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‘VAPP law will help address violence against women’

FIDA will be 50 years in August , and it is about 32 years in Nigeria, how has the journey been so far? It has been…

FIDA will be 50 years in August , and it is about 32 years in Nigeria, how has the journey been so far?
 It has been quite a long journey for us in Nigeria. We started with just as one branch or chapter but now we have about 32 state branches in the country. The remaining states of the country are still in the process of inaugurating it . So very soon we will have FIDA in all the states of Nigeria and the FCT.
We have faced challenges and also recorded successes. Today FIDA is like a household name.We are also happy that the pro-bono (free) services we are offering to indigent women and children are well appreciated by Nigerians. We have been able to bring smiles to people who do not know how to access justice. So generally FIDA has had a worthwhile journey in the past 50 years.
In what ways has FIDA been able to help poor women who cannot afford legal aid?
We have been able to provide free legal services for them. In some of the cases we handled, we go to court free of charge without charging them. You may not appreciate what that means until you have a challenge that needs a legal solution and walk into a lawyer’s office to get representation. By the time the lawyer hits you with his bill, then you will appreciate what we have been doing free of charge for indigent women and children.
 We have also been involved in advocacy and lobbying for favourable policies that promote the rights, welfare and wellbeing of women and children.
 We have also carried out self help projects  that provides services for women and children. For instance if you go to Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) there is a particular ward called FIDA ward. FIDA has taken up that ward and continuously maintained it for quite some time now.
There are times when the legal services we have provided may not necessary involve going to court. We have had cases of families whose relationships are heading to the rocks. We have been able to intervene through alternative disputes resolution mechanisms and settle the conflicts within such families. They were able to mend such relationships   and continue to live happily together  as a family. As much as possible going to court for us is always the last resort if we are able to resolve such issues using alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.
What issues have you specifically handled?
A documentation of some of the cases we have handled shows that a great number of them are on marital cases,  maintenance and custody of children in cases of divorce or separation,  domestic violence cases and  sexual violence which is on the increase  like the ones against minors, young women and old women among others.
We have also handled cases of sexual harassment in the work place and other forms of violence against women. We have had murder and other criminal cases and have been able to provide the women support in such situations.
Many people are of the opinion that the present laws offers room for perpetrators of sexual violence to easily go free or get minimal punishment , what is your take on this?
Over the years we have seen very ridiculous sentences  being handed down by the courts . I have read in the papers where someone pleaded guilty to rape and in sentencing the person,  the judge recommended that he should be given 20 strokes of the cane and allowed to go .
 For some of us who are women rights activists we see this as some kind of insensitivity to the main issue by some of our judicial officers, and who don’t seem to understand what women go through when they are victims of sexual violence.
Possibly that might explain why sexual violence is so much on the increase. With the high rate of sexual violence , it is rare to hear of convictions where maximum punishment are melted on a guilty perpetrators.  
As long as we shy away from giving maximum punishment for such offences, it will not serve as a deterrent to anyone. One of the reasons for laws is to serve as a deterrent for future offenders and for them to know that they cannot commit an offence and go scot free.
As a country, we should take stock and see because we are gradually becoming a lawless nation.  A nation that is filled with impunity. People commit offence and go free, in fact someone will tell you to your face that I will do it and nothing will happen. People brag about it.
Specifically has FIDA done anything to see to the amendment of these laws?
FIDA is also involved in change of policies and law reform for women and children. At the moment FIDA is part of the coalition that is pushing for a stiffer and stronger law to prohibit violence against persons .We have been able to get a Violence against Persons Prohibition Bill  VAPP)  passed by the House of Representatives.
The bill is at the senate now awaiting second reading. Contrary to the criminal laws which stipulates that someone who is guilty of an offence could be punished up to a period of seven years, the VAPP bill says you cannot go below the minimum and one of the recommendations of the bill for rape for instance is life imprisonment. In fact the way it is, no judge has the right to give less than that life imprisonment except that person is not guilty.
We believe that if that bill is passed into law it will help address the issue of deterrence, challenge of perpetrators of violence going free, or the culture of impunity that we are seeing in our country.
How is FIDA helping women to know their rights?
We carry out enlightenment campaigns on television and radio. We are also on Brekete Family Radio or on Aso Radio or one television programme or the other where we talk about knowing one’s rights. When I was the chairperson of FIDA Abuja, I started a programme on ‘know your rights’ on Aso radio. It was done in pidgin English. It was very well listened to because we constantly received comments, phone calls or referrals on issues of violation of rights of women in Abuja at the time and the programme has continued till now.
We also carry out community sensitization in all our branches . In fact tomorrow Saturday, FIDA will carrying out a community sensitization in Gwagwalada Area Council.
Secondly, we have gotten a grant from the social development fund of the French embassy to help women access justice through provision of probono services and also awareness creation on issues of rights of  women. This is going to take place in six focal states, Ekiti, Enugu, Ebonyi, lagos and Edo and Abuja.
And one component of the project is the level of awareness of rights on the part of women. We did a baseline study and were able to see the level of awareness women have regarding their rights. At the end of the project, we are going to do an evaluation to see the level of awareness whether it has increased or decreased.
We are happy we have been able to help people but I will not delude myself that we have been able to cover everywhere because we have challenges of funding. This hinders us from covering every nook and cranny of the country. We also  have  the challenge of enough paid staff who will help us to keep up with the tempo of things happening in the country.  All these things militate against our being able to have a rapid mechanism in place to assist those we like to help access justice.