Too often, the less powerful in society have been silenced by stringent laws, antiquated social traditions and, quite often, religious authoritarianism.
We’ve even seen leaders (or what some may call dictators) discount their own people's sufferings, ignore the screams and the chants of their citizens, and refuse to change laws or to seek justice for incomprehensible crimes.
Take the Zimbabwean government’s choice earlier this year to order an internet shutdown after citizens took to social media to show evidence of the violence occurring between soldiers and civilians, for example. Or, in 2014 when activist Loujain al- Hathloul, who campaigned “hard” for Saudi Arabian women to drive, was jailed for standing up against the law and voicing her frustrations.
In short, we live in an unfair world. Which is why I've found it so interesting that we’ve been able to spearhead movements, forge genuine friendships and seek justice through the use of social media at all.
Social platforms such as Twitter have transformed the lives of many. Through hashtag activism, perpetrators of rape, bullying, and even racism have been exposed and, in many cases, as with the re-emergence of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement in 2017, duly reprimanded.
Clearly, What began as a small platform to share memories and pictures has become a hub for a social movement and activism.
When Khadijah Adamu, a 24-year-old pharmacist in Northern Nigeria city of Kano, told her Twitter followers about experiencing horrific abuse at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, who she maintains very nearly killed her, she was met with empathy by Fakhriyyah Hashim, an entrepreneur and development worker, who then created the hashtag #ArewaMetoo.
After a day, the tweet inspired others – some who were assaulted when they were as young as five but had kept quiet for decades.
I spoke to Hashim to understand in depth the situation in northern Nigeria and how the use of social media has impacted her and victims. She said:
“In the first few days alone, we saw over 100 survivors reaching us to tell their stories. It gave them a platform that felt like a safe space, and they knew they would get support because of growing condemnation from the social media community.
“70 per cent of the victims had been sexually assaulted from the ages of five to 10 years old with most of them currently in their 20s. I suppose it took that long because most mentioned never being able to speak about it because they felt ashamed.”
Hashim added that she didn’t expect the tweet to do so well and attract such harrowing stories but when things started unraveling she began to see how much impact could be made.
The term “Arewa” is the general term used to refer to northern Nigeria, which has a majority Muslim population and a conservative society where issues surrounding sex and sexuality are rarely discussed in public.
Speaking to The Independent she said: “We have faced backlash which was expected because we’re dealing with an ultraconservative society that sees topics relating to sex as a taboo and unfortunately has condemned sexual violence in the same league as sex rather than a criminal offence.
“We also had one of our members Maryam Awaisu arrested by security officials where amnesty international and FIDA ensured her release.”
What started online has led to action being taken outside in the “real world”; Hashim and her team have managed to get victims legal aid by pairing them with organisations that provide pro bono legal aid, and NGOs that provide therapy.
The impact this campaign has made is clear. But the truth of the matter is we should not have to rely on hashtags or retweets in order to have suffering like this taken seriously. It’s unacceptable that we’ve had to take these battles on as individuals, rather than the leaders and those who’re meant to protect us.
“Without social media, this would not have been possible,” said Hashim, confirming those institutional failings.
“Social media brought people that had the same experiences together and they found a safe space in the company of other people’s stories, so they too shared theirs. That is how we were able to build a community and a powerful support base among young people.”
Hashim attributes the difficulty in changing attitudes in the region to a lack of training for police in northern Nigeria, who are not sensitive to victims of gender based violence. “They’re the last point you would want to report your case to”, she added.
“In our experience, during one of our sensitisation rounds, one of the cases escalated to the police and they asked the rape victim – [who was] still in secondary school – that if she’d been raped consistently by her guardian for two years then it must’ve been consensual.”
Hashim believes there needs to be a radical reform to turn the tide with the police, especially where comprehensive training is concerned.
Another major roadblock which Hashim says affects whether or not victims come out to tell their story is the justice system. The scales are tilted against victims and that is why many perpetrators walk away and more victims choose to remain silent, in some cases, rightfully so.
Whilst I understand people will be quick to point out the faults of social media, let me remind you that if it’s used properly, controlled frequently and managed selflessly, it always will do more good than bad.
As we’ve seen from the #ArewaMeToo hashtag, social media is an undeniable force in today's world, it has connected people in ways which some once considered unimaginable, and has proven there is still some good in the world.
But this connection has also made a distinct challenge for some authorities and leaders who must cope with a new reality: the internet has become the go-to place of people's shared trauma, frustrations, triumphs and storytelling, and they're struggling to keep up.
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