By Aisha Ahmed, Gender, Social Inclusion, and Community Engagement Advisor, Integrated Health Project (IHP) Sokoto State, Nigeria

Violence against women, girls and boys are the most prevalent human rights violations in the world and are not restricted by any social, economic, or national boundaries. Gender-based violence (GBV) undermines the health, dignity, security, and autonomy of its victims, yet it remains shrouded in a culture of silence. Victims of violence can suffer sexual and reproductive health consequences, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, traumatic fistula, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and even death. Unfortunately, these are not Sokoto specific, but they are particularly dire in my state. The following story was told to me by a young girl called Laraba. Through the course of my work, I often come into contact with women who have faced gender-based violence and sexual assault, and as it is very too common in Sokoto, these women are often left without recourse or hope of justice and access to vital health services.

I hope by reading Laraba’s story you’ll have a greater understanding of the vital work the Integrated Health Program (IHP) is doing in mainstreaming gender at the state level in Sokoto to advance gender equality, social integration at the facility and community level integrating of gender sensitive interventions into service delivery. With continued effort and progress, hopefully stories like Laraba’s will become a thing of the past.

I was coming back from a market errand, when a man who I know in my neighborhood  asked if I had some change so that he could buy ‘Pure Water.’( (sachet water that comes in a bag). I checked my purse and did not have enough change to give him, so he sent me to a nearby shop where I got the change and even bought  the sachet water for him just to be nice. On returning, I could not find him under the tree where I left him, so I took a stroll and found him laying down in a shop nearby. I greeted him in our traditional bending over custom to give him the Pure Water, when he pulled me down and gave me such a very heavy slap, that I fell and hit my head by the wall. As I struggled to get up, he pinned me down with his leg, locked the door and put a thick cloth in my mouth. I fought him with all my strength, but I was already losing my breath and could not fight him anymore.  He raped me and raped me again after some minutes of the first round.

After some hours passed, he got up, dressed himself and left me in the shop. On his way out he said that if I ever mentioned his name, he would rape me again and disgrace my siblings and my family. He promised that my family and I would be the humiliation of our community, and then he threw one thousand five hundred Naira on me and left. I cried bitterly and pulled myself together and walked out in torn clothes.  Because of the shame I felt, I could not go back home because of fear of being beaten, insulted, and stigmatized by my relatives and friends. I took the money he threw at me, climbed on a bike and told the bike rider to take me away. After several days in hiding and feeling ashamed, guilty, and lost, I braced myself and went home.  I summoned the courage to tell my family what had happened to me, and in a burst of tears, my aunt shouted that I had disgraced the family. “What have you done?”. Why did you choose to reduce the credibility of our family, why did you come back?” She said that death was better than coming back with such a story and she began to beat me.

My mother was speechless, I looked into her eyes, saw her tears, pain, and disgust. I stood for a few minutes waiting and thinking my mother would respond and come to my rescue, but she did not. Out of shame and not wanting the neighbors to come and see me being disgraced by my family, I left my home not knowing where to go to or whom to report to. I left and met a lady who housed me and taught me the trade of being a commercial sex worker. I sold myself for years out of fear and ignorance on what life lies outside the life I was leaving. I tried to unite with my family, but they rejected me, and society ridicules me and the law bends over for whoever has money in their pocket. As I cannot report what happened to me or take vengeance, I am forced to leave in exile from my family. I have no family to support me, no money in my pocket and a system that does not favor the poor or vulnerable.”

Sadly, Labara’s story is not unique or even uncommon. My discussion with Laraba increased my commitment to gender-sensitive and social inclusive work. I am now a strong advocate for GBV elimination in our society and will continue to advocate for government and civil society organizations in Sokoto to step up actions to address GBV holistically. This culture of shame and silence has destroyed so many lives and will continue if measures are not taken to deal with perpetrators of GBV. I hope by sharing this story more attention is brought to the dire need for more gender-sensitive health services, particularly to survivors of GBV and sexual assault, not only for the benefit of women in Sokoto but for every potential victim of GBV.