Asmau Benzies Leo is an Ambassador of Peace and Humanity, a Gender Advocate, Women’s Right Activist and a Vital Voices Fellow (a Global network of established women leaders from across the world which was founded by the former US Secretary of State, Senator Hillary Clinton). She is the founder and former Executive Director of the Centre for Nonviolence and Gender Advocacy in Nigeria (CENGAIN). Presently, she heads the Gender and Vulnerable Group Care Unit of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) Abuja, In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she reveals how her background propelled her into the life of service, caring for the most vulnerable people in society including the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and victims of Sexual and Gender-based Violence and why rapists deserve life imprisonment.
Tell us about yourself, educational achievements, growing up etc.?
I was born in an average home into the family of Mr Benzies Gangsomense and Mrs Mary Benzies, middle class civil servants in the mid 70s in Ganye local government of Adamawa state. I am Chamba by tribe. Growing up as a child was so interesting. I was so adventurous, I could do many things boys do, I could climb mango trees; make my own toys from the scraps around the house and stand up to any bully that wants to intimidate me. These traits in me from early childhood have helped me build a strong character as an adult and have made me always speak up and defend people that have no voice.
My father had 12 children and I happen to be the fourth child. He treated each of us equally; he never discriminated against us being girls but invested a lot in our education, in order that we might become useful to the society and ourselves. This was his cliché till death took him two years ago. I grew up as an independent minded child because we had a lot of other people staying with us in the house. My mother was taking care of us her own children and still catering for many others but you can hardly differentiate between her own biological children and the other children under her care, because she treated us all the same. I grew up seeing my mother take care of the sick and needy because my father was working as a Chief Nursing Officer in the hospital and when sick people come and they couldn’t afford to pay their hospital bills, they usually went to my mother for assistance and she went out of her way to help. Seeing my mother’s compassion for humanity made me develop the passion to become a humanitarian myself. My family was not rich but we gave out of the little we had.
For my education, I started my early childhood education at Capital Primary School, Birnin Kudu now in Jigawa State, and then when my parent left for Kano state, I continued there but finally concluded my primary education in former Gongola state (now Adamawa State). On finishing primary school I got a scholarship as the pioneer set of the Exchange Program (Unity Schools) in Government Girl’s College in Maiduguri, Borno State and from there, proceeded to the University of Maiduguri where I obtained a degree in Sociology and Anthropology. During my one-year compulsory youth service (NYSC), I was posted to Dutse, Jigawa State where I served. During the service year, as part of my community development project, I carried out a sensitization campaign on the ‘Importance of Girl-Child Education, Prevention of Early Marriage and HIV/AIDS’, which earned me an award. This was what spurred me to establish an NGO that would address the needs of women and girls, advocate for gender parity and the protection of the rights of women and girls especially in disaster situations, hence the starting of Centre for Nonviolence and Gender Advocacy in Nigeria (CENGAIN).
Again, because of my passion for female involvement in peace and security I went further to pursue a master in Conflict Management and Peace Studies from the University of Jos. I’m still hoping to get a Ph.D. soonest in gender, conflict and peace development very soon.
I have also worked with the United Nations as well as several local and international bodies and agencies as a consultant.
As the head of the gender and vulnerable group care unit of NEMA, tell us briefly what your job entails?
The unit I head is situated under the relief and rehabilitation department of the agency. Speaking personally and not officially, I facilitate the process of mainstreaming gender and inclusion of women and other vulnerable groups into disaster management programs and activities in the country. We work with several partners in the discharge of these duties.
What would be the role of women in the prevention and response to gender based violence that you are promoting?
Disaster affects both men and women disproportionately. There is no doubting the fact that cultural barriers, patriarchal norms and impediments have increased the risk and vulnerabilities of women to disasters more than their male counterpart.
Of course, not all women are equally vulnerable or exposed to the effects of hazards and disasters in identical ways. Women’s lives, like men’s, are shaped both by gender relations in a particular culture, or by everything else about them; their age, their physical capacities, their ethnic or racial status and economic conditions, to name a few.
Research conducted around the world from a gender perspective does suggest that women are likely to be especially vulnerable to disasters, simply because gender inequality is so widespread. The daily lives of girls and women may increase their exposure to all kinds of unsafe conditions and hazardous events. Women also tend to have less power in household decisions, just as they are under-represented in political decision making. When their voices aren’t heard, their immediate needs or long-term interests may not be taken into account.
This is why we need more women and girls to be involved in disaster management activities and humanitarian response in the country especially at the highest levels of decision-making.
Would you say your background in NGO and similar roles are helping out today?
I belong to a lot of professional bodies both locally and internationally such as Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP), International Association of Emergency Managers, Global Network of Women Peace builders, Chartered Institute of Human Capital Development of Nigeria and Nigerian Institute of Training and Development, amongst others. I have also obtained a certificate in Executive Leadership from Howard University and attended the commission on the status of women at the United Nations among others.
So, looking at all these and considering how far I’ve gone in the NGO field, I can boldly say that it has set me on a good pedestal and guiding me to where I am today. It has been quite rewarding because through that, I’ve been opportune to work with a lot of people in government, private sectors, development partners, local NGOs, media and the academia. In fact it was because of my achievement in the NGO field that I got my present job.
How does your present position help in supporting victims of gender-based violence?
I work with women and girls and other vulnerable groups and I discover women suffer a lot in silence when they face violence, either domestically or in the public sphere. For instance, rape has become a major concern in our society today and many of us are keeping quiet about it, pretending it doesn’t exist.
Even the persons directly affected usually keep mute instead of seeking justice. The victims rationally fear the potential negative short- and long-term consequences for themselves and their families if people know their identities. Rape is a violation related more to power and violence than to sex, and yet cultural practices often unfairly place shame on the rape victim rather than the perpetrator, or consider rape victims as tainted or unmarriageable, creating significant consequences for victims’ psychological, physical and emotional well-being. Again, cultural and familial after-effects of stigmatization due to rape provide a significant disincentive to women and girls to publicly reveal their identities when discussing their rape before the law enforcement agent.
Women and girls who suffer from any act of violence need to be supported through trauma counselling, psychosocial support services, economic empowerment and encouraging them to speak out.
Rape in conflict situation is a crime against humanity just like genocide and the international community is taking it very seriously unlike here in Nigeria, we cannot continue to ignore the issue. I strongly believe and advocate that rape should carry a life sentence.
Who are your role models/who do you look up to?
I have great respect and admiration for a lot of Nigerian women and women who have dared to venture into fields that are usually perceived as male-dominated. I celebrate the courage and determination of most Nigerian and African women because it is not easy to be a female achiever in Africa because of the environment we find ourselves.
I look up to a lot of women locally and internationally and they include Hillary Clinton, she is a woman that stands out for me any day. I happen to be a Vital Voices Fellow and she is the Founder of Vital Voices Global Partnership and I happen to be a beneficiary of her mentorship. Another woman is Amina Mohammed, the current deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, she is a woman that has stood the test of time, Senator Binta Garba-Marsi and several other Nigerian women, both in the political sphere, in government, in all spheres of life in general. In short, any Nigerian woman doing great exploits. I consider her a role model, because it is not easy.
Your advice for women looking up to you and anyone that wants to do what you do?
I would simply tell them to have faith in God, for with God all things are possible and also very important, believe in your dreams and work hard to achieve them.