Mrs Esther Uzoma Esq. is a gender and human rights activist. She is the national coordinator Proactive Gender Initiatives, an NGO that caters for women and children. In this interview, she speaks on gender balance and human rights. Excerpts:
What is your take on the spate of child abuse in the country?
It is disheartening that our best efforts are yielding very little result. Nigerians have now graduated to sexual exploitation of minors and vulnerable persons at as very alarming rate. Their actions are prohibited by extant laws. The Penal Code is explicit that minors cannot give consent. The Child Rights Act also expresses criminalises sexual conduct with a minor. A lot of reasons such as regulated internet and collapse of family values are responsible. What is the role of government in arresting this trend?
Under the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights the government and state’s party to the instruments is enjoined to promote family life and values. So to that extent the role that government could play is to provide enabling environment for family life to thrive. In the absence of that there is so much pressure that is brought to bear on parents. They take care of their aged, children and meet up with bills etc. In the end, you find out that continually they have little or no time to meet up with their responsibilities to the children.
There is increasing violence against women in both domestic and work place, what is your NGO doing about this?
There could be plethora of reasons for violence against women. But one thing is certain, violence against any woman, anywhere is inexcusable. The violators always find reasons for their actions because of the ingenuity of man. They can always say ‘she provoked me; she is saucy or my dinner was not ready’. There is no excuse. But what in our part we are doing is to educate women; we are teaching them their rights and to avoid situations that make them vulnerable or susceptible to violence, we teach them to avoid them.
The whole idea is to prevent any criminal harm or maiming being done to the woman. This is because the law will only come in later after she has already borne the brunt of the harm. So we advice them that wherever a man is violent or a colleague displays tendencies for violence, they should much as possible stay away from violence.
Do you think the Nigerian laws are strong enough to deter these kinds of violence against women?
Yes there are very strong laws but the problem is with the enforcement. Most times law enforcement agencies consider these trivial and domestic. So the really don’t investigate it. The laws are sufficient except one or two things that can be done. We are recommending for instance that our Police stations in this time and age should have DNA centres. Whenever a woman is violated outside this country, rape is assumed and investigations commence. So can we just start by equipping our Police with the very barest minimum equipments so that whenever a woman complains of assault, a Police woman can accept her complaints, her blood samples are taken and specimens would be matched. So these are some of the things that should be done to strengthen our law enforcement against violence on women.
Are there roles for society as a whole to play in this direction?
Well it is the hypocrisy of the society when a woman is raped, it condemns her. This practice is as old as mankind. Remember the woman that came to Jesus Christ on account of adultery and she was condemned and everybody wanted to stone her. But nobody could cast the first stone. So that societal hypocrisy must be overcome with education and more education.
Women need to speak out. I have had several cases of rape in which woman refuse to go to court due to the odium attached. So if women speak out more the laws will be strengthened and we can get more convictions.
It’s been over 18 years since the Beijing Declaration on gender equality. Do you think this ideal is achievable in Nigeria?
We are gradually going there. At least we were clamouring for 35 per cent representation and President Goodluck Jonathan gave us 32 per cent. He has also established gender desks in all ministries and extra ministerial departments. Through these desks women are being identifies and given more responsibilities. There is also a policy on family in Nigeria. These are positive steps in the right direction. Now if the next government comes and improves on it, we are gradually getting there.
Above all, we need positive legislations. We have to come by strength of deliberate positive legislation for us to attain that.
Don’t you think these constant agitations by the womenfolk could highlight nonexistent disadvantages with concomitant psychological effect of internalising a ‘special species status’ in women?
No. The call for affirmative action is borne out of the need to balance centuries of inequality due to extreme patrilinealism. But times have changed, because we are seeing women who are bread winners and champions of industry. So it is just a deliberate attempt to correct centuries of imbalance. It took years to get here and hopefully it may not take years to correct it.
The President recently directed governors to sign death warrants for convicts of capital offences in the various prisons. As a human rights activist what is your take?
First, human rights are sacrosanct. To that extent nobody should take life arbitrarily. It is also important to state that Nigeria does not kill criminals; it got to a point convicts file action over their continued incarceration over the inability of governments to sign approve their execution. So much as I condemn it, we don’t usually kill convicts.
Are you referring to the emerging alternative justice system?
Like you pointed out the emerging trend is reformative justice by trying bringing the convicts and the victims: family of the deceased to make peace. That is the trend because even offences involving capital punishment, you find out that the families of the victims usually get tired of following the matter and they are always in a hurry to bury their dead and then leave the rest for God.
And the state is always trying to establish these cases and where they are able to do so, getting the governors to sign the death warrant is always a difficult thing.
Alternatively we can make use of these inmates by engaging them productively in agriculture and industries while they are serving rather than spending money on them.