“Activism chose me” :R.Evon Benson Idahosa – Activist & founder Pathfinders
R.Evon Benson-Idahosa is the eldest daughter of Archbishops Margaret and Benson Idahosa. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Pathfinders Justice Initiative, Inc, an International NGO which seeks to eradicate sex trafficking and rape in the developing world. She is a trained English Barrister and an American lawyer who worked as a partner in a national defense law firm in New York for over a decade before venturing full time into activism on behalf of women and girls. As a native of a developing nation (Nigeria), Ms. Benson-Idahosa is particularly passionate about addressing the shrouded issues of sex trafficking (modern day slavery) and gender based violence in the developing world because of her compelling commitment to the liberation of women in developing countries. As an activist, her passion and compassion are geared towards developing a generation of women who stand confident in who they are, what they bring to the table and what they can achieve. She is a firm believer that if you can empower a woman and engage men as allies for gender justice, you can change any society. She shares her story and the inspiration behind her work in this interview.
I would not be who I am today or move through the world the way I do without having been born into the family I was born into. I grew up with parents (Archbishops Margaret and Benson Idahosa) who taught me that one’s life was not fully realized unless it was grounded in the service and upliftment of others. I saw my parents move through their lives with both compassion and activism- it was what fueled their existence. Although neither formally referred to themselves as “activists,” that is precisely what they were/are. They stood against injustice and taught me that God’s justice requires that we affirm the image of God in every man and women, regardless of their social class and status. Traveling with them around the world was also a gift that informed my worldview because it allowed me to see the gross disparity among racial and social classes and even as a child, the subjugation of women and girls troubled me. I also went to boarding school in Jos when I was nine and that forced me to become an independent thinker who was able to make decisions on my own at an early age.
So yes, my childhood certainly influenced and prepared me for what I do today. In fact, it was my father that nicknamed me “Pathfinder” when I was nine. When I started to consider a name for my NGO, God brought it back to remembrance, not only because it is who I was prophetically named, but also because it is what we endeavor to do for women and girls, i.e., to help them find their paths out of abuse and injustice. I think that is the general expectation, i.e., that because of our family background, all the Idahosa children would end up in full time “ministry.” But what exactly is ministry? When I think of the word, the word “service” is what immediately springs to mind. So I may not be on a pulpit every Sunday, but I endeavour and am honored to serve the marginalized women and girls that we are fortunate enough to meet.
Pathfinders is an international NGO (www.pathfindersji.org) which seeks to eradicate sex trafficking and rape in the developing world through empowerment, judicial reform and community transformation. We focus our time and resources on prevention, sensitization and raising awareness on the implications of these atrocities. Our primary method of prevention is the empowerment of young women and girls who are most vulnerable to sex trafficking (via our #Not4Sale Campaign, vocational skills training, education scholarships and startup business training and funding) and rape (via our #TakeMeOffMute Total Self Defense Programs). We also sensitize the public via our public service announcements and utilize workshops and outreaches (in schools, markets, religious organizations, etc.) to raise awareness on the implications of sex trafficking and rape. Via our PATH (Personalized Action to Healing) Plans, we provide rehabilitation for survivors of rape and sex trafficking, particularly women and girls who were trafficked from Nigeria into Europe and have repatriated. These survivor-curated Plans include anything from free medical, legal and counseling services to vocational skills training, housing, education scholarships and start up business training and funding. We recently launched our safehouse in Edo State called “The Anchor” to provide shelter for up to 24 survivors which will be fully operational by Summer 2017.
Reason for choosing Activism and Advocacy
Well, I would actually say that it chose me. And what I mean by that is that it is what I have been called to do, i.e., to amplify the voices of women and girls. Prior to working full time in this area, I practiced law for over a decade in corporate America and successfully defended other lawyers as a partner in a prestigious New York firm. However, I always knew that it wasn’t what I would spend the rest of my life doing. And so there came a time when I had to choose between financial success and significance. I had to decide whether I would step out in faith to do what I knew was my life’s work or whether I would sit comfortably in the arms of a corner office that offered me what most people would define as success. People often tell me that it took courage to choose the former, but as anyone who is called to a work will tell you, not yielding to that calling requires turning your back on an unrelenting fire within yourself. For me, it was not an option. I had a compelling sense of urgency to move and I have absolutely no regrets.
Well, I am fortunate to have the foundation that was built by my parents and continues to be built by my mother, Her Grace, Archbishop Margaret Benson-Idahosa. Interestingly enough, because all my world-changing siblings are also involved in some form of service, our work overlaps and serves to support each other. As such, I recognize that in many ways, I had a head start that many other young organizations have not been afforded. I am grateful. This, however, doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges. There certainly are. The major challenge is the effort it takes to uproot the mindset of patriarchy that is so deeply embedded in Nigerian society. It is what perpetuates systemic injustice against women and girls and is what has intentionally rendered that demographic vulnerable.
Project and Activities
In 2018, we will be venturing on a social enterprise which will hire rape and sex trafficking survivors as well as young women who are susceptible to sex trafficking. We intend to make and distribute Nigeria inspired bath and body healing products. Ultimately, the business will utilize a survivor led model, as each woman who works there will ultimately become a distributor and generate her own business. It is our way of contributing to and giving back to society by filling some of the economic gap that is causing our women and girls to view prostitution as an alternative to poverty. We are very excited about the project!
Fulfilment. I am from Edo State, an internationally recognized hub of sex trafficking and certainly the hub of sex trafficking in Nigeria (over 90% of women and girls trafficked into Europe are from there). As such, sex trafficking is part of our functioning economy and is grossly embedded into our culture. It has wreaked havoc on the lives of our women and girls who return from overseas in broken pieces. Without judgment, we reach out to each of them in love and remind them that they are still valuable. It takes courage to start to put up the walls of a broken dream but in time, that is what they start to do. I am honored that they welcome us into their truth and allow us to take the journey to shalom and healing with them. That fulfilment is unparalleled.
Testimonials from Survivors
Our rape survivors who have completed our counseling programs tell us that for the first time in their lives, they feel free and hopeful about their future.
Edo State being a sex trafficking hub and the Solution
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of women and girls trafficked from Nigeria into Europe are from Edo State (over 90%). Our research indicates that one in every three young women in the State has been recruited. Last year, 11,000 women (the majority of who are from Edo) risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya into Italy alone. Thousands more were trafficked into other countries. Globally, sex trafficking is a $100 billion business. There are many different reasons why Edo State is leading in Nigeria, but the primary factors relate to the toxic combination of poverty, lack of economic opportunities and little to no education. Sex trafficking is also culturally acceptable in Edo, even though we claim to abhor it. There has also been a complete desecration of our moral standards which has resulted in trafficking becoming part and parcel of our functioning economy.
Mothers are often the negotiators of contracts with traffickers and it cannot be said (with so much awareness now being raised) that they are unaware of what their daughters will be involved in overseas. The level of deception, however, is what remains problematic. Our young girls are told that they will be involved in prostitution but only for a short period of time and that they will then be able to send funds home to support their families. Enticed by this false hope, they view prostitution as an alternative to poverty and volunteer to be trafficked (over 90% of our survivors). But once they arrive (if they arrive, because the chances of being murdered for your organs along the way are increasing), the story is very different.
The debt unexplainably balloons to anywhere from $45,000 to $50,000 which has to be repaid back before the woman can obtain her freedom. Each sexual encounter will only generate about $20, so you can imagine how much abuse a woman’s body has to endure to repay that amount. The Edo State government, under the leadership of Governor Godwin Obaseki, is committed to eradicating sex trafficking and exploitation and in May of this year, requested that we organize, alongside its Strategic Planning Unit, a human trafficking workshop to address the issue. It was certainly encouraging to see our Governor and First Lady, reinforce their commitment to eradicating the issue from Edo State. The workshop brought over a hundred stakeholders to the table, including Nigeria’s Special Advisor on Diaspora, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, world renowned women’s activist, Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin (Chairwoman), and so many others to collectively strategize and make recommendations to the government.
Are Nigerians well informed and sensitised on how to treat victims of rape?
We are improving, but are certainly not where we should be. According to statistics, 1/4 girls and 1/10 boys in Nigeria are survivors of rape. Based on my experience, I believe the numbers are actually considerably higher since a lot of rapes are unreported and there are many categories that we don’t consider rape (child marriage, same sex rape, marital rape, etc.). Survivors tell us that they do not trust the legal system to protect them and are afraid to face the stigma that is still very prominent. As a result, they deal with the pain in silence and it eats at their souls. A lot more work has to be done to reverse the stigma so that it falls flatly on the perpetrators who are often repeat offenders because there is impunity. One of the ways we endeavor to raise awareness/increase sensitization is via our #SheSaidNo Campaign which aims to address the way that men (who are the primary perpetrators of rape against women) view and value women. the end of the story!
The menace of Rape in Nigeria
Rape has been an epidemic in Nigeria for a long time- it’s just that it wasn’t spoken of because people were forced into silence because of the stigma and shame that Nigerian society promotes. It has persisted for so long that it is now almost endemic in our culture. It is proliferated both by our antiquated laws and our religions which allow perpetrators to rape with impunity. So for example, other than in the federal capital, via the new VAPP Law, marital rape has still not been outlawed throughout Nigeria. Even there, it is only covertly outlawed.
Any Personal Experience?
No, fortunately, I haven’t but I know too many friends (men and women) who have been forced to have rape written into their life stories. The truth of the matter is that I don’t have to have had a personal experience to be compassionate. I simply believe in our shared humanity and that, in and of itself, is enough. The rape of any woman/girl in Nigeria is the rape of a citizen to whom we are all obligated.
Is the Edo State Government doing enough to curb this menace?
Clearly, states like Lagos are making advancements on the issue of rape, but many others are on its heels, including Edo. In January 2017, our Governor inaugurated a Family Court to exclusively handle matters pertaining to children in civil and criminal matters. The hope is that the court will expedite prosecutions in child related matters, specifically on those relating to child exploitation and rape. But simply having these in place is insufficient if there is no enforcement and/or implementation. Bribes are still being demanded by police officers (as recently as April, in one of our cases) to begin the prosecution of a case against a grandmother. But we are reporting rogue officers and more people are demanding accountability. The optimist in me believes that the foregoing, coupled with the commitment of our new Governor who has been proactive, will result in a decline of rape cases in the state.