Raphael Ede, Enugu
Professor Joy Ngozika Ezeilo is the Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus. She was a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons and is currently serving as member of the five-person Board of Trustees of the UN Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking.
A former Commissioner for Gender and Social Development, Enugu State, and a Federal delegate to the National Political Reform Conference, she served also as a member of the Governing Council, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA). She was recently appointed by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres as one of the seven distinguished experts to serve on the newly established Civil Society Advisory Board on Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. She is also the founder of Women Aid Collective (WACOL) that fights for the rights of women and the girl child. In this interview, she talks about her journey from local to global activism and leadership. She also speaks on various national issues, especially poverty and avarice.
You were recently appointed by the UN as a member of the newly established Civil Society Advisory Board on Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. What exactly does your work entail and how has it been?
The aim of the Board is to foster closer interaction with civil society and external experts and organizations as part of the United Nations efforts to combat sexual exploitation and abuse. I was privileged to be one of these seven highly regarded experts. The functions of the Board include advising the Secretary-General on ways to strengthen preventive measures and accountability mechanisms to address sexual exploitation and abuse by both United Nations personnel and non-United Nations forces operating pursuant to a Security Council mandate. The establishment of the Board is an important element in the Secretary-General’s strategy, to improve the United Nations response to sexual exploitation and abuse. But here we are serving on our personal capacity, because we are not going to receive compensation or remuneration. What the UN would pay for are the expenses relating to your work.
You seem to be a strong advocate for women, sex abuse victims and people that have been trafficked. Is there any particular reason for that?
Apart from the passion for work, it is also informed by societal ills and what I found intolerable, which is the debasement of humanity and womanhood. Then the cries for justice by several victims and survivors have fueled my passion for work in this area. Even when for example I chose to be a lawyer, right from secondary school it was informed by abhorrent widowhood practices that women experienced, particularly my mother when my father died. For me it was a big shock, it was a moment to know that women and men where different. It was a moment I realised that it is really an unequal world. It was a moment that I had best cultural shock – if you live in the city and maybe your first major home coming is when you have a funeral and then you are confronted with a lot of things, you would be ask what is this? Why is this so? At that moment I decided that I was going to be a lawyer to defend all women who would be forced to face the type of widowhood practices that my mother faced. I believe luckily we have come a long way because widowhood practices have also changed for better not that we have eradicated the worst form of it but it has changed because in the past people had to mourn for up to two years.
Your right to movement was restricted and even your food was prepared by other people; they would wake you up and ask you to cry intermittently and so many things, Some of the obnoxious practices included going to shrine to cleanse them, or sleeping with the chief priest and all of that; we have done away with some of these things. But it is not yet over because the disheartening aspect that comes with widowhood is still there and the women are still disinherited, their poverty situation gets worse and they fall into extreme poverty on the death of their husband. So gender based violence is still there.
Sexual and gender based violence has attained impunity level because if you look at the forms of gender-based violence in Nigeria you find out that we have not made a lot of progress or probably more people are speaking out because of awareness creation but apart from that justice and people in search of justice are still not getting it. If you look at a woman who is raped, what do you expect her to do? To report to the police and when she goes there, some of them will make fun of her and ask very intimate and embarrassing questions. She may decide at that point not to go back to the police station again to further the case. And if she decides to further the case she would be asked to get a medical report from a doctor. When she goes to the doctor, she would be asked to pay money for the report. At every stage you get a roadblock. So, you try to surmount that, some are insurmountable and if you get to the stage where the case will be charged to court, then there is a bigger hurdle, the hurdle of corroboration. The woman is seen as a liar, primarily by the society; then you have to prove that you were indeed raped.
The element of law is that you prove beyond reasonable doubt. Really the burden is so heavy on the victim, to show that she was indeed raped. And at a slightest technicality the case is jettisoned and the woman gets no justice. We had a case of conviction at the lower court and by the time it got to Supreme Court it was also upturned, on the ground that it was not corroborated; and the corroboration that is required is the medical evidence because even the evidence of a child is not enough; there is a lot of problem with it.
There are cases where they say that seeing a man on top of a woman does not prove penetration and I have had quite a number of such cases and if you have that it is quite disheartening by the highest court of the land. We recently had a rape case, which was established and the rapist was handed a one year jail term or N7000 and I was shocked, wondering whether I was in a different jurisdiction. I am still in Nigeria and I know the law – whether it is penal code or the criminal code – rape carries live imprisonment. It is not something you give an option of fine. There is no option of fine on that and for attempted rape it is 14 years imprisonment. How and when did we come to give N7,000 in lieu of imprisonment for a felony, for something as serious as rape – a sexual violence, unwarranted attack on a woman; nonconsensual sex for that matter.
This is to tell you that access to justice is shrinking for women and girls in a special difficult situation. I realised also that access to justice is shrinking for many including men because you see people cry out loudly that they are incarcerated for no just reason and nobody will bail them out.
You see people randomly arrested including women. The phenomenon in Abuja is that officials go out every day and arrest women, to them every woman is a prostitute; so when they see you as a woman they see you as a prostitute and then, you are to explain why you are loitering even within the day. And in this fight even the ECOWAS Court is saying that this is unlawful and you find that people are still doing it. So, where and how would people get justice in Nigeria? It is a problem.
Why did you dump the courtroom for the classroom?
It has always been my passion apart from graduating top of my class; I had that passion for teaching. Initially, what I love and wanted to be is a state counsel, to defend the less privileged and take up criminal cases. And then when I started I practiced for awhile, but then I didn’t find the passion and the joy and the quest for academic excellence, based on my academic performance, I thought this is where I should be.
Then I started with commercial law and got engaged with few banks but I did not find it fulfilling. It was not challenging enough and was not giving me the joy and what I want my name to be, ‘living for others’. I said I wanted to live out my name. My middle name is ‘Ngozi’ and I wanted to be a blessing to others and make sure that we work for people. I just moved totally on my own to human rights and development work because that is what happened to the charity work we do, that is why we file and take on Pro Bono cases because that way you are also doing the practical work that blends with the theory that you do in the classroom; and your students are better for it.
So, I engage in a type of scholarship that leads to social transformation. So, I found that is what is impacting; I found that it is what scholarship should be about – you blend theory and practice; and you will engage in scholarship towards social transformation. So, when I write, I write something that will inform quality change, things that we can all benefit from; and when you teach and bring all of that with the laws and principles; and then actual experience in the field, students benefit from that. But the joy of it was the fact that people you don’t know, from as far as Bayelsa is from Enugu, recognise the work I am doing and the difference I am making in the classroom.
Your job sometimes involved you working under pressure, how did you cope with the tension?
Early in life I really developed resilience. I even got married while in university and had a child and still came out top of my class. I had my first child at 20. Somehow I developed resilience for hard work because then I combined school studies and motherhood and I never missed a class.
The resilience helped and again my work as an activist scholar requires extra effort; so we take on challenges. I am used to multi-tasking. Of course you know women are used to multi-tasking. We will do our work as normal men do and when we get back home we still do the other domestic work; so we end up working three times harder than men. We have developed that resilience and I thank God who gave women resilience.
So when people say that the woman is the weaker sex I tell them they don’t know what they are talking about because what we bear, I don’t think men can take it. My time is very important to me and one thing I have observed is that we lack time management. I know in this part of the world, we have a lot of social obligations; our attention will go to weddings, funerals and we go too many places, everybody even those in government, they cannot escape it. At times I wonder how we survive as a people.
No average person will do this in a civilized society and be productive and on top of that we are productive and we still meet up all those social obligations. So it has to mean that every second counts for me. If I can sleep three or four hours at least I get up as early as 3.00am and I start working. From that time, there will be no siesta until at night. So we have to do that and you have to have your team, and your notepad. I write things on my notepad, so that I don’t forget to do anything I’m supposed to do; it is my guide. Every day one of things I will always not forget to do is to make my bed. I know there are people who can do that for me but then I make my bed every morning because it reminds me that I am still a human being; yes, it is the first assignment you will do. Once I get up, I pray and then I make my bed, I know that the day has started for me. Then I get focused again, revise and reflect on what I have for the day and prioritize it.
How do you relax?
Listening to music and dancing. I like to read biographies and autobiographies and books about great men and women who have changed their world; I like to look at them and desire to change my world like they changed their world. I read and I travel a lot but travelling is not relaxation. Travelling these days is not fun, then I used to put travelling as one of my hobbies (which include reading and dancing.) But now I don’t think travelling is a hobby anymore because I have travelled so much around the world for work. Six years as UN Special Rapporteur on trafficking, and another three years I was on UN Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking and now again. So travelling is not a hobby to me. I want to be able to get to a stage where I travel for leisure.
What qualities made you fall in love with your husband?
I think it is discipline. I saw a responsible man. We were talking and then someone who really, for me, represented what a real father would be.
Someone I wanted to father my children and who would be there for them. So, it is the responsible disposition as well as also the academic because then, we could talk about everything science. He is a medical doctor and then, he was quite very, very good at mathematics and everything about science and I thought that would complement my art and being also in the art profession. It is a wonderful combination I think I would recommend that lawyers should marry medical doctors.