Josephine Effah-Chukwuma is breaking the silence surrounding domestic abuse in Nigeria by providing counseling services, legal advice and representation, and temporary housing at the country's first battered women's shelter.
The New Idea
Josephine is the first person to formally address issues related to violence against women in Nigeria. By establishing the country's first shelter, telephone hotline, and newsletter for battered women, she is not only providing valuable services to beleaguered women in need of immediate assistance, but also working to deconstruct the taboos that prevent efforts to fight domestic and sexual violence in Africa and around the developing world. Josephine has developed an effective holistic approach to helping battered women: she provides a safe space and accommodations for victims and their children, and she offers group and individual counseling, resettlement services, legal advice, and advocacy. She plans to launch similar initiatives in every city in Nigeria and would like to spread her model to other regions of the developing world.
Domestic violence is shrouded in silence in Nigeria, although it is by no means a rarity. Women who discuss this problem are typically shamed by their neighbors, and many people still believe men have the right to use beatings to maintain control of the household. As a result, cases of domestic violence are rarely reported, and law enforcement authorities generally refuse to intercede, even when calls are made. In fact, abuse is so commonly accepted and so rarely reported that, officially, domestic violence does not exist. However, the citizen sector organization No Safe Haven reports that in Nigeria between November 1999 and December 2000, most of the women that were murdered were victims of domestic violence.
Indeed, rates of beatings unreported to authorities and the severity of reported cases have escalated remarkably over the last decade. Responses to incidents are generally on an ad hoc basis, a fact that has hindered human rights organizations' capacity to respond to the causes of this grave problem. The primary tactic employed by women's organizations is the press release that condemns violent or inhumane acts against women and calls for the arrest and prosecution of the culprits. However, the intervention ends there, with no follow-up service to the victims or their dependents. Josephine's initiative is the first to address the problem of domestic abuse on all fronts, effectively focusing on prevention and assistance as much as on education and advocacy.
Josephine founded Project Alert on Violence Against Women in 1999 after working for the Constitutional Rights Project as a program officer in charge of women and children's issues. Although she came into contact with many battered women at the Constitutional Rights Project, the organization did not have a specific initiative to address domestic abuse. Based on her experience, Josephine realized the need for a project that specifically monitored and reported women's rights abuses and also provided practical support services to victims. Project Alert was the first such organization in Nigeria.
As director of Project Alert, Josephine's first initiative was to create the newsletter called Violence Watch. The newsletter was published to increase awareness and to give women a place to voice their feelings and frustrations. Josephine also secured additional funding to produce a television miniseries on domestic abuse.
Based on the initial success of the newsletter and realizing that it would take a broader and more direct effort to curb violence against women, Josephine set up services for legal and psychological counseling. In most cases her organization dealt with, women revealed that the absence of a safe haven outside of the family house contributed greatly to the incidence and severity of domestic abuse. Josephine found that in order for counseling services to be effective, battered women needed shelter from their partners and time to identify more long-term solutions. She then established Nigeria's only temporary residence for abused women and their children as a pilot project in Lagos, signifying for the first time that violence in homes is a serious problem that can no longer be ignored. She intends to spread this initiative across Nigeria.
Josephine comes from a family of six sisters and one brother. Although she grew up in a household with more women than men, she realized at a young age that society neglects women's rights and encourages abuse. She remembers hearing a conversation between her father and his brother in which her uncle tried to persuade her father to stop educating his daughters and, instead, invest in the education of his nephews. Even though she was able to continue her education, she soon saw firsthand the horrors of abuse against women when her university roommate was hospitalized after being beaten by her boyfriend. Shortly thereafter, Josephine decided to commit herself to the defense and security of women.
After graduating with a degree in English and literature, Josephine worked for a newspaper called The Diplomat until 1992, when she was admitted to the Institute of Social Studies in the Hague, Netherlands, to pursue a master's degree in development studies with specialization in women. Upon her return to Nigeria, Josephine worked for the Constitutional Rights Project, an institution founded by Ashoka Fellow Clement Nwankwo. In 1999 she left to set up Project Alert focusing on the prevention of violence and services for women.
In addition to her professional experience, Josephine has been involved in various other women's initiatives. She is a founding member of the National Association of Women journalists and a member of the National Task Force on Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Nigeria. She has written publications on violence against women, including No Safe Haven, Breaking the Silence, Women's Rights are Human Rights, and Eliminating Discrimination Against Women.