Early this year Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, opened the first comprehensive program dedicated to survivors of sexual violence in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. The program aims to provide comprehensive medical and psychological treatment, delivered in conjunction with awareness campaigns to help fight against the stigma attached to sexual violence, and encourage people to seek health care earlier. Educational institutions have been an important focus of the campaign, particularly at the commencement of the university year.
Australian Medical Team Leader Kiera Sargeant and Mental Health Nurse Clare Brennan have been working in Port Harcourt for the past four months. Here they describe the project’s first major awareness campaign and their involvement in it.
Can you describe the awareness campaign?
Each week Médecins Sans Frontières teams visit different facilities – such as universities, schools, health clinics and local media outlets. At the universities we do presentations to different faculties and distribute posters and flyers, as well as meet with the health clinics within the campus. Our nurses visit schools, both primary and secondary, on a regular basis, adapting their presentations to suit the age and the nature of the context. We have some books that we are using in some of the schools, including one in particular called ‘No! Don’t Touch Me There’. It is written by a Nigerian and explains how children should be protective of their private parts and to disclose if someone touches them.
With the media we are doing radio interviews on a weekly basis with three different radio stations. The interviews are provided free of charge to Médecins Sans Frontières and we have developed 13 different topics to be discussed on air at each station. These topics cover a variety of relevant information including misconceptions, what happens when you arrive at the clinic, psychosocial issues and male sexual abuse.
We are also very active in community awareness and attending community meetings within Port Harcourt, other villages and local government areas. The police are one of the main referrers for survivors. We spend time each week going to different police stations distributing flyers and posters and giving talks to the officers to improve their knowledge of sexual violence.
How important is it to raise awareness of sexual violence with students?
Because female students are particularly vulnerable and often targets of sexual violence, they are a key focus of the campaign and why sensitisation is so vital for our project to continue. It is not only about acceptance of Médecins Sans Frontières, but also improving awareness of sexual violence in the population and reducing the stigma associated with sexual violence. It is also important to inform that treatment is available, and is free and confidential.
We specifically focus on students as education is considered to be very important with high numbers of students attending tertiary institutions here in Port Harcourt. Our team has been proactive in identifying the various student bodies and then making the contact and relationships to disseminate the information.
The key focus of the campaign has been to reach students at the commencement of the university year, as well as the health clinics available within the campus. The police stations close to the universities have also been contacted, with posters and pamphlets distributed at these facilities. The nursing team has done presentations at different faculties including the Schools of Nursing, Midwifery, and at the University of Science and Technology. Consequently we have received survivors from the various institutions and police stations.
What about the broader community?
Sensitisation in the community is also important and the Assistant Project Coordinator in collaboration with the clinic team has attended several community meetings in different local government areas. These communities are hugely vulnerable due to the poverty and lack of health care services in these areas. Our relationship with these communities is essential to ensuring our sensitisation is able to be carried out.
The intricate nature of the context here in Port Harcourt makes it difficult for us to reach some areas of Rivers State and without the approval and acceptance of the different groups within Rivers State we would not be able to access these populations.
What are your main messages with the awareness raising?
The main messages we try to convey with all our activities are:
- Rape happens in Port Harcourt
- It can happen to anyone (women, men and children)
- Rape is never your fault
- It is important to seek help, earlier the better
- We are a free and confidential service
- Preventive measures by providing parents with basic knowledge of how to keep their children safe
- There are both medical and psychological consequences of rape, both of which require support and treatment
Since opening the new sexual violence clinic, Médecins Sans Frontières has seen on average 35 cases per month. However, with the awareness raising campaign in September, there was a doubling in the number of survivors coming into the clinic. Survivors range from infants to mature adults – both female and male, however the majority are female and children.