Last Saturday, a group of young women (and a few men) staged a peaceful protest at Yaba market in Lagos. It was a march premised on a simple admonition: “Do not touch us. Stop harassing women and young ladies who come to the market to shop for clothing items or who are simply walking by. Desist from groping females under the guise of attempting to get them to patronise you.” The women had had enough. The harassment of females at the market was a disturbing trend that had been perpetuated for far too long, and if anything, it’s surprising that no one had thought to do something about it until now.
If there was any evidence that the traders were guilty of what they were being accused of, it was reinforced by the emergence of a recording of them taunting the protesters even as they went about their march. Not even the law enforcement officers that were commissioned to protect them displayed any belief in what they were doing.
The policemen had smirks on their faces and did the barest minimum to put a halt to the jeers and insult their charges were subjected to. It was a damning statement—Nigerian women are not safe on their own streets. Chants of “We must touch!” and “Holy Ghost fire!”, coupled with their defiant retort that they are entitled to molest ladies who are indecently dressed confirmed what many of us already knew—an alarming number of Nigerian men do not respect the female folk.
As a teenager who at one time had to pass through Yaba market every day of the week to get to the venue of my extramural classes many years ago, I remember facing the same harassment we speak of today. I would be pulled in different directions by two or more traders who insisted they had stock I’d be interested in buying. It did not matter that I quietly told them I was not interested in shopping. Needless to say, virtually every female adult who found herself in their midst was subjected to the same discomfiting treatment.
The Yaba market traders are men who never heed to stern warnings to be left alone. Nothing works when it comes to dealing with them. Whether one tried the “reason-with-me-this-doesn’t-make-sense-approach” or the “If-you-dare-touch-me-again-you’ll-be-in-for-it-method”. Nothing. They make catcalls, give snide remarks about the body size, shape or overall appearance of women and push and shove their helpless victims when they feel like it. No female is exempt; and for a long time, it seemed there was nothing anyone could do to curb their terrible behaviour. Until now. I cannot begin to explain how elated that makes me feel.
The recent sentencing of a randy OAU lecturer who demanded sexual gratification from a student who’s young enough to be his daughter is only the beginning of the service of justice we are set to keep witnessing in our society. At a time when women are beginning to find their voices and put their foot down regarding their rights, the Yaba market march and court verdict on the case of sexual harassment are welcome developments.
It is a testament to the fact that we now have a generation of females who are conscious of their power to make a difference. It is a message that will resonate with the traders for a long even though they unsurprisingly tried to downplay the exercise with some masculine braggadocio. This development also marks a departure from the usual habit of complaining about an issue without really doing anything about it.
The females who chose to get on the streets to fight for themselves and other women have taught us to quit the ineffective method of engaging in endless discourses which never really gain traction. They are trailblazers who remind us once again that action will always trump words. And while the traders at Yaba may have appeared to be unmoved by the protest, there’s no doubt that it has given them something to think about. Something that announces to them that women will no longer be the docile lambs who resign themselves to the corner society has confined them to.
Like it’s often the case with every other phenomenon where a set of people have been oppressed for so long, it’s always only a matter of time before the victim repels the oppressor. Everyone has the tendency to fight back when they are stretched to their wit’s end. Children revolt. Employees down tools. A long-suffering partner calls it quits. Even slaves turn against their masters as a consequence of incessant subjugation.
I am glad that the organisers of the Yaba market march are taking their “gospel” to Enugu and Ogbete markets too. It’s a movement that will further entrench the sanctity of human (and women’s) rights in particular in a society that is fast losing its values.