See something, say something: community surveillance committees foster courage in Nigeria
Hundreds of cases of gender-based violence were averted in Nigeria in 2020 following the establishment of community surveillance committees. Photo: UNICEF Nigeria.
In Nigeria, a Spotlight Initiative-supported partnership between UNICEF and the Government has led to the establishment of more than 252 community surveillance committees (CSCs) to act as watchdogs against gender-based violence. As a result, there has been an increase in arrests and prosecution of perpetrators, fostering greater confidence in survivors seeking help.
"CSC members are our eyes on the ground... Because of the collaborative approach, traditional leaders have become more open to changing social and gender norms.” - Pius Uwamanua, Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF Nigeria
Nine-year-old Yar Auta* was sitting by herself on a bus headed to a location that is 10 hours away from home. Her father had given her in marriage to a 74-year-old man and she was to make her own way to her so-called husband. A passenger at the bus park, having recently seen campaigns against child marriage and violence against women and girls (VAWG), became suspicious and telephoned a member of the area’s Community Surveillance Committee (CSC).
“CSC members are our eyes on the ground,” says Pius Uwamanua, Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF Nigeria. “They have helped UNICEF to build trust with local communities. They have been instrumental in convincing traditional leaders to gradually leave behind harmful practices and to follow due process when adjudicating on VAWG cases that are reported to them. Because of the collaborative approach, traditional leaders have become more open to changing social and gender norms.”
Yar Auta’s case is now being managed by her local CSC, one of 252 established in Nigeria under the Spotlight Initiative. The committees typically consist of 25 local activists and leaders, including members of existing community social groups. The programme has trained them to be change agents who champion gender equality and act as watchdogs in their communities. The CSC is linked to service providers at the local government level and members work to ensure every case of VAWG receives the support and services it needs.
The existence of the CSCs and the growing numbers of sensitized individuals have helped identify and refer dozens of cases of VAWG in each area in which the programme is active. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CSCs contributed to a substantial increase in data collection as they made use of social media tools like WhatsApp and the mobile app Kobo to report cases of violence. In Yar Auta’s case, she is safe and in the care of social services, but the immense social stigma has meant her father refuses to allow her to return home, despite interventions from local district heads. Her marriage, however, is well on the way to being annulled.
“Thanks to regular discussions on gender issues during local community dialogue sessions, women are becoming more aware of their rights and how to officially report cases of abuse." - Foluke Omoworare, Spotlight Initiative Coordinator, Lagos, Nigeria
Nigeria’s 22 million child brides comprise almost 40 per cent of all child brides in the region. VAWG in Nigeria has been described as a pandemic-sized problem. Millions live in fear of being abused, assaulted, or raped. Front-line workers like doctors, lawyers, social workers and counsellors who deal with the daily casualties of this crisis describe the heartbreak of handling cases of women and girls who have been abused or raped.
Survivors of VAWG often do not come forward due to lack of faith in the system and what is perceived to be a low prospect of getting justice. Many women and girls suffer in silence and shame because they fear being ostracized by their families and local communities. With CSCs in action, there has been a marked increase in arrests and prosecutions in VAWG cases, empowering more and more previously silent survivors to come forward. CSCs are able to organize pro bono lawyers and secure the assistance of social services; they even show up as friendly faces when a case is heard in a court of law.
Mary, a 38-year-old woman from Eastern Nigeria, said she and her children were living in hunger and hardship despite her being married to a man who owns a block of apartments. Economic violence is a form of VAWG, whereby women and children are financially dependent on someone who maintains control over financial resources, withholds access to money and forbids attendance at school or employment. “My husband lost his job but he also refused to give proceeds from the renting of one of his apartments for the upkeep of our home,” says Mary.
Her CSC, with the support of the local Human Rights Centre, was able to secure the release of one of the apartments so that Mary could finance the upkeep of her children and home.
“As the members detect and report cases, this not only places them in positions of power but also entrusts them with the responsibility of working together with the community to ensure that survivors are able to access services.” - Tochukwu Odele, Child Protection Officer, UNICEF, Nigeria
“There has been a lot of VAWG resulting from economic issues within families,” says Foluke Omoworare, Spotlight Initiative Coordinator, Lagos, Nigeria. “Thanks to regular discussions on gender issues during local community dialogue sessions, women are becoming more aware of their rights and how to officially report cases of abuse. Continual sensitization through these sessions have resulted in a sharp increase in the identification and reporting of such cases.”
“CSCs engender community participation, which is key to sustaining changes in social and gender norms and the eradication of harmful practices," elaborates Tochukwu Odele, Child Protection Officer, UNICEF, Nigeria. “As the members detect and report cases, this not only places them in positions of power but also entrusts them with the responsibility of working together with the community to ensure that survivors are able to access services.”
“There are strong linkages between the CSCs that we established and the model we developed to deal with female genital mutilation (FGM). The FGM model worked very well and we replicated it to tackle VAWG in general,” says Amandine Bollinger, Child Protection Manager, UNICEF Nigeria.