In their cramped and dimly lit centre, counsellors provide emotional and medical care for survivors.
The Mirabel Centre is not easy to find. It is on the premises of the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, beside the mosque, I am told. But when I ask a few people for directions, they seem as baffled as to its whereabouts. Eventually, a young doctor escorts me there. And it is nothing like I imagined.
In my mind, I had conjured an image of a semi-detached patch of serenity; the sort of place that might offer at least the little comfort to be found in bricks and mortar. In reality, Lagos’ only rape centre is a long, dimly lit corridor lined with tiny rooms. With arms outstretched, you can almost touch each side. And the overall sense is of one of the walls closing in.
But if the place itself seems less than welcoming, the same cannot be said for the staff. Joy, a counsellor with long yarn braids and glossy lips, and Juliet, the manager of the centre, both greet me with a hug.
Juliet shows me around. She wears a fitted white dress with orange lace panels and a near permanent grin. They own just two rooms and a small cubicle that is used as a waiting area, she explains.
There are clients there now, so she sections the area off with a brown wooden divider. It is important to protect the identities of the people they see, she explains, because they share parts of the space with the hospital, including the examination room that doubles as a theatre for minor surgical procedures.
On the doors and the divider are stickers intended to send a clear message about just who is at fault for rape. One declares: “It doesn’t matter what she was wearing or what she was doing, no doesn’t mean yes.”
Our attention is taken by a young girl rushing down the corridor. She bangs forcefully on the door of the toilet. I recognise her as Mercy, a 15-year-old I met at a survivor’s forum a few months ago. She didn’t talk much then, but today she comes and sits by me in one of the consulting rooms that belong to the hospital.
She is wearing a bright red dress and a glow in the dark rosary. We hug and exchange pleasantries. She left school when she was 11 and is learning fashion, she tells me. She seems happier than the last time I saw her.
Then Mercy begins to recount her story.
She was six years old when it happened and living in Benue state, in the north central region of the country.
One day she returned from school with three friends. A 17-year-old male cousin had been harassing her, and that night he brought four other men to the house. For Mercy, everything from the moment he began to rape her is a blur.
Her next memory is of waking up in the hospital the following day, and being told what had happened.
All of the girls were raped, possibly multiple times by more than one of the attackers, but Mercy does not know for sure because she blacked out. One of her friends did not survive; another died last year as a result of the injuries she sustained on that night. Mercy and one other girl are now the only survivors.
She had to leave school because of the fistula that developed resulting from the attack. Doctors had told her that she was too young to undergo the restorative surgery known as VVF. And, unable to afford adult diapers, she must rely on cloth to soak up the waste that leaks from her.
“The thing [the fistula] always disgraces me,” she says.
Valentina, one of the counsellors, asks if I would like to meet another client. A 12-year-old girl is sitting in the counselling room next door. Habiba keeps her head lowered and avoids eye contact. She is on the autistic spectrum and speaks so softly that I struggle to make out what she is saying.
But Valentina is right there with her; animated and smiling, offering high fives as Habiba shares her story. The counsellor has the air of a kindergarten teacher or children’s television presenter. But the topics she deals with are altogether tougher.
“So where did he put his kokoro,” she asks the girl, “inside the front where you wee wee or the back where you poo poo?” The answer is both, and in her mouth too.
Valentina tells Habiba she has helped to save other girls by reporting what happened to her. Then she asks her what she will do if anybody ever touches her inappropriately again.
“I will bite him,” she answers with a smile.
Valentina takes Habiba to the doctor who will examine her, and then speaks to her father.
He is anxious but elated that there is help available.
The person Habiba says raped her is the 20-something son of the family’s landlord. Her father asks Valentina what should happen next. They talk about getting the police involved and pressing charges, but Habiba’s father seems despondent. He says the family is not ready to leave their current accommodation, but he would like to teach the landlord’s son a lesson.
“I have a police officer friend,” he says.
Valentina perseveres, patiently, subtly explaining the dangers of allowing a perpetrator to go unpunished, urging him to think about it and to consider going through the proper channels.
The Mirabel Centre has been open for two years and is funded by DFID, the UK’s Department for International Development. Juliet says they have seen more than 845 clients in that time. But having so many people pass through such a small space is a challenge.
“When we have to see two clients at a time, we have to vacate our admin room,” she explains.
The centre covers the cost of a victim’s medical tests – those for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy among other things – and medication, like contraceptives and antibiotics, although the HIV test is free and the post exposure prophylaxis, an anti-HIV medication taken as soon as possible after possible exposure to HIV, is subsidised by another non-profit and then supplied and administered by the hospital.
Nike has sickle cell disease and a bad hip. She was on her way to a job interview in March when she asked a man for directions. She was clearly in pain and limping, and the man urged Nike to let him drive her to where she was going. He explained that there was barely any public transportation in the neighbourhood and that he could see she was having difficulty walking.
Then he drove her to a secluded area.
“He started threatening me and beating me,” she says.
The man raped her in his car and then dropped her in front of a church. From there she found her way to where she was due to be interviewed. But, once inside, she broke down. The owner of the company brought her to the centre.
Nike has pressed charges but her attacker, who it emerged was a serial rapist, has gone missing. She says the police must have given his parents her contact details as they turned up at her home, begging her to drop the charges and offering her financial compensation for doing so – although no particular sum was mentioned. Now she feels unsafe where she lives and wants to move.
The intensity of the centre is stifling. I step outside for a breather and see Juliet, Joy and Valentina giggling as they break open the shells of boiled peanuts.
I wonder how they do it; how they stay so happy. Just three interviews in and I already feel claustrophobic in every sense of the word. The stories are suffocating; the strain of trying to hold back my tears makes my face ache; the space is cramped; and a loud drilling noise from the construction work next door provides a constant soundtrack.
I ask Juliet how she manages to detach herself from the stories she hears and she laughs, almost mockingly, at the question. It simply is not possible, she tells me.
“Our mandate is to provide clinical and psycho-social support,” she continues. “But because of the way we present ourselves and go about our duties, these clients have come to trust us [so much] that whatever they need they come back to us. Your life revolves around it. We find ways to joke and make ourselves happy so that we don’t experience secondary trauma.”
I speak with two other survivors at the centre that day. One is a nine-year-old whose mother found semen smeared on her thighs when she returned from work. Dami says a neighbour in their compound raped her after sending her out on an errand. He is currently being held at Kirikiri prison, but the family is being bombarded with offers of financial settlements – even from the suspect’s lawyer – if they drop the case.
Dami wears the same denim skirt she wore on the day she was attacked. She has a steely expression on her face.
Her mother, Mowumi, cries as she describes the financial difficulties of raising two children as a single parent. She shows us Dami’s school reports. The girl is always top of her class. Mowumi had to move her from a private school to a government one because she could not afford the costs.
Sometimes she saves the money for her children’s schoolbooks and uniforms in a little wooden moneybox.
Mowumi makes Dami recite a few lines from a school debate on the theme of “What you would like the new government to do for you.” She does so but seems somehow disconnected and distant.
The final client of the day is Mary, a 17-year-old who says she was raped by the choirmaster from her church. At first nobody believed her, she says, but then she threatened to kill herself.
Her father was a pastor at the church and the family lived on the premises. When Mary’s accusation became public, her family was excommunicated and forced to seek their own housing with what little money they had.
Mary is at the centre with her brother, Seyi. He is riddled with guilt but believes that going down the legal route is futile. “I think I am just going to leave it to God,” he says.
When I turn off my recorder, Mary asks me with the heavy lateral lisp that impedes her speech: “Auntie, why can’t he admit that what he did was wrong?”
I have no answer to offer her. But I urge her brother not to give up seeking justice, no matter how long it takes.
Juliet tells me that only three cases have been concluded, with the perpetrators now imprisoned, but many others remain pending in the courts. For many survivors, the slow judicial process adds to the trauma – they want to be able to move on with their lives rather than having to relive what happened to them over and over again. Add to that the almost unquestioned expectation that they will pay bribes to the authorities and that they will be harassed by the family of the suspect, and you can see why some choose not to pursue a legal case.
Nike’s primary concern now is getting the hip replacement surgery that should help to ease the pain she faces every day. Mercy eagerly awaits her VVF correction surgery.
When I ask the girls and women there how they feel now, I am mostly met by bewildered stares. But they all express gratitude for the centre, referring to it as a place of refuge and somewhere they can talk and get guidance, not to mention hugs.
But the DFID funding comes to an end this year and the staff say that sourcing corporate financial support for the centre has not been easy. Juliet has submitted numerous proposals but received no response. Insider information has it that most corporations do not want to be associated with a cause like rape survivors.
“It is too sensitive,” Juliet concludes, “and it may affect their bottom line”.