Jessie Fubara-Manuel shares her views on violence, the HIV pandemic and
struggles of women in churches to become part of the solution in Nigeria. She is a Presbyterian elder, a poet and a human resources consultant and has been involved with the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiative in Africa (EHAIA) programme.
How do you see the HIV pandemic affecting communities in Nigeria?
In Nigeria today, we still have alarming numbers of persons testing HIV positive as we work toward the elimination of HIV infections, discrimination and HIV related deaths. With a large number of people still dying from the disease and the government’s efforts to provide free antiviral drugs being thwarted by the corruption in the system, worry about the disease has taken a new dimension.
Stigmatization is present and many people fear to go for testing. In Nigeria, the concern about issues around the HIV pandemic is not centre-stage, not right now, as it was in the past. The fervency of the efforts of non-governmental organizations and churches to combat the HIV pandemic has been dulled in the face of visible violence. Funding has been redirected to the visible violence instead of strengthening efforts to combat HIV.
How do you perceive the issue of violence in Nigeria and what is its relationship with HIV pandemic?
Violence in our country is cutting across gender, sex, class, religion and tribes. The violence closest to me is perpetrated by my own people, the people of the Niger Delta who are fighting resource control of the oil rigs. In their fight with the multinationals and the government to give good infrastructural facilities commensurate with the riches gained by exploitation of the oil within our land, they have formed militant groups, cliques and camps marked by internal betrayals, deception and greed.
When the militants strike, the economic, social, educational, spiritual lives of the people are drastically affected – diseases spread, deaths occur and rape is common. Soldiers deployed to maintain peace rape women and leave behind pregnancies and infections – STIs including HIV, etc. One of the militant groups at the forefront of these activities is the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta.
The latest threat to our national security is the Boko Haram, an armed group, which is on a daily rampage to kill Christians and destroy their economic and educational power. Of course, many churches and civil society organizations have spoken to condemn these acts but nothing is succeeding to abate this scourge. The churches are preaching forgiveness, but it is difficult for people to forgive when the violence is still waxing strong.
From your experience of working in communities, how do you see women being affected by this situation?
In 2010, as lead consultant to the United Nations Development Programme for a project on capacity building on Peace Building and Conflict Resolution in the Niger Delta, I listened to participants who shared their personal experiences of violence. In the Ekpeye community of Rivers State, it was violence surrounding youth organization elections that destroyed an entire village. In Bonny kingdom, the chieftaincy title (traditional leadership) pitched family against family that led to murders and wanton destruction of lives and properties; in Ogoniland, it was a fight for farmland that left the land desolate.
When peace interventions take place, rape and possible infection with STIs are not given proper attention. Medical counselling and treatment are neglected, so the diseases spread even after the violence. Each intervention is concentrated on its own agenda – the church to get back its members, the government to maintain peace for economic gains, the NGOs to boost their profile for interventionist success. Any concern for the psychological and medical state of the survivors is being ignored.
Gender-based violence has taken a front seat in the church and it is christened an acceptable “submission” to the head of the home. Women are told to sleep with their HIV positive husbands at the risk of infection. A brutally beaten and assaulted woman who runs to her family home is taken back to receive more beatings, or she is said to bring shame to her family. Teenage girls who get pregnant, even from rape, are often disowned by their families.
How do you see women in churches becoming part of the solution?
Women in churches have great capacity and are part of the solution in bringing about peace and healing because God has endowed us with many gifts. I am intrigued by the passion and commitment of women. Unfortunately, many times, we are occupied by things that are not so important. We spend hours in church meetings talking about whether or not ladies should wear trousers to church, whether to cover the hair during church worship etc.
We get distracted with these matters while our sisters are being abused in their homes and lands. At the recently concluded meeting of TUMEKUTANA [a conference for Reformed and Presbyterian women leaders in Africa] held in Rwanda, the theme “Women as Agents of Peace, Healing and Reconciliation” was expounded. We realized that we need to create a culture of care – a proactive response to the issues of violence and HIV.
We need appropriate education, exposure, international interactions and capacity building for empowerment. I think that my perceptions have been sharpened by my interactions at international gatherings, and I think organized workshops and talks can help energize women for proactive prevention of violence.
We also need capacity to challenge violence, to talk about it and to seek ways towards eliminating HIV and AIDS. I think we need to address more effectively the issues of HIV and the involuntary infections brought on by war-time rape. This year, EHAIA’s West Africa region has organized a workshop in Abuja, Nigeria for senior church leaders and theologians. These efforts show that education is still a crucial way of disseminating information and ensuring empowerment.