Mrs. Victoria Olufunmilayo Awomolo is the 18th female Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and Vice President of Africa North and West of the international region of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, known by its acronym, FIDA. She was elected into that office in 2017 during a FIDA conference held in Bahamas. In an interview with the Sunday Sun, Awomolo, who made a sharp cross from Chemistry to Law, spoke on her journey from one intellectual discipline to the other as well as the position of FIDA on rape cases and related issues.
There are appears to be an upsurge in rape cases. What is FIDA’s stand on the situation?
FIDA has always condemned rape in its entirety. In fact, at various FIDA branches, we continuously tell ourselves that once a rape case comes up, we condemn it very vehemently. Thank God that such related issues are more open now; maybe because of the widespread use of social media, which has broken the culture of silence. Previously, victims and their parents, who did not want to speak out because of social stigma, do so now. The culture of silence psychologically and physically traumatized the victims. That is why some of them develop sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS. Other related cases associated with culture of silence include fathers and men raping daughters and minors, which is satanic.
Now that you mentioned fathers, what has FIDA done about the aunt of late 13-year-old Ochanya Ogbanje, the Benue State girl that developed vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) as a result of frequent sexual abuse by both the woman’s husband and son?
FIDA is on the case in Benue State because we took it over but unfortunately, Ochanya Ogbanje died. But we have not relented. We get reports about rape acts from everywhere and our state branches respond appropriately. We are glad that the Federal Capital Territory Police Command now has a Gender Desk dedicated to women issues. FIDA works with them. Again, our African regional congress will hold in October and top of the agenda will be issues concerning African women and children. At that event, African issues will be discussed at length with delegates from other African countries, so we can make recommendations.
How did you become the African Regional Chairperson for FIDA?
I joined FIDA in Ilorin, the Kwara State capital and have been an active member in Nigeria since I became a lawyer in 1998. I participated in all the activities. Interestingly, I taught Chemistry in Queen Elizabeth School, Ilorin, for 10 years before I went to study Law.
How did you switch over from Chemistry to Law – two extremes?
As a science student and teacher, I know I can cope to do other things successfully. When I informed my husband that I was fed up with the teaching profession, not because it was not good, but because I was not fulfilled, he asked me to go and study Law. He being a lawyer himself, he encouraged me to become a lawyer as well. Even as a pure science person, he told me that I was intelligent enough and could do it. He encouraged me and I got admission into the University of Ibadan through direct entry. That was how the journey started.
How did it go? Was it easy at the beginning?
It was not easy at all because I never offered any of the arts subjects. But because I already had a first degree and was not a fresher in a university environment, I went through it with determination and got what I wanted. My husband advised that I should sit in front and put down everything that the lecturer said and he would be there for me. Soon after I gained admission, he was made the Attorney General of Osun State in 1992. So, he didn’t even have time for me as promised. What he did instead was to buy some O’level textbooks on History and Government for me to be familiar with some terms such as written and unwritten constitution, which helped me a lot because I was also determined. I was focused and knew what I wanted, especially as I was a matured student. People wondered and asked me what I wanted again since I was already the wife of an Attorney General but I was determined to do well and I knew where God was taking me to.
What specific role did your husband play in all of this?
He played a very vital role to my becoming a lawyer. He was always there for me. I usually left for Ibadan every Monday and got back home on Fridays. While at home during the weekends I would tell my husband all the courses we learnt in school. He was 20 years ahead of me in the practice, so some of those courses, he had forgotten them. But he kept encouraging me. He had a register for me for the four year course, and eight semesters in all.
Whenever I finished a semester, he would say one down, seven more to go. I was lucky I did not get any carryover. But after the third session in 1994, there was a very serious strike and I discovered I was pregnant again. I didn’t like it at all but God structured it in a way that I was at home throughout the strike, delivered my baby boy and nursed him for six weeks before the strike was called off. That was the longest ever ASUU strike till date. It lasted for over 9 months.
What memorable moments can you remember as a lawyer?
I was called to the Bar in February 1998. Immediately after I joined the chambers, I was given files to go to court. There were other lawyers in the chambers and my husband being a disciplined lawyer refused to mix business and pleasure. He treated me like every other lawyer in the chamber. But the lawyers respected me being the wife of the principal counsel while I comported and respected myself too. I was eager to learn and I mixed very well with the other lawyers in the chambers.
However, it was still not easy because studying Law, going to the Nigeria Law School and the real practice are different things altogether. So, I made my mistakes but learnt as well. I also learnt through my husband and other lawyers. After each court session, I would not hurry back home rather I would sit back and listen to proceedings while taking notes. Such learning saw me handle bigger assignments; in no time, I started travelling to places like Ogbomosho, Akure, Oyo, Omu-Aran, Offa and I didn’t complain. If I complained of a particular issue to my husband, he would not bulge. Or whenever I came back from court and told him that a senior lawyer I met didn’t just allow me, he would ask: “Did you get an adjournment’ and I would say yes. Then he would say go and do more research and prepare yourself. He was a principal partner and a husband that I couldn’t just joke with. He was also very strict with me. He was very determined that I would make it in the legal profession. So, the journey was challenging but I think my frame of mind prepared me for whatever I was to meet on the way. Again, I was a matured lawyer and whenever I appeared in court, the general impression was that I was an older counsel. So, that respect was there and I tried not to fumble in court. When I made mistakes, some judges would ask, “How old are you in the Bar?” and I would tell them.
Being one of the few women senior advocates (SAN) in Nigeria, how did it happen?
Out of the 550 senior advocates in Nigeria, only 22 of us are women. The first woman is Chief Folake Solanke, who became a SAN in 1981 long after we have had so many men. It was also very long before we had another woman. So, it has been a very slow journey for women to reach the peak of this profession. It is about research, intelligence, work ethics and character. It is strictly based on merit and on what you have done to advance, deepen and intellectually enrich the legal profession in Nigeria.
Is there a reason women progress slowly in the Law profession unlike other professions?
Yes! It came up at this year’s Bar Conference (2019). The statistics show that more women study law. In the last 10 years women got most of the awards at the Nigeria Law School but immediately they are called to the Bar, a lot of factors come in – marriage, child bearing, cultural biases, client biases and the rigours of the practice itself. A good case was a young female lawyer who fought through hard work and was gainfully employed in the chamber only for her to ask for two weeks the next day for her marriage ceremonies without doing job in the chamber. Discussions now came from the men in the chamber and I stood my grounds to protect her. These are some of the factors that inhibit our growth to the highest levels in the profession. That is why more women go into the government ministries, corporate sector, judiciary and the states. And women are doing so well in the judiciary. In law practice, litigation is not an area where women would like to tread because of the rigours.
What major areas does FIDA focus on?
The ideology is to bring women lawyers together and look at issues of women and children in our society and continent and be able to speak for them. We do Pro bono services, use legal clinics, advocacy and work on all the cultural practices that affect women like widowhood, inheritance issues, gender based violence that is rampant, rape and sexual violence. These are the issues we take up and try to advocate against them especially where rights are involved. We go to the prisons and pay prison fines for women and teach them skills amongst other things.