Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi: Winner 2020 Nigeria’s Hero Award
Words By – Linda Orajekwe
Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi is the winner of the 2020 Global Citizen Prize Nigeria’s Hero Award for her advocacy work through her initiative, Stand To End Rape (STER).
The 29-year-old, who holds a degree in Development Studies from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and a Master’s degree in International Relations with specialization in Gender Studies from Swansea University, UK, established STER in 2014 to advocate against gender-based violence after falling victim herself. In addition, STER provides preventive mechanisms and psycho-social support and services for survivors. Oluwaseun kicked off her advocacy career during her internship with the United Nations and later, worked with Half The Sky Movement, U.K. an NGO against human trafficking.
In this encounter, the gender advocate talks about the importance of winning the Global Citizen Prize Nigeria’s Hero Award, especially in a year like 2020, using her voice to amplify the voices of others for the good of humanity.
As a survivor, what gave you that courage to start Stand To End Rape?
Growing up as a child, I used to ask a lot of questions. I grew up partly in the north where I would see a lot of children on the street either begging, or young girls being married off. So, from a very young age, things bothered me; injustices or things that do not sound right. Before experiencing this violence, I’d been researching and writing around this issue. So, when I experienced it, I was angry at society for expecting me to feel ashamed for what someone else did to me. I was angry that the person that violated me will walk with his head held high in society and will not feel an iota of shame, and no form of accountability and that I’ll have to live with the ruin for the rest of my life.
I was angry that we did not have enough services to help survivors. It’s worse not to be able to tell your stories, it’s actually more terrible not to be able to get any form of support at all. So I was just bothered in my spirit like, why do I have to bear so much pain, physically, mentally and socially? So, I opened up to my parents about it but the truth is, I was really scared to take that next step.
But because of the kind of family that I have, where nothing is off-limit to discuss, I was able to present the situation to my parents and they were very supportive. It was at their point that I realised that not every survivor can tell their parents about their experience. After the ordeal, my mom said to me “this is a big issue in your generation and you can read about it, research and write about it, but nothing compares to someone who is physically supporting others”. So my mother literally inspired me to do this because If I didn’t have family support, while I most likely would have still gone ahead to do something about this, having my family’s support was the extra boost I needed to start my journey to STER.
I started by researching on how to report rape cases. I was writing blog posts and asking people to submit their stories and from there, people started reaching out to say, “Oh I think I experienced this thing when I was a child but, I didn’t know what to call it or society asked me not to talk about it. Now that you’re saying it, I think I’ve experienced it. What can I do?” So I felt like writing about it is not enough, I had to find other young people like myself who had interest but maybe could not express it out of fear or out of societal judgement. So I said, you know what? Let’s come together and begin to provide services to people and that’s how STER started in 2014; going from community to community, to prevent the spread of sexual violence in Nigeria because my goal is to end it in the nearest future.
You mentioned working with the UN, how did that happen and how was that instrumental to your journey?
When I finished my Masters, I had a choice to either remain in the UK to work, or to intern with an international organization, something nobody had done in my entire department. Anyway, I saw my friend’s Facebook post whom I attended Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria with stating that she’s in New York. I asked what she was doing in New York and she told me she’s working for the United Nations and that was how I indicated my interest to volunteer with them because UN is the symbol of Human right and Justice and these are the things I’m particular about. After indicating my interest, she directed me to a website to apply. I received three emails inviting me for an interview.
They called me back to say they were really impressed with my response, and that they could tell my passion through my response and that was how I was offered the position to intern with the UN. I was the youngest amongst over a hundred applicants and that was how I moved to NewYork after University.
Let’s talk about how far you’ve gone with STER? Would you say the majority of your encounters were expected?
My expectation was that, I was going to have a lot of push backs from the community members and religious institutions because, this is an issue that everyone seems to want to be quiet about. But here I was, coming with my foreign education to tell people to talk. So I expected pushbacks but a strategy I employed that really worked for me was not to talk down on but rather to talk with. So it was like a dialogue I was having with the community members. So when we have walks, for instance, I just did not do walks from maybe Agege to Ikeja. I went out strategically. I’ll map out places where different demographic of people were. So I’ll stop there, engage people, hear from them, ask them what they think are the things that are promoting gender inequality that fosters abuse. What is the community doing and what they think we can do better.
So when they come with their own narratives, we were able to then say “okay, but have you explored this option? Can we try it this way?” and then they’re like “Oh” actually we didn’t think about it this way. We never thought about the effect or the mental health impact it has on the victims. We never thought not holding people accountable means we’re indirectly supporting what they’ve done.” So it’s basically just engaging with them as against telling them “this is what you have to do” because I’ve leant the people do not like to be told what they should do. They like for people to hear from them, and then, you express your own opinion. So it’s like “I listen to you and you listen to me” kind of relationship.
So that’s how we started but in the space of two to three months, we then morphed into a bigger organization where we were doing policy advocacy. We were part of the youth group that pushed for the passage of The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill, which is now an act that was signed in 2015. Then we also got involved in the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill that has been thrown out a lot of times; of course, we’re going to pick that up again, but right now we’re focusing on the sexual harassment bill, which we have been working on since 2016. So we’ve sort of really expanded in our scope.
From community engagement of sexual violence, we’ve also incorporated HIV education because when a girl is raped in your community, and you ask her to keep quiet, there’s a high tendency of contracting an STI because most rapists do not remember to wear a condom. So there’s not just the immediate effect of rape, there’s also a health issue brewing somewhere if you don’t allow them to benefit from emergent medical service.
Is STER limited to women and girls then?
I get this question a lot of times, but the straight answer is that it is not limited to women and girls. I’m always pleased to announce whenever I get this question that the first case STER worked on was a case of two boys who were raped by their neighbour.
What is the Global Citizen Prize and what does it mean to you and your organization?
Global Citizen Prize is the recognition given to people around the world who are creating positive change in their communities in different sectors, be it in tech, music, health, education, climate change and anything that moves us closer to achieving the development goals. I must say, despite not being a person who pays attention to awards, this award means a lot to me because first, I’m now a global citizen officially (Laughs).But importantly, it’s about the recognition it brings to the work that we do for STER; documenting what we’ve done so that we’re not erased, creating opportunity for people to learn about our work for collaborations, as well as inspiring people to create change in their own different ways.
I hope someone sees my story and becomes inspired that what society sees as deformity can be used for advocacy. It’s just a great feeling to be recognized on a global level, and while I’m not new to the global space, every time I get global recognition, it means a lot to me because I started from just Lagos and now, we’re global. Winning this award is a reminder that I’m doing something right and I see it as an accountability metrics that says “listen we’re watching you, you can’t stop, you can’t retire, you just have to keep going and keep doing great stuff”.
One must commend how swiftly STER responds to cases on social media and how you guys make victims feel like there’s a space for them. How do you do that?
I appreciate your commendation but I must confess, it can get difficult trying to reach and access the number of mentions we get on social media per day. We are grateful to be doing the work and that we can reach the people we reach.
How do you get to build trust and connect with these survivors enough for them to open up and unearth their stories to you considering the stigma we, unfortunately, attach to the abused?
I think it’s our track record that has worked for us on this one. We’ve been consistent, we’ve been confidential of our work. We have just two people who have access to the database of clients and this is because they have to work closely with those clients. So, that is what has helped foster trust between us and the victims, and that we’ll definitely do our best to get them the justice that they require.
So, people just trust the process and they trust we’ll keep their details confidential because, we’ve done that over time.
How important is this year’s Global Citizen Prize to you?
This year has been one of the toughest years for me. I got involved in a case that turned messy as the client turned against us, and external parties were trying to get involved to ruin the work that we were doing. So, in summary, it was a very difficult time for myself and my team members, but we just went back to the drawing board and said, “why did we start this organization? Like why do we do what we do? Do we do it because everything will always go right or do we do it because whether it goes right or left, we will always be here for survivors? Whether they betray us or do anything under pressure, our mandate to protect the rights of survivors will remain. So getting the recognition this year, which I will receive on the 21st of December, as tough as it has been, is a sort of reminder that we’re doing the right thing. It will validate the fact that we’re doing the right thing.
How will the global prize help your organization and the work that you do?
What it means for STER is that we get the cash prize of $10,000 which I’m really happy about. That fund will help more survivors. There have been times where we’ve had to leverage on other people’s networks to get support for survivors because we can’t afford it. ed.
How do you intend to work with Global Citizen in 2021 to further create awareness on GBV in Nigeria?
Any international community I’m a part of, it’s not just about the award for me or the recognition, I’m also thinking about what I can contribute. So with this Prize, I hope to sit down with Global Citizen to lay out ideas on how to further the campaign against Gender-based violence, not just on the national scale, but on the international scale.
What are some lessons you’ve learnt while running STER?
I’ve learnt a lot but I’ll say a few. The first I’ll talk about is the power of collective ownership. I don’t think the advocacy we have done would’ve grown if we did not work with people, make them feel they were part of the movement. It’s not like your typical organization where everything is strict and conventional. Here, it is very open. Volunteers are as important as staff. We all do things together, so there’s a sense of ownership and that has really helped the work that we do. Another thing I’ve learnt is that there’s nothing impossible to do except you don’t just have the will to do it. Because I could’ve sat down on my own and said you know what? This issue is too difficult, nobody will report cases, nobody will speak up and, let me just keep quiet as well.
But I knew that it was a difficult space to get in and I had a plan and I got in and did I have to do. While I don’t like to take credit for it, we can also not ignore the contributions of STER in ensuring that sexual violence is reduced and reported as should be.
The third I learnt is, guarding yourself against partnerships that want to suck the life out of you not because they share the same value, but because they like the fame you’re getting. So you need to be discerning in terms of working with people.
Lastly, take care of your own mental health and well being because that is very important.