund based on your individual recognition that you are a leader, or that you are a potential leader and that you have proposed a work that is worth investing in. I did a research in Legal Constrains to Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Right, and I was looking at the issue of school dropouts, unwanted pregnancy, rape, information, sexual exploitation, sexual harassment and others that affect the girl child, including female genital mutilation and early marriage. I found out that the laws are grossly inadequate to deal with it; that we don’t even have a stipulated age of marriage. Young girls are married off early, child bride, and they face some harmful traditional practices, amounting to violence against girls and children in general.
I started proposing how to deal with this, I found out that we can do prevention, we can create awareness. However, the weakest link was lack of access to justice. What if someone is a victim of violence? What justice can the person be given? I found out that in the aspect of justice they get nothing. There was no free legal aid that work for women and girls; that even women and girls who had conflict with the law, nobody was looking at them. That was why I founded WACOL. Part of the money I got from the research I said I would put it in so that WACOL could start legal aid. By 1998 WACOL was fully into legal aid for women and girls and also doing peer education for girls. I discovered that early education, appropriate information at appropriate age will save the girl from early marriage, sexual mutilation, sexual abuse and many other ills that may make them not to realize their full potential, or impact on them negatively. The peer education was a success, I informed schools, but I didn’t end there, I wanted parents to know what we teach their children, so we normally asked for parental consent to train their wards as peer educators, they obliged to that because these are topics that parents are always shy to talk about, because sexual discussion is seen as a taboo, so some don’t talk about it at all. Some of the children don’t even understand their body parts and don’t know when someone is abusing them until they get to the point that it becomes irreparable.
For the girl child, it takes like nine lives to survive womanhood in Nigeria. If you are a girl child you could be abandoned to die. You hear women say they were abandoned at the hospital without the bills because the husband wanted a boy instead. You can see, the girl child is already rejected at birth. You survive that, you may not survive child marriage and sexual mutilation. There is just a lot of discrimination. I call it discrimination from cradle to grave. It is something we really have to work on, empower the girl educationally so they don’t suffer educational discrimination. Give then equal opportunity so they can survive. Survival and development of nations are also interlinked to this. We will do the needful in order to ensure we have better humans.
PFM: There is a whole Ministry at both the Federal and State level dedicated to women, you also have served as a Commissioner, with none for the men. Don’t you think they feel left out?
Prof. Ezeilo: They won’t feel left out because this is basically based on statistics. It is evidence based. Who are those affected by sexual discrimination or gender-based violence, or human right violation? The women. Mark me, I am not saying men are not victims of sexual violence, men are trafficked too, but women and girls are disproportionately affected. This is because of their already weak position in the society and family. The prevailing social norms, patriarchal structures, the power relations, the dichotomy between public and private space; if you look at all these, you will see they are the ones in worse positions. When you want to help, you start with helping the most oppressed. The idea and the ideal is that nobody should suffer any violence or human right violation, but then you have to start from the ones that are least protected or most vulnerable. That’s how it is. Some may say that some of the Ministries should be closed, because in reality they are not achieving some of the purposes they were created for; because they are seen as women thing, they always don’t get enough budget to function well. If you look at the federal and state allocation, they are always the least. With that how can they engage and carry out their mandate to its satisfaction? They have huge mandates to deal with. Some Ministries of Women Affairs will be given Women Affairs and Social Development at state level, which means a whole lot beyond the issue of women and children. How will they achieve that? If you look at the population of women and men, you will see it’s 50 – 50.
The Ministry has a purpose, but again it’s been a double-edge sword; it works for women and it is also undermining the advancement of women, especially the advancement of gender equality and women empowerment. If you don’t have the budget, there is no way you can carry out that mandate. If the benefits are so feminized that they are cocooned that they are the only ones dealing with these issues, the ideal will be to mainstream every issue, so that every government policy and programmes are seen from a gender lens. Then when we talk about gender equality, you cut across many aspects. If I look at gender relations, gender roles, I look at gender division of labor, I can look at any policy and see how it affects men and women, and ensure it works for both, equally.
It is important to examine different policies, so when we look at affirmative action, we wouldn’t see it as a discrimination because it is to redress passed inequalities, to ensure women are placed where they can compete favorably. You say a woman has the right to vote, but you don’t look at the socio-cultural context, where the woman going to vote depends on her husband who may tell her who to vote for. We have to always look at every law and policy to make sure it has women’s interest. When you look at the statistics, women are under-represented in power, in the Senate we have about eight women, in the House of Reps it is about eighteen women, then 49 women for all the House of Assembly, at the end of the day it is just 7%. Why is that? It’s because women don’t have access to means of production; even land which is a capital they don’t have because they are disinherited, even when the Supreme Court says otherwise, to what extent are those implemented at local levels? The problems are huge. There are pockets of progress and miles being recorded, laws enacted, but with regard to implementation, it’s still ineffective.
PFM: People say you are a Feminist. What is the Feminism movement really about? Is it about disdain and hatred for the male gender, as some on social media has made it appear?
Prof. Ezeilo: It’s not a war and it shouldn’t be seen as so. It is wrong to see it as a war. Feminism is misconceived. It is about placing equal value on both gender; if you have a girl child, you value the girl child as you value your boy child. You don’t bring in the preference ideology. You give equal opportunities educationally and otherwise; you don’t say you go and cook because she is a girl; you train them equally as humans with equal right. Feminism is misconstrued because people think you are talking about those radicals who want to throw away their bras. No, we’ve gone passed that. We are just talking about basic human rights. That women should have same rights as men, I don’t think it is too much to ask. Some men when you talk of equality get agitated, they will say all fingers are not equal. Even in religious books, like the Bible and Koran they made provisions for such. The only problem is that we interpret them as we want.
The men who occupy the positions have been the ones there and they are the ones that determine what happens. Feminism is about dignity and right as a woman. Because you are a girl child you are forcefully married off without your consent, because you are a girl child, you are denied school, because you are a girl child, you are seen as worthless, because you are a girl child, you don’t get no inheritance. The discrimination is huge; because you are a woman you can’t accept some jobs, you can’t work and get pregnant if you are working in a bank. Why can’t we see that maternity is a social function; that without that reproduction, society will become extinct? So why discriminate against women because of their social function and say they belong to the domestic works at home and restrain them there, saying that they belong to the kitchen? Look at this Covid-19 era, it was noticed that countries led by women, from Croatia to Germany performed better in the battle against the virus. So, women can raise the quality of leadership as well. It is just about equal rights. It’s not just women, there are men who believe in feminism. We need to support and work with such men. It’s not every man who is so, some men are so traditional that even if their wife is dying, they will still not enter the kitchen. We just have to be flexible as human beings, and should know that others are going through a lot, and that the best way is to support each other in partnership, to stand side by side. Progress for women is also progress for men and in turn, progress for the nation.
PFM: You said something about some people misinterpreting some parts of the holy book. As a Christian, how do you strike a balance between Feminism and the Bible’s stance so that those misinterpreting it will learn?
Prof. Ezilo: You know you did not tell me this earlier, I mean, I didn’t prepare any verse, and I am not too good at recollecting bible verses. I know I believe in God and in serving God through my humanitarian works. I read my Bible and draw a lot of lessons from it. For example, the verse that says a woman should listen to her husband, about a woman being a listener and the husband being the head of the family. This is what they always use to show that a woman has a subservient position, but they forget the verse that says husbands should love their wives unconditionally as God loves his church. With unconditional love, you wouldn’t even have any issue in the first place. There are other verses too, there’s this one that says one should not lift his hand even against his own flesh, which is like against Battery. And there are women of valor, like Deborah was a judge and there was no discrimination against her for being a woman. People just interpret one and leave the other; a woman was drawn from the rib of a man, and looking at what it is telling us, isn’t it telling us about duality? That in man there is a woman and, in a woman, there is femininity and masculinity? There is a sense of complement. Like the Igbo believe in duality; na ife kwuru ife akwudobe ya; we forget that part. Was God not able to create a woman without the rib of a man? He chose to because He was telling us something; the infusion, the partnership. It is a symbol that we are together, not that women are inferior. For those who say women are weak, I tell them to try go through child birth. Or is it the resilience that they have, that they can multitask? Most men don’t and can’t multitask.
PFM: About rape, there are a lot of issues around it, some say it’s a result of indecent dressing, some say it’s the men trying to exercise dominance on the women, the religious side says it’s a sign of the end of time. To you, what do you think?
Prof. Ezeilo: Rape is part of the violence in the society. It is partly the masculinity and the expression of that masculinity. They begin to normalize it. They feel it’s normal to touch a woman, because they believe that women will never say no, and that even when they say no, they mean ‘maybe”. Because of the way society conditions them, that for a girl to come out straight and say yes, they are seen as promiscuous, so they must start with no, then, you force them. There is no justification for rape, it is what it is, a non-consensual sex. It includes sex by force, by fraud, by threat, and that is punishable by law. It is a Felony that attracts life imprisonment, while attempted rape is 14 years imprisonment, to show that it is a serious Felony.
What we have as problem is the issue of settling out of court, the police on the stage, the lack of evidence, the stigma and blame on the victim make the victim unable to stand and talk about it; it is still shrouded in secrecy, and open discussion of it is appalled. I am saying this because I am handling such cases in WACOL. Every month we deal with 27 to 30 cases. Looking at the cases we handled this period, you will cringe at the defilement of minors. You ask why, and when they talk of the dressing as the justification, then how about toddlers? I have seen a case of a nine-month-old baby abused. You ask what is it that attracts a man to this toddler, to this minor?
We have pedophiles, but research has shown that we are always in denial. If you don’t accept that something happens, there is no way you can deal with. We only try to wish it away. We say these are things that happen in other countries of the world, in the West, not here. The evil is here unfortunately. What we had during this lockdown, it got worse. People can say drugs can lead to that, while others say that when one is high on drugs, the last thing he thinks of is sex. But even if it is so, didn’t the person willingly take the drugs? That does not mean you should go and violate other people’s space and right.
Then talk about sexual abuse and exploitation in our schools, and the part that it has gotten to our secondary schools. We had a case of a teacher using about twenty-five pupils placed under his care. He would go into the restroom with them, until one of the girls couldn’t help it, she cried out. Some parents don’t even want to seek justice, they say their child will become a damage good, that nobody will want to marry her; they keep it hush. We need to break the silence and talk about this in loud voices. People will know and people will be punished. At this time, there is a low level of report, and many that reported the perpetrators are hardly convicted.
PFM: Does this also contribute to the rise in cases of domestic violence?
Prof. Ezeilo: Yes. Some believe that it’s their right to beat a woman because she is his wife, right to batter the wife. They believe they are the head of the family and should decide what happens to their wife. You find a man battering a woman, a neighbor tries to interfere, and he will say, “Please leave us alone, she is my wife.” So if she’s your wife you should kill her and bury her? Go the villages, people get children to other homes and abuse them not just sexually but physically too, and subject them to labor exploitation. This is huge in our environment. We need to check these things, or that’s why violence is becoming normalized in our society.
We have laws for this, some laws are not specific, which is where work is needed, but I know there is Child Rights Act, enacted and already in use in at least 25 states. Then we have the Violence Against Persons Act, which we are asking every state to use, Enugu passed theirs in 2019. Ogun, Osun and Lagos have similar laws.
PFM: Some people are afraid of powerful women, some feel career women are not family oriented. How do you find time to play your role as a wife and a mother?
Prof. Ezeilo: I don’t have a problem in that department. I married and I am a grandmother now. I started young, and my husband and children supported me. I told them that they have donated me to charity to fight this fight. I say it always, I have a very supportive family. My husband while the kids were in school, supported me. We understood that it’s a partnership, you support, I support. With that support, we built a family that is bound in love that look out for each other and support each other. Without a supporting husband, there are a lot you can’t achieve. I have taught here for over 27 years, people asked then, “Why is that it’s your husband that is always going to check on the kids in school?” For me, I ask, what’s wrong with that?
These roles do change. As a Doctor that he is, he taught them sciences and math better than I would, so why not? They could have missed out on that if my husband was traditional, because I couldn’t have taught them better as a lawyer, not to mention my son winning a prize in mathematics. I advise families to support their wives. I have seen husbands stop their wives from taking a job because they feel their wives will earn more than they do. Many marriages are failing because they lack that understanding.
I married early, had kids while still in school and still came out with a second class upper in law, which was rare then. I never missed a class even for a day. My husband supported me.
PFM: Are you nursing the ambition to contest for any political position?
Prof. Ezeilo: Now I will say no, the future will take care of itself. My interest is for us to build a new and better Nigeria, where human rights are respected and a democratic culture towards advancing human rights, gender equality and women empowerment becomes the order of the day. We have a set of selfish politicians in Nigeria who only think of themselves. I wouldn’t like to join such system. I want a system where we learn that political offices should not be your access to money, but your empowerment to service to humanity. Not the one that the people are hungry while you cruise in jets around the world.
That is why I want to be a professional first, work, get all I need and earn my money through my sweat, then if tomorrow I am going for any political position, it will not be for money, because I would have done well for myself and attained the zenith of my profession. But we need to fix Nigeria first, and ensure we invest in the next generation, create a sustainable and an enabling environment. The inequality gap is too much.
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