When civic leaders and officials in Jos, Nigeria, launched an initiative in 2017 to calm repeated bloodshed in the city, a series of dialogue forums with residents revealed a chilling pattern of hidden violence in their midst: sexual assault. Girls and women recounted rapes and attacks for which justice was impossible, often because authorities were unresponsive. The women faced a problem common to their sisters across Africa: national laws against sexual violence were having little effect on the ground. But the dialogues have wrought a change. In May, police in Jos opened the city’s first unit dedicated to investigating sexual and gender crimes.

In Jos, officer Umele Onyeche hears a local woman’s story at the city’s first police unit dedicated to investigating sexual violence. Police and the community created the unit following a dialogue supported by USIP.
In Jos, officer Umele Onyeche hears a local woman’s story at the city’s first police unit dedicated to investigating sexual violence. Police and the community created the unit following a dialogue supported by USIP.

Jos’ small step forward is relevant across Africa. For years, studies by U.N. agencies and others have found women in Sub-Saharan Africa at the greatest risk worldwide for sexual violence. Yet research, news reports and women’s protests from Uganda to South Africa to Senegal reflect that national-level laws and policies are achieving little actual reduction in the violence marring women’s lives. Since 2016, surveys by the Nigerian research firm NOIPolls have found violence against women and children increasing, and 75 percent of cases unreported.

In recent years, Jos—a city of 800,000 in the hills of north-central Nigeria—has faced varied eruptions of violence. For generations, Jos sustained basically peaceful relations among its ethnic and religious communities. But disputes over land and resources have ignited communal bloodshed over the past two decades as thousands of people displaced from conflicts elsewhere in Nigeria settled in Jos. In 2016, youths in one Jos neighborhood burned down a police station after a local dispute. That led civic activists and officials to undertake a broad dialogue, with support from the U.S. Institute of Peace, to rebuild justice and security in their community.

The dialogue took place in a series of forums over several months, during which the discussion of local conflicts was punctuated by a string of unexpected stories from girls and women. A 13-year-old girl, accompanied by her mother, told the group of being raped by a 72-year-old man. A 35-year-old mother of nine recounted her struggle for a divorce from a husband who long had abandoned the family, but returned occasionally only to force her to have sex. A community leader told of a serial rapist who attacked with impunity, because he was able to intimidate anyone who wanted him brought to justice.

Each of the victims had appealed to elders or police, but were ignored or blamed. In at least a third of cases, they told of discovering that the perpetrator had a close relative or a friend in the police force.

Local Dialogues Advance National Goals

So in autumn of 2016, police, government officials and community leaders in the local jurisdiction of Jos North began to reform local policing and judicial procedures. The culmination of their efforts was the opening in May of a police “gender desk” to investigate cases of sexual violence. The new unit is based at a police station in Nassarawa Gwom, a neighborhood where police and residents say women have reported a high number of assaults. A refurbished office hosts a toll-free hotline and, most importantly, four officers trained to investigate sexual violence. They will handle cases across Jos North, a “local government area” of nearly 500,000 residents served by 87 police officers.

As in locales across Africa, the problem facing Jos was not that its national government lacked laws and policies to prosecute sexual violence. To the contrary, Nigeria—and Plateau State, of which Jos is the capital—had a plethora of laws: elements of the 1999 Constitution, the Marriage Act, the 2015 Violence Against Persons Prohibition, the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, the Child Rights Law of Plateau State, and the Gender and Equal Opportunities Law. Nigeria had committed to international norms such as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the national police force had even created a Gender Unit in 2016 to support local police commands in investigating cases of sexual violence.

Yet Jos suffered the Africa-wide chasm between national policy and local reality. “Around the world, and especially in what specialists call ‘fragile’ states, governments have trouble making good policy decisions effective on the ground,” said Ena Dion, a USIP expert in strengthening the rule of law. “USIP has conducted dialogues like that in Jos across more than a dozen countries—and this simple, inexpensive step of gathering a local community with its government officials and police often provides the missing link to make governance effective,” said Dion, who currently leads USIP dialogue projects across the Sahel region and the Maghreb.

The collaboration of citizens and government agencies in Jos North also shows how even small investments can yield improvements in governance over a long term. USIP has worked with communities in Jos since 2013 to strengthen civil society, women’s voices and local efforts to counter violent extremism.

The Critical Step: Listenership

In Jos, as elsewhere, solutions were advanced because a focused dialogue required its participants to listen to each other. About 40 community leaders, residents and officials from Jos North met in a three-day workshop in May. They included the heads of local government districts, police officers and court judges, and officials from the government health ministry and other social welfare departments. Civil society representatives came from among teachers; women’s organizations, including female market vendors; and a labor union.

One key to the group’s success was experience. It had helped to calm tensions in a Jos neighborhood called Angwan Rukuba after angry youths there burned the police station in 2016 and expelled police. The group had used a “Justice and Security Dialogue,” a process developed by USIP that convenes government officials, community leaders and citizens in strife-torn locales. That process had led the community to help rebuild the police post and restore police service to the neighborhood.

In May, this dialogue group sat down in Angwan Rukuba’s public meeting hall, a room with dirty walls and sagging ceilings. Men and women listened in a somber silence as participants narrated painful experiences of sexual violence against themselves, or relatives or friends. People recalled rapes and sexual assaults on children.

During the dialogue sessions, and in interviews, women and their family members told of feeling helpless in the face of barriers to seeking any kind of justice. When they tried to report the crimes at police stations, they said, they too often faced hours-long waits, disorganization, indifference, even hostility. Approaching the police, they said, often simply added a new trauma for them. Many thus chose to bear their pain alone and in silence.

Police officials lamented that their officers lacked skills to address sexual assaults. They described institutional constraints that restricted their ability to respond as they would want. Government representatives said they lacked funds and coordination among agencies; civic leaders voiced frustration with bottlenecks in the administration of justice.

The situation is worsened by widespread illiteracy, some religious practices, generally weak law enforcement, and a limited understanding by police of laws on gender issues. Inaction by the state and a society steeped in inequity between men and women create an environment of permission for men to rape or assault women, the participants said.

Dialogue Yields Decisions

By the end of the workshop, participants agreed that the police of Plateau State should establish a Gender Desk in Jos—a first for their city. They pledged to ensure that men, irrespective of their social status, would no longer be “protected” from police and prosecutors if they committed sexual violence. That alone is a significant step in a traditionally hierarchical society. And while the pattern of assaults on women was the focus, the group agreed to act against any form of gender-based violence.

Community leaders and police in Jos, Nigeria, gather in May to inaugurate a unit to combat sexual and gender-based crimes.
Community leaders and police in Jos, Nigeria, gather in May to inaugurate a unit to combat sexual and gender-based crimes.

Because the dialogue group was so broadly representative of its community, the decision to act together has mobilized a sweeping range of organizations:

  • The Plateau State Police Command selected Nassarawa Gwom as the location for the new Gender Desk, based on the relatively high number of sexual violence cases reported there. It assigned four officers to training courses on how to respond to sexual violence.
  • Plateau State’s police won support from Nigeria’s justice ministry and National Human Rights Commission, which helped with the training of officers. Police in Lagos State, the country’s most populous, already operate a gender desk and will provide advice to Plateau’s new unit.
  • Local partners of USIP—the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding and the Center for Peace Advancement in Nigeria—trained community leaders from Jos North on how to support victims and help police by bridging the communication gap that often exists between police and residents.
  • The Jos chapter of the International Federation of Female Lawyers agreed to provide free legal help for all victims of rape and gender-based violence cases, especially women. The federation helped to draft training and public information material about available support services.
  • The Social Welfare Unit of Jos North’s local government pledged to reach out to residents to help them understand how to report such crimes.
  • A Jos radio station, Unity FM, began a 30-minute, morning talk show on sexual violence and the new initiative to combat it, including the police Gender Desk. A leadership committee of the dialogue group placed public information posters, in English and Hausa, across Jos North.  
  • USIP agreed to coordinate the development of a “toolkit” of information and training materials to help police and other service providers respond to sexual violence.
  • The participants in the May dialogue agreed to conduct a follow-up dialogue on how best to support the Gender Desk as it gets fully established. And to monitor the initiative’s impact, all the service providers involved, with help from USIP and its Nigerian partners, are documenting cases received, treated or resolved.

The project demonstrates what communities can do for themselves. With minimal but steady outside assistance, they can address crucial security problems and help ensure the conditions Nigerians need for their country’s political and economic development.

Isioma Kemakolam is a USIP program officer based in Nigeria.

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