Human rights lawyer and barrister Rashidat Mohammed, 34, wakes up before sunrise to say her prayers, make breakfast for her three children and pack their school bags. Once she’s dropped them at school, she drives to her office in the centre of Sokoto. Here, she fights for the rights of the region’s most vulnerable people.
Ms. Mohammed provides pro-bono legal services to women, children and other vulnerable groups, and is known for fiercely prosecuting rapists and paedophiles – cases that are often considered unwinnable. She’s the only woman to have opened a law firm in the states of Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara, and she’s also a single mother. It’s not an easy life, but it’s one she’s fought hard for.
“I have this passion for speaking for the less privileged,” she says. “Even when I was in secondary school.”
After graduating from high school, she refused to marry a man selected by her parents and instead chose to study law.
She opened her own firm in 2018 and despite considerable harassment and intimidation, she says her gender has been an asset when working with survivors of gender-based violence. “One thing I understand is that all these [violence] victims prefer talking to a woman than a man. They can open up to a female lawyer better,”
She’s dealt with many abuse cases in the past two years, but the one that makes her proudest is that of a 4-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted. The alleged perpetrator was powerful and well connected, and Ms. Mohammed found herself fighting against one of the best lawyers in Sokoto.
The case took an emotional toll on Ms. Mohammed and her family.
“I [would] sneak into and out of my office. I was scared because of the stories I heard about the man [accused],” she says. “Even my colleagues were calling me, saying ‘Rashidat, what is wrong with you? Why not back out of this case?’”
Others called with messages of support but were too afraid to show it publicly. Her eldest daughter begged her to drop the case. “If I die fighting for justice, I will have no regrets,” Ms. Mohammed says.
Understanding the odds were against her, she called as many journalists as possible to tell them about the case. “When they realized that the media was involved, the authorities had no choice other than to do the right thing,” she says. “The case was transferred to the state Criminal Investigation Department (CID) for investigation.”
The man was remanded and is being held in prison while the Ministry of Justice reviews his case. “I'm always proud of it because people thought what I did was not possible. People thought that this man could never be tried, but I did it,” says Ms. Mohammed.
Still there’s work to be done. Eleven per cent of women in Nigeria say they have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in the past 12 months.
“The reason why most victims don't come out to talk about what happened to them is because they don't have support after reporting the case,” says Ms. Mohammed. “Nobody cares about them, there's no love or concern towards them. So I said, ‘Okay, let me make them part of my family.’”
She visits clients every two weeks and often makes small gestures like bringing food. “Just to show them love, that despite what happened to them, people still care about them — that it wasn’t their fault,” she says.
“There’s nothing that gives me joy like seeing somebody smiling and knowing full well that I am the cause of that smile.”
Ms. Mohammed is a member of The International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) Nigeria, a non-profit that Spotlight Initiative supports to protect and promote the rights of women and children. She is also the legal advisor to Child Protection Network, legal advisor to Save the Child Initiative and legal advisor to Asattahir International Foundation, among others.
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