Nigeria has a vibrant women’s rights movement comprising individuals and organizations who recognize that women deserve better than they are getting at the moment. They challenge stereotypes by demonstrating that things can be done differently. Although they do not always win, they know how to fight.
On October 12, 2017, the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) pronounced victory over a fight four women began three years before. Nollywood actress, Dorothy Njemanze and three other women challenged a fairly common but shameful occurrence in Abuja – the molestation of women and girls under the pretext of ridding the city of the menace of prostitution.
A quick background. In 2011, the Federal Capital Territory Administration established a taskforce comprising the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), Social Development Secretariat, a non-governmental organization – Society against Prostitution and Child Labour in Nigeria (SAP-CLN) and some law enforcement agencies, including the Nigeria Police Force to rid the streets of prostitutes. Regrettably, the taskforce soon overstepped its bounds and began to arbitrarily arrest, molest and detain women.
In 2016, acclaimed film maker, Ishaya Bako produced a documentary, Silent Tears, which chronicles the atrocities of the taskforce and steps taken by women, including Dorothy to demand justice for the violation of their rights. Supported by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA), Silent Tears was part of a coordinated effort, incorporating legislative and media advocacy as well as litigation, designed to challenge the status quo.
Whilst the documentary drew public attention to sexual and gender-based violence against women, legislative advocacy unfortunately yielded very limited result. The decision to explore litigation at the sub-regional court was strategic. It was designed to established sub-regional precedence on the subject and generate jurisprudence on the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women (the Maputo Protocol).
Before the ECOWAS Court, Njemanze and her friends (the plaintiffs) alleged that the humiliation they endured at the hands of the taskforce amounted to gender-based violence and violations of specific provisions of the Maputo Protocol, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights – a regional law to which Nigeria subscribes and other international laws. They demanded reparation in the forms of monetary compensation, legislative reform and executive action directed at protecting the rights of women in similar circumstances.
In its defence, the government of Nigeria (defendant) denied the arrests but alleged that the women were prostitutes and therefore subject to the law enforcement mandate of the taskforce.
In its judgment, the Court dismissed defendant’s challenge of the exercise of its right to entertain the case; agreed that one of the women could no longer bring a case because the statutory three year period allowed to bring a case of this nature had elapsed; and agreed that the three remaining plaintiffs had “established the facts of their allegation of harassment.” In addition, the Court decided that the justification offered by the defendant for the arrest and detention of plaintiffs – namely that they were prostitutes even though it was not substantiated – was contrary to the express provisions of the law. Significantly, they also resolved that the use of the word “prostitute” or “ashawo” on the plaintiffs was “humiliating, derogatory and degrading on their persons.”
Addressing the question of prostitution, the Court found gender discrimination in the execution of arrests. In its words, “prostitution is claimed to be a crime in the laws of the defendant. However, it takes two persons to engage in such criminal activity. There is no law that suggest that when women are seen on the streets at midnight or anytime thereafter, they are necessarily idle persons or prostitutes. If it were so, it ought to apply to all persons irrespective of sex.”
Having decided that defendant through its agents/institutions violated the rights of three plaintiffs and failed to investigate the allegations when plaintiffs reported, the Court awarded N6,000,000 ($16,600) as damages in favour of each of the three individuals while dismissing the claim of the fourth for reasons already explained.
This judgment is significant for several reasons. It is the first under the Maputo Protocol so it could potentially trigger more cases. It also provides well-deserved remedies to the women who were courageous enough to challenge law enforcement impunity. Finally, it demonstrates the power of tenacity for which the women’s rights movement ought to be very proud.
By itself, the judgment cannot change much in terms of future violations. The rights movement in Nigeria and across West Africa ought to take this judgment and use it as a template by which to evaluate the issues it has thrown up. Winning the war against gender-based violence and discrimination demands joined-up action by all persons and institutions of goodwill.
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