It was Tuesday, September 14,2010.Lagos,Nigeria.It was 9am and the Summit hall was almost empty; just some of the organizers chatting and trying to be sure they all did their home work especially that of getting the invitations across to the expected participants.
“Will they come?”, “Did they get the IV’s”, “Will they send representatives?” “Is the traffic situation favorable today”? Too many questions on everyone’s mind.
Week days are very predictable in this very fast, bustling, often hectic commercial city called Lagos. It’s one of Africa’s business hubs .And so, a meeting on a Tuesday morning-not even a business breakfast meeting-but a gathering of male professionals, entrepreneurs to discuss “a problem that affects women” is definitely an ambitious move.
Could this be another costly mistake? Time was ticking away and faith seems to be giving way for hope. Less than five minutes to 10am(time the Summit was scheduled to commence) there were less than four invited guests in the hall. By now, the level of apprehension could be touched. “Are you sure you called your guests to confirm whether they would be attending or not?”.
“No I didn’t. I just made sure the courier got them to sign the acknowledgment copy of the invitation”, came the response across the hall.
By 10:30am there were close to 70 men in the hall (and 20 women seated) ;like an orchestrated arrival plan, they started trooping in one after the other, apologizing as they were ushered to their seats. You could smell the cocktail of cologne in the air as they adjusted their suits and designer blazers while settling down for the days business.
Not Just another gathering.
The welcome remarks has just been given by Josephine Effah-Chukwuma, Executive Director,Project Alert on Violence Against Women and an opportunity given to some of the men to share their expectations came like a pleasant riot act to the organizers.
“Gentlemen, I don’t think we have come here to listen to nice presentations and speeches, feel sober and then go back to our offices or homes and do nothing. We must leave here with a collective resolution and individual commitment on what to do after today’s meeting else we would have wasted our time here. There is more to the issue we are confronting than meets the eyes. It’s been perpetrated by the high and mighty and you cannot trial them and get justice because they control the law and society. But we must resolve here; today to fight them and make this society better for women and children”.
Those words from Pastor Fidelis Uwagboe came like a thunderbolt and it went a long way to define the objectives and positively affect the attitude and quality of deliberations at the Summit. Much later, it became clearer to everyone why Pastor Uwagboe had to read that riot act.
About four months ago, his six year old daughter was sexually abused in school by her class teacher-a 27 year old man. The school did all they could to shield the perpetrator from the law and frustrate his effort at getting justice. He fought the school alone and was almost losing the battle when his path crossed with that of Project Alert. “Gentlemen we need to know that when you decide to confront all forms of violence against women and children you are confronting the state and the powers that be-they know those who call the shots,-the police, the judiciary and so it is not child’s play so we must be resolute and be certain that this is a battle we are signing up for.”
With Project Alert’s assistance, the school was petitioned and civil charges brought against it while the perpetrator had criminal charges hanging on his neck. Part of the demands sought on behalf of Uwagboe was that the school should be shut down, the family relocated to another environment and for the daughter to continue her education in another school. The school had to pick the bills-which includes the cost of accommodation for one year, the girls school fee for a session and the cost of treatment.
These demands were all met while the criminal charges brought against the teacher remains and would due for hearing later this month.
A rude shock and wake up call
If anyone had taught that the Men’s Summit on Eliminating Violence Against Women was a waste of time and effort on a less serious issue, Pastor Uwagboe’s testimony and that of Blessing Aseroma were to change all that. Blessing was the wife of popular Nigerian movie actor, Fred Aseroma. A mother of three, Blessing said for over 10 years she has been the object of Fred’s constant abuses while he carried on as the handsome, responsible movie actor his fans often see on TV.
“The physical and psychological abuses got to the point where I became hypertensive, the children couldn’t go to school, I had severe medical complications due to the torture I went through. Today, thanks to Project Alert I am a survivor’ and no longer a victim and that was because I spoke out and refused to die in silence.” she added. With these testimonies, it was certain these men would have their hands full if indeed they want to address the problem of violence against women.
Where do we go from here?
“When it comes to violence against women ,there are several categories of men; we have those who are perpetrators, those who are not perpetrators but won’t do anything to stop the problem, we have those who want to do something to stop the problem but don’t know what to do and we have those who are already doing something but needs encouragement and support to do more. This Summit is to increase the population of the men in the last group”, said Josephine Effah-Chukwuma of Project Alert.
Most of the men agreed that the state had a role to play in creating an enabling environment for women’s rights to be respected and for them to fight the violation of such rights. However, Kingsley Obom-Egbulem, a PR and health communication specialist and Creative Director, Health Communication and Development Initiative(HCDI) ,Lagos believe that there are roles men and indeed fathers can play in ending violence against women and these roles, according to him “have little or nothing to do with the law or the state.
In his paper, titled “Healthy Father/daughter relationship :a panacea for preventing violence against women, Obom-Egbulem said fathers must model the right perspectives of masculinity and manhood to their daughters so they can grow to expect and demand the best from any man.
“ Except for ladies who lost their dads as toddlers, the first man in the lives of every girl is her father and if this man does not build her self-esteem, validate and affirm her and above all help her to develop the right perspective about men, she might end up looking for validation and would get it from the wrong man. Thereafter she becomes vulnerable to abuses and exploitation just because she has not discovered her identity and fathers can help their daughters to find their true identity so they don’t go trying to be someone else”.
Still on the role for fathers
Obom-Egbulem shared the outcome of several interactions with girls which he said fathers can learn from in building a healthy relationship with their daughters.
“We gathered from most of the ladies we spoke with that an average girl seldom go looking for sex when trying to have a relationship with the opposite sex. They want validation, they want affirmation and companionship, they want a friend who understands what they are going through and who is truly concerned about their shape, their looks, even their period; someone who can influence their choice of what to wear or buy at the boutique or their choice of hair style at the saloon. And the good news is that they said fathers can play these roles without crossing the lines into abuses and that will make it difficult for the lady to fall in the hands of just any man”.
Obom-Egbulem added that because the daughter is loved by no less a person than her role model, coach, mentor and father she can’t be flattered by any “ sweet talking wolf in sheep clothing” who will abuse or exploit her.
“I have met ladies who decided to get married to just any man because it was an escape route from a high handed or even abusive father and the men they marry often get to know about this emotional gap and so when they start abusing the ladies they know she can’t run home or to anybody because there is even no home in the first place and I believe it is the role of fathers to create an atmosphere where even if their daughters are involved an abusing relationships they should be able to come back home get healed and start all over again positively .” Urgent next steps
Following deliberations at the summit, it was clear to all that these men wants to do something about ending violence against women. Several advocacy ideas were suggested as next steps top of which is the need to establish of a vibrant network of men working to end violence against women in Nigeria. The network will be a pillar of support for any man wishing to confront such abuses( like in the case of Pastor Uwagboe )or even a woman confronting any form of violence. The network will also be a resource mine and a pool of redemptive voices in the fight against violence against women in Nigeria. The men also agreed to organize a walk during this year’s 16 Days Activism on Elimination of Violence Against Women in addition to a media conference.
The Summit was designed to last for 3 hours…bearing in mind the busy schedule of most of the expected participants-Bankers, PR professionals, journalists, Broadcasters and TV personalities ,real estate consultants, pastors, image consultants and business men. It was only after the closing remarks and vote of thanks that it dawned on everyone that they had spent close to six hours deliberating ways of speaking up against and ending violence against women.