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Plateau, Nigeria – In 2017, Precious’s* husband was killed in a road accident. Four months later, his brother stopped by to visit Precious at her home in north-central Nigeria’s Plateau state.
It was around 2pm and Precious was doing laundry outside in the compound of the house she had shared with her husband and their three children. At first, she thought it was an ordinary visit to pay condolences.
But her brother-in-law was behaving strangely. He demanded food and sat in the living room watching television. As evening approached, Precious asked him when he was planning to leave.
“Why should I leave?” he replied. “Don’t you know I have come to sleep with you as is custom? I have come to claim [my] inheritance.”
Precious was shocked. “Inheritance of what?” she asked him. “Table, chair, rug?”
They argued and when he still refused to leave, Precious sought the help of her neighbours. But as her brother-in-law was forced to leave, he warned that he would make her pay.
Soon after, it became clear how. “I was summoned to the [in-law’s] village and the judgement was that all the money they spent at my husband’s burial, I should return it,” Precious says. They banished her from her husband’s land and seized the property.
Her staunch refusal to be “inherited” by her brother-in-law – a custom in some communities in northern Nigeria – set her on a collision course with her husband’s family and an ingrained centuries-old tradition.
Distrustful of the police and unsure of how to navigate the justice system, Precious did not know where to turn for help. But then, last year, she heard a radio programme where women called in to report abuses against them.
Silent Voices is a radio show on Jay FM, a station based in the business district of Jos, the capital of Plateau state, that reaches tens of thousands of listeners across Plateau, Bauchi and Kaduna states.
Since October 2020, the show’s host, Nanji Nandang, has used the weekly programme to help women and minors who are victims of violence and abuse seek justice.
Before launching the show, 31-year-old Nandang helped pioneer Pidgin News at Jay FM after encountering some local women traders who said they could not listen to the news because they did not understand what the newscasters were saying. So Nandang set about incorporating Pidgin English – a medley of English syntax and local linguistic varieties, which is more accessible to a wider variety of listeners – into the station’s broadcasting.
Silent Voices broadcasts in both English and Pidgin English. And each month, between seven to 10 victims like Precious reach out to the station in search of Nandang’s help.
But exposing perpetrators and helping get justice for victims is no small feat.
When Nandang started the programme, the COVID-19 pandemic was creating a “shadow pandemic” of sexual and gender-based violence. A United Nations Women report revealed that at least 48 percent of Nigerian women have been victims of violence since the pandemic began.
Nandang knew she needed to partner with someone who could help take up the victims’ cases so she reached out to the Plateau chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), a non-profit women lawyers’ association helping women access justice pro-bono.
Together with FIDA, Nandang has taken up several cases and helped get justice for women and children who might otherwise have remained unheard.
At Silent Voices, a case usually begins with someone reaching out to the show. Nandang and FIDA then investigate the case and find a way to solve it. At the end of the process – which can include legal mediation or even court proceedings – the person who submitted the original report is brought back onto the show to recount their journey for listeners.
Primarily, what Nandang airs are the “success stories” – where survivors of violence have already been helped. The stories of these “solved” cases are aired weekly, while lawyers, crime experts and psychologists are brought in to discuss topics including preservation of evidence and how to navigate trauma.
Nandang’s aim in sharing their experiences is to galvanise other women and child victims to seek her out, so they can get help too.
But the challenges can be daunting.
While Nigeria’s constitution guarantees that “every citizen shall have equality of rights, obligations and opportunities before the law”, in practice it is not always the case, and women are often on the receiving end of entrenched traditional practices that do not always protect their rights.
Last year, the Nigerian parliament rejected a bill seeking to enforce gender equality for the third time and in February this year, the legislative members overwhelmingly rejected a series of five bills that addressed some areas of gender disparity.
Lawyers say Nigeria’s constitution prohibits discrimination against widows like Precious, even in the case of customary marriages that are not formalised in court.
“A widow being prevented from inheriting her husband’s property is not only morally wrong but also wrong legally,” says Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Ridwan Oke. But not all women are accustomed to navigating this legal route. “The freedom some of these customs enjoy is because people don’t approach the court to enforce their rights,” he explained.
There is also distrust of the police and other authorities, especially regarding family issues where women are the victims. Many women say that even reported cases of domestic violence are often brushed aside as a “family matter”.
‘That story shook me’
Shy and introspective, Nandang may not seem like an obvious choice to vocally champion women’s and children’s rights. As a child, she wanted to be an actress, but her love for children pushed her towards social justice.
She is also a Sunday school teacher in her local church and says she has become familiar with the struggles of poorer families through some of the children she teaches.
“Children are innocent,” she says, solemnly, as she sits in a small meeting room at the radio station. “When I see things happen to them, I feel they don’t deserve it. Even if I cannot give them justice, if I can give them comfort, maybe they will see the world in a different light.”
It was Nandang’s teaching work that inadvertently led her to the sort of stories she would later champion on Silent Voices. One day, a colleague approached her about one of her students. The seven-year-old boy refused to sit down in class and always came to the school with a lot of cash.
The school authorities suspected the boy was stealing, but he denied it. Nandang’s colleague, however, felt the school’s focus should be on why he was unable to sit in class. After speaking to the boy, she convinced him to allow them to examine him. When they removed his school shorts to search for possible injuries, they found bruises and scabs on his backside. The pupil then revealed that his mother always took him to a man who raped him, in exchange for cash.
“That story shook me,” Nandang explains as she scrunches up her face to stop a tear rolling down her cheek. She felt she needed to do something since such stories are common but only discussed in hushed tones.
Months later, she started Silent Voices.
Two weeks after the first episode aired in October 2020, Nandang had her first case. A 28-year-old woman came to the station with her fiancé – she was covered in scars that had been inflicted on her by her fiancé’s family, who objected to their relationship. They used twisted wire cables to beat her, seized her phone and threw her out of the house. Like Precious and most of the others whose stories appear on the show, the woman did not report the assault to the police.
“They had no right to do that,” Nandang says of the family. After hearing the account, she aired the victim’s story and took the couple to FIDA for assistance.
‘I was a slave’
When Titi*, a mother of three who works at an abattoir in Jos, finally decided to leave her 14-year marriage after years of physical violence, her husband refused to accept her decision.
During the course of their marriage, her husband had emptied her piggy bank where she kept the money she was saving for her children’s school fees and replaced it with a wad of papers, took her ATM card without her permission to withdraw a business loan she had applied for and left home for long periods, pretending that he was looking for work in a different city, although people told her they had seen him in Jos.
But the final straw came when he beat her in public last April. Until then, she had kept his abuse hidden.
“He used to beat me seriously and I kept quiet because I did not want anybody to know,” she says, speaking softly and quietly, cautious that nobody should overhear her even though there is no one else around.
When she left her husband, Titi says he sent people to follow her. “It was frightening, I had to call my family [to say] that I could be kidnapped,” she says.
But it was not Titi who reached out to the radio station; it was her husband.
“The husband had called the station himself to report his wife abandoning him,” Nandang explains, describing how they tracked Titi down in order to investigate the case. When they did, they discovered that the situation was “completely different” from what her husband had described.
“It was a very pathetic case because the husband manipulated us,” Nandang says.
FIDA brought the couple to a mediation panel but Titi insisted on a divorce.
“I was a slave and I did not want to go back to slavery,” she explains. “There is just one life. If it is over, it is over. I don’t want a marriage to end it.”
Like many lower income and rural women, Titi’s marriage was customary and, although recognised by Nigerian law, it was not legalised in a court. This means she, herself, could not pursue legal means for separation. But because FIDA and Silent Voices agreed to represent her, her marriage was successfully dissolved.
“These perpetrators, if they see that you are the only one, they see that you are vulnerable, they will take advantage,” Nandang reflects. “But once they see that you have someone from a legal side, they are scared.”
‘The police are not supportive’
Cases are not always as straightforward as Titi’s. Several have got stuck in the court system or allegedly been bungled by the police. Although the police force inaugurated a “gender-friendly SGBV unit” to tackle sexual and gender-based violence in 2016, many believe the force still has a lack of interest in prosecuting gender-related cases.
Nandang sees the police as an obstacle to accessing justice.
“The police are not supportive,” she says. “They encourage the survivors to back down and settle it out of court. The police have a [lot to] gain because they collect money from the perpetrator.”
Gabriel Ubah, the spokesperson for the Plateau police, denied these allegations. “It is not true [that we encourage survivors to back down]. Any case with regard to sexual violence is a heinous crime and [the] police do not settle heinous crimes just like that,” he told Al Jazeera.
However, the police are not the only obstacle Nandang and FIDA encounter. There is also the bureaucracy of the judicial system and cultural expectations.
Mary Izam, a magistrate and, until recently, the chairperson of FIDA’s Plateau state chapter, says they “very often have to abandon cases”.
“The [judicial] system is thriving,” she adds, “but the gender-based violence cases are overwhelming, so the judges are overwhelmed, considering the fact that there are no designated courts for these cases. They are all being handled in the normal courts and then you find out that some of the cases are too much for a particular judge and we are faced with a lot of adjournments and delays. It takes a while to get justice.”
The delay in getting justice frustrates the victims who, already under pressure from society and often facing stigma, often eventually give up on their cases.
Izam says the cultural obstacles can be greater in the largely Muslim north of the country.
“Religion and tradition [in the north] have more influence on the people, more than the laws,” she explains.
“Cultural practices are a huge hindrance to what we do because it has to do with mindset. You can imagine that a man’s child is being raped and all that the man is thinking of is his family name, wanting to protect his family’s name and not thinking about the perpetrator being brought to book and [that] the victim should be cared for?”
Going the extra mile
For Nandang, her work does not end when she leaves the radio station.
“I don’t want to end it on radio. I want to start street awareness and campaigns in these communities and educate young girls and their parents,” she says, describing a case where she got a tip about a girl being trafficked but her parents did not want Nandang to expose the case or the perpetrators because of social stigma.
“Confidentiality is my first responsibility, so I don’t expose anybody – even the perpetrators. I don’t shame anybody on the show,” says Nandang, who also does not discuss cases while they are in the court system.
When a victim’s family does not want a case to proceed because they fear the stigma that might result, Nandang finds a way to maintain their privacy while helping FIDA’s lawyers make anonymous reports to the police so that justice can still take its course.
“I don’t allow perpetrators to go scot-free,” she says.
Nandang goes the extra mile in other ways, too, when someone requires help.
She recounts a case where a minor was allegedly raped by a 54-year-old man. The child’s parents reported the case to the police and the alleged rapist was arrested. But when a local chief showed up at the police station, the police reportedly released the man to the chief who judged that he should pay a fine of 10,000 naira ($24) and five goats to the victim’s parents.
Nandang went on air the following week to report on the case, without using the victim’s or the alleged perpetrator’s name but mentioning the police station and the local chief. The resulting public pressure led to the State Criminal Investigation Department, a more senior authority to the police, rearresting the alleged rapist the following day. The case is now under investigation, but the courts in that state are on strike, which has led to delays.
Nandang hopes this case will show women and children that they will be supported if they speak out.
Meanwhile, Precious is waiting for the outcome of her case and says she is cautiously hopeful because of the support she has received from Silent Voices and FIDA.
*Names have been changed to protect the victims’ identities.