The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns, have triggered a spike in sexual and gender-based violence. Pulitzer Center grantee Ejiro Umukoro has spent the lockdown reporting on Nigeria's shadow pandemic of violence against women and children, in her multiple series for The Guardian Nigeria, "Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: Hidden Social Pandemic Under Radar of COVID-19 Lockdown" and "Broken Girls and Broken Boys—Trapped Under COVID-19 Lockdown."
A part of the Pulitzer Center's "Outbreak: Africa's Data Journalism Alliance Against COVID-19" reporting initiative, Umukoro blends data-driven journalism, legal research, and storytelling to paint a nuanced, often heartbreaking, portrait of Nigeria's sexual violence crisis and the institutional failures that have allowed this hidden pandemic to flourish.
Reflecting on the project's proposal, Pulitzer Center Senior Strategist Steve Sapienza explains, "We were drawn to support this ambitious health reporting effort because it involved talented, veteran reporters like Umukoro, Pan-African fact-checkers, African scientists, researchers, and a network of female African data journalists. We knew most newsrooms would be focused squarely on the pandemic, so we felt that supporting this regional project would lead to high-quality journalism that would expose preexisting African health challenges that would likely go unreported during the pandemic."
Despite recent national efforts to increase awareness of violence against women and children, government agencies have been slow to respond to the worsening crisis. Umukoro is trying to change that through data-driven journalism. "How do you solve the problem if you don't have data to give you context to know what the real issues are," she commented. "Data is very important when it comes to interpreting the real issues so that we can attack the problem specifically, get to the root of the problem and proffer the right solution, right deal, right policy, right act—the execution that is needed to create the impact that we desire."
During the Pulitzer Center's interview with Umukoro, she discussed police corruption, her role in the passage of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (VAPP), and the ethical considerations she grapples with when sharing survivors' stories. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Emma Mitnick: What is the significance of reporting on violence against women and children during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ejiro Umukoro: I kept seeing pictures of abused children prior to COVID. Why are we having so many of these cases? I began to go back and realized that, in Delta State where I reside, on a daily, weekly basis, there are reports of child abuse. It was just heinous. How does this happen every single day and we have a Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Women Affairs, Community and Social Development, and we have the Child Rights Act? When COVID began, and the lockdown was effected, I kept seeing more reports, each worse than the previous, each more heinous than the previous. That's when I began to say, this has got to stop. Something isn't right. So, this is the background that inspired my desire to create impact, if it means pursuing a bill, a policy, or ensuring that a sitting bill in the national assembly that has not been looked at is looked at. That's how I began.
Because of the nature of lockdown—when people don't have anywhere to vent, no social places to go out to—there's tension, sexual pent-up excitement. You have to control your emotions and control your loss. We cannot justify that [lockdown as an excuse for sexual violence].
Part of why the cases of abuse are correlated with lockdown was because during the pandemic NGOs could not move about or intervene as quickly. The lack of helplines is also a challenge for Nigeria. The fact that only 10 states have shelters by the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) tells you there is a huge gap—16 other states don't have that kind of support.
There were two cases that broke my heart, where the children, about eight of them, were rejected by shelters because they were afraid the asymptomatic children could be COVID-19 carriers. They were told they couldn't come in because the shelter wouldn't have capacity to deal with an outbreak. When you see a situation like that, it just breaks your heart and you wonder what else you can do.
EM: Your articles feature NGOs, social workers, police forces, and the judiciary, highlighting all the distinct players involved in Nigeria's sexual- and gender-based violence prevention and response strategy. How do these divergent agencies relate to each other and does the lack of a centralized national approach complicate attempts to fight the epidemic?
EU: The whole system is surviving under a society that keeps silent, protects perpetrators and abusers, and we have a situation where the safety organization—the organization that is supposed to provide safety and security, the police in this case —is complicit. They don't understand the gravity of the Child Rights Act and the right of a child to be protected over and above any other thing else, that their safety, protection, and interests come before any other person. You have badly trained police officers or lawless police officers who deliberately break the law. When high-profile individuals are involved, you see situations where even Chiefs would defend a high-profile abuser and say we'll settle this thing as a family matter, a civil matter. That's not a civil matter. The fact that we—especially the police who ought to know the law— don't understand that rape, defilement, sodomization, are not civil matters, is the most disturbing aspect of why this situation has become so bad.
You have NGOs who are not committed to this fight and then you have those who are committed, but because of how the law is designed, are frustrated from every step of the way in terms of the end-to-end protection process. We feel like some of them [NGOs] are actually like window dressing. They really don't care about this job. All they want to do is have a statistic that records the cases, have pictures and then go get funding. They get funding and then we don't see them do their job as they should.
You also have a government that does not have the political will to enforce punishments as public examples to perpetrators of rape. We have a situation in society where the sexual grooming of children is not as frowned on as strongly as it should be. We see a situation where adults are given permission to have a say over children, and children don't have a right to speak and say I don't want to associate with an uncle or an auntie. So, all of this diminishes the power of a child and the right of a child in society.
EM: Survivors' individual experiences have the power to create impact and increase awareness—how do you share these stories in your pieces without exploiting them? What are some of the ethical questions you consider when weaving individual accounts of assault into a larger narrative?
EU: It's very difficult, mentally draining, and emotionally sapping because in trying to tell a story, you have to consider ethics and you have issues of respect for privacy. But, I have also come to realize that because we have not told the stories enough in a manner that gets people to respond and react, I felt I needed to change my approach while protecting the identity of the victims who are involved. The goal for me, while keeping to the ethics of journalism and respect for privacy, is telling these stories in the manner that creates the most impact.
That's why I go with data. I go to very great lengths to get my data. I spend so much trying to get this information because we live in a society where people don't want to talk. Silence is golden in the sense people would rather not talk and confront a monster. They say let the sleeping monster lie. How can you allow a sleeping monster to lie? A monster never lies. When it's ready to roar and eat, it will eat everybody in its path. The monster feeds on you at night while you rest, it becomes fat on itself, creates dangerous fangs, and then comes back to eat on you again.
EM: Your articles have a distinct structure—embedded within the stories are PSAs on indicators of emotional violence, how-tos for reporting cases of abuse. Why is it important to make this type of information explicit in your reporting?
EU: I think I just wanted to help people to be informed. An informed populace is a smarter people. Knowledge is power when put to good use. When people have the totality of a picture, they grasp everything. I wanted, most importantly, for people to have a call to action so that you cannot give me an excuse for why you did not take action.
I discovered many did not know how to report cases, and I wanted to enable the public to be able to do just that. If the police are not creating campaign programs on the radio, then the onus is upon the media to fill in the gap. That's why we're a watchdog, why we're the fourth estate. We need to arm the people with the right information, right tools, right thinking, right processes, and a really complete picture so they can take action.
EU: NGOs are horrible when it comes to keeping data. It was herculean for me getting the data I wanted. That was a red flag because if you don't keep data, then how do you know you're making progress? If you don't keep data, how do you justify the funds that you desire or actually get at the end of the day? If you don't keep data, does it mean the lives of these people you claim to help are not important for you to store their records to remember them and fight their cause till the end? For me, that lack of data gathering is heartbreaking, and this is not just with NGOs, even administrations.
I knew I had to get to the ministries in charge of child rights, Ministry of Women Affairs, Ministry of Child Protection, and I had to attend so many webinars. With the webinars, I was able to go beyond just Nigeria. I was wondering if this is a global problem or is it just a Nigerian problem. In discovering it was a global problem, I was able to now use the data from different countries and started doing research, looking for all the reading materials on the matter, taking up the Nigerian Police Act, the Nigerian Child Rights Act, the VAPP act, trying to see where are the gaps here, where are the loopholes here. I had to verify my data from the sources themselves. I pooled all of this data together and we sought Code for Africa. Code for Africa was able to help me with the data I got from the Mirabel Centre—the sexual assault response center in Lagos. I was able to speak with the Domestic Violence Sexual Response Team (DSTR), and that was how I was able to get data from 2019 and 2020, so I could make comparative analyses.
EM: You've spoken about the importance of impact-oriented journalism—where have you seen this series create impact?
EU: I felt the only way I could make an impact was to get the real data of every story, the truth behind the stories. Once we begin to tell authentic, verifiable stories in the age of disinformation, misinformation, and false stories, people will begin to trust what you say and when you speak, you begin to have a voice, and with your voice, you can create the change that you want.
Because the data I have is so inconvertible, when I called for the passage of the VAPP act, which had been sitting in the Delta State House of Assembly, more or less days after, they passed the bill. Now we have the VAPP act. I told myself from the get-go, there has to be a call to action where you see that it is measurable, it is executable, and you can begin to use that to begin to create the kind of environment we want.
The fact it's [the VAPP act] been passed is a good thing in the sense that it gives you teeth. It gives you power to fight and call an abuser out. I think where we're going next is that individuals shouldn't be waiting for the media to inform them. I want to start creating events where we begin to talk about owning the civic responsibility to read the laws, know the laws, know your rights. When they [citizens] know what they ought to know, and how to use what they know to get the change they want, that is self-ammunition to pursue and do civic rights.
A lot of people suffer from illiteracy, so the question is how do we provide things in bite size so that people can remember and take action? At the end of the day, the only way we can stem this tide is when we have more people speaking up and calling out abusers. The psychology where young boys think that it is not a crime to rape has to change, and that is the work of media. We must continue to have more forums, more reading programs, because the conversation has to be consistent and persistent until we get what we want. We have the law, we have the act, but people don't read about it, don't talk about it, don't see it effected. We don't put the government on their toes, but I'm all for putting government on their toes.
EM: What's next for you in the series?
EU: We need a collective value change. It's not enough to just report and say this man raped this girl. We want to go the extra mile. We want to get so investigative, we have all the data, and then equip the populace on identifying when sexual grooming is happening. We live in an environment where sexual violence is condoned. Sexual harassment by adults are very prevalent but people don't see it as harassment, they call it uncle is playing with you or auntie is playing with you. They don't see it as a crime.
I'm launching a mental health crime fiction titled Distortion this October. Based on my investigative work, the book is another means to get people to take action, using storytelling to shake people up from their inaction or self-distancing to confront the beast we have fed as a society.
I'm calling on the Delta State Government and the Federal Government of Nigeria to create free national and state helplines for victims of abuse. Government also needs to rehabilitate, upgrade, and build better remand homes across Nigeria, and we need GOVT-PPP run shelters for abuse victims to also house children who are runaways, or commit offenses. It is time the government understands that the renovations of the national and state assemblies, or government houses, are not priorities. Such effort ought to be channeled towards enforcing and ensuring child welfare, protection, health care and education.
It's all about a society not taking action, a society not condemning perpetrators. The loudest shouts you hear, the condemnation you hear loudest, is actually against the abused, not the perpetrator. And there is something wrong with that. It is a very sickening collective society psychology that needs to be overturned. When you blame the person who a crime was committed on rather than the criminal, and that's also because we live in a society where the perpetuation of corruption has enabled every other form of corruption.