Last week, all hell was let loose when Mrs. Busola Dakolo, wife of popular singer, Timi Dakolo, went public with her allegations that she was raped when she was 17 by Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo of Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (COZA) Church. The details she revealed in her interview were shocking and heartbreaking. Predictably, sides were immediately taken and a social media war began, backed up with protests at the COZA churches in Lagos and Abuja. Pastor Fatoyinbo responded to the allegations against him, expressing his intention to seek legal redress for defamation. Shortly after, due to the intense pressure, he stepped aside as the Senior Pastor of COZA.
Pastor Biodun will have his day in court, as is his right, the question though is which of the courts? The law courts or the court of public opinion? I am familiar with the politics of public lynchings of successful black men, this is not my concern or intention here. This is much bigger than the allegations levied against one individual. My concern is with contestations in the court of public opinion where both he and Mrs. Dakolo are currently being tried.
Following the debates back and forth over the weekend, I observed a rather frightening trend. Over and over, supporters of the pastor and some who claimed neutrality kept asking why Busola decided to speak up twenty years after the rape took place. Why is she speaking out now? Why did she not say something at the time? I could not believe some of the things people were saying, including those who ought to know better.
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Busola Dakolo and her husband, Timi, received unprecedented support for their bravery, the court of public opinion seems to be in their favour. However, I could not help but wonder how we got to where we are, a society blissfully unaware of the war that has been waged consistently on the bodies of women and girls from one generation to the next. Women don’t talk about what happened to them, as girls or as adults because of the implications – shame, stigma, punishment, rejection. I am even more appalled at the number of women, who have added their voices in the shaming of Busola. If you cannot say anything to support another woman in pain, say nothing. Keep quiet. If you are a fan of the accused pastor, support him if you want, but you don’t have to call his accuser names.
I have had discussions with several people about the matter, and it struck me that there is so much we still need to educate ourselves about when it comes to sexual violence. First, there is the grim reality that the vast majority of women have one story or another to tell, and there is no timeline on when a woman is ready to share her story. Second is the enforcement of a culture of silence even by those who ought to be the ones at the frontlines of seeking justice, mainly parents and guardians. They are the ones who scuttle the efforts of law enforcement officers on the rare occasions such violations are brought to their attention. Third is the practice of ‘grooming’, which usually involves older men luring young women into a false sense of security and taking advantage of their innocence and naivety. And then there is the ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ factor, when victims held hostage by their captors develop feelings of trust and empathy for them.
What Busola Dakolo bravely did in sharing her pain with the whole world, warts and all, was create a ‘moment’. By doing this, she has unwittingly opened the floodgates for other women (and men) to find the words to speak their truths.
When I was ten years old, my mother brought a male teenage relative to live with us to help around the house. His name was Sina. He slept on a mattress on the floor with my younger brother, while I was on the bed with one of my young aunts. One night, before I fell asleep, I felt my bed covers being pulled. I pulled them back up. It happened again and I did the same thing. The third time, I allowed the covers to be pulled off totally to be sure I was not making a mistake. I sat up and asked Sina what he was doing. He said ‘nothing’. I stayed awake for most of the night. First thing in the morning, I went to tell my mother. She did not yell at me. She did not scream and call me a liar. By the time I got back from school, Sina was gone and we never saw him again. We never had any male relatives live with us after that.
When I was in secondary school and home for the holidays, I was around thirteen at the time, I told my father I wanted to learn how to swim. There was this young man, who lived next door; he used to run errands for my father, we called him Brother Lai. My father asked Brother Lai to take me and my aunt to Airport Hotel, Ikeja, to teach us how to swim. My first swimming lesson was my last. Brother Lai held me from behind, teaching me how to kick my feet under the water, while at the same time pressing himself against me and touching me inappropriately. When I asked him why he was doing that, he asked, ‘Can’t I play with you?’ The next day, when he came around for us to go for the next lesson, I refused. I never told my parents what happened; I just mumbled something about not liking water. I was afraid of causing trouble. I did not want Brother Lai to be sent away on my account the same way Sina was frog marched to the motor park by my mother. I did not want my parents to think I was in some way encouraging these men to be inappropriate towards me. So, I said nothing and just stayed out of Brother Lai’s way. Brother Lai had never given any indication that he was anything other than a respected older brother figure. I was, however, literally placed in his hands and he saw an opportunity and took advantage of it. That is what predators do; they wait for opportunities to present themselves and then they abuse trust and innocence. With hindsight, I shudder at the naivety of my trusting parents. I, however, learnt to appreciate my mother’s response to my claims; it could have gone differently. What if my mother had not believed me? What if Brother Lai had come into our house and I had let him in, and he had proceeded to attack me in my own home?
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The next time you ask the question what took Busola twenty years, think about all the women in your life and what they could tell you about the scars they have buried very deep. For me, this was the most painful epiphany over the past couple of days – the fact that we seem to have such limited capacity to understand the world women and girls live in when it comes to the issue of sexual violence and predatory behaviour. As we go through life and encounter one predator after another in our primary and secondary schools, tertiary institutions and the workplace, we believe that it is normal for men to feel entitled to our bodies, even when we are uninterested. I am fully aware that there are women, who are sexual predators too, who have abused little boys and girls and some who throw themselves at men, mostly with transactional sex in mind. Sexual predators should be named and shamed regardless of their gender. Adult women and men, who want to engage in consensual sexual relationships, are welcome to their privacy, with emphasis on the words adult and consensual. Any adult, who has a sexual relationship with a girl under the age of 18, is committing statutory rape; there is not such thing as consensual sex with a minor. This Busola moment presents quite a number of opportunities. There is the issue of accountability in public spaces towards the protection of women from abuse and in this particular instance it is places of worship. Hopefully, this moment will push leaders in places of worship, churches and mosques alike, to take this issue seriously. From a purely business perspective (since this is the model many churches use), scandals are bad for the bottom line, so any establishment that wants to be a going concern has to invest in policies and processes to ensure sustainability. The same principle applies to all places of work and interaction; every institution should have a policy on sexual harassment and abuse. There is also an opportunity to revisit current laws and policies, frontline services for survivors and ongoing advocacy for a change in attitudes and behaviour. This is a moment where our rape and sexual violence statistics, as a country have skyrocketed, leaving an endless trail of broken bodies and spirits. A culture of misogyny has crept up on us on so many fronts and now disrespect and even hatred for women has become normalised.
As I paused for a few minutes while I was writing this, I came across news of a serving senator caught on camera beating up a woman in public. A video is circulating of four robbery suspects, who were caught somewhere and only the three females were stripped naked. Shame on all the enablers of sexual violence in high and low places. Shame on those who always find excuses for serial sexual predators. Shame on those who refuse to protect the innocent. Shame on those who silence the ones in our midst who live with their pain and suffering every day. Shame on the ignorant and the obtuse who speak faster than they can think. I stand with those with the courage to speak their truth at last. It is their story to tell on their own terms. I stand with all those who keep pushing for justice and truth. I stand with Busola Dakolo and the millions of women and girls who have a similar story to tell.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com