Like her husband, Femi Falana, Mrs. Funmi Falana is a renowned lawyer and human rights activist. She is committed to the fight for the emancipation of women and children in the society.
In this interview with SAKIBU OLOKOJOBI, she speaks on how well she is giving back to the society by offering free services and help to the downtrodden or oppressed people.
She also speaks about how her family survived military dictatorship under the regimes of General Ibrahim Babangida and General Sani Abacha when her husband, along with others, battled to send the military back to the barracks.
Mrs. Falana, in addition, speaks about the romantic side of her husband as well as what it means to be the parent of popular artiste, Falz the Bahd Guy: Excerpts:
You have been in the forefront of the battle for the protection of the rights of women and children. What inspired the decision to go that way?
The situation in the country did. I think that must have been over 25 years ago now; it was during the military era was around. It was also as a result of the pathetic condition of the Nigerian masses – women and children in particular. What we noticed was that women were undergoing double oppression. First was the general oppression both men and women underwent in the hands of the supposed leaders who were supposed to govern and govern well but who were not doing it well. The second aspect was the oppression women undergo, they still do, in their respective homes and the society by the virtue of the discrimination placed on them by the reason of culture and even some laws in the country. These are the things that motivated me into going into the defence as well as activism for the rights of women. That was why this NGO was started about 25 years.
Not much was known about it until recently…
May be because we were growing then. We have been around for a while and as a matter of fact, we have a branch in Ekiti and now in Abuja. We are doing quite well. You may say our activities became more intensified in recent time. This is because it is of recent that we went on television; it is of recent that we started our empowerment centre –Institute of Empowerment and Skill Acquisition under the Women Empowerment and Legal Aid, WELA. It is also of recent that we started a home – a makeshift home for survivors of domestic violence. So, these are the areas we have just started. For a long time, we have been in the forefront of the struggle for the rights of women and children.
As a matter of fact we took the government to court in 2004 to compel them to appoint more women into the cabinet. We also took government to court in Year 2005 to compel them to take children who are hawking on the streets and enroll them in school under the child rights law, and so many other cases. In Year 2006, we took the government to court and won. We challenged the police regulation 124 that specified that a woman police officer that wants to get married must take the permission of the commandant, but a man who wants to get married is not compelled to so do. So, we said “No”. We said any circumstance, condition or regulation that prescribes different standards for the man and woman is discriminatory and cannot stand Section 42 of the constitution. The court struck the regulation out as being inconsistent with the constitutional provision of this country. As at today, the law is that a woman police officer can go and get married without taking permission. It is a big breakthrough in the area of the law on the rights of women in Nigeria.
With some of these instances you have sited you must have achieved a lot, but have you fully met your goals of setting up WELA?
No! We still need to do a lot, especially in the area of the child rights. You will agree with me that we still have many children on the streets. We took the government to court, we didn’t win; not because the laws any other thing, but because the judges could not appreciate the law as at that time. We are still going back. I have written to the governor and told him that we are going back to the court if they do not take the children away from the streets. It is specified in the law that children within school age shall be enrolled in school. It is even made an offence; there is a law that prescribes sanctions against the parent that refuses to allow the child to be in school; and that school shall be free from primary school to, at least, JSS 3 – That is the free Universal Basic Education. So, children must be in school when they are within the school age bracket. Students hawking or cleaning windscreens on the roads have no business doing that during school hours. That has been our agitation.
You have set up an institute as part of your efforts. In there you have different sections and some persons are being trained some skills.
Yes, and everything is free. That is our own way of giving back to the society. Everything is self sponsored. God is helping us. As at today, I can boldly say that we haven’t taken any grant from any international organisation. So, everything has been through our own personal effort. That is not to say that if we have people who want to partner with us, we won’t take. We shall. Let me say here that the Lagos State House of Assembly has been partnering with us on our television programme. They have been sponsoring that. We have a 15 minutes television programme every week, where we discuss the rights of women and children and the access to law courts to enforce their rights. We also discuss how we can rehabilitate people who have survived rape and domestic violence. This programme was sponsored last year by the Lagos State House of Assembly. Hopefully, when they are back, we may be lucky to have them sponsor it again. That is all we get sponsorship for. Every other thing is self sponsored.
How many people have graduated from the institute?
We just started the institute last November, and we have been able to graduate five people from the section of Cosmetics – talking about makeover and other related things. As at today, we have about 25 students in fashion designing. They are going to be there for six months. So, we are looking at sometimes in April. In the Computer section, we already have some people to graduate, but because we want to have a graduation ceremony in April for everyone, they are going to step into the next stage of their programme. By April, we shall graduate all of them. In the Computer section we have about 15 students, in the Cosmetics class, they are about 18 students or so. In the hairdressing they have about 25 students.
What are the modalities for admitting the students?
Some of them walk in; they get to know about it on our website; some listen to us on television or somebody tells them about it. Somehow, they get to hear about it and they walk in. Anybody can just walk in and all that we need to do is carry out our security checks to ensure that they are genuine. We interview them to find out if they are really victims of violence or poverty. If we know that they are victims of societal poverty too, we take them. Any one we find is from a rich home, we ask him or her to go get a place where he or she can pay so that more space can be reserved for the less-privileged.
Is there any age restriction?
No, there are women with babies. Some brought their babies and we allow them. Part of the problem with women is that they cannot do anything because they have to raise their children. Meanwhile, the man comes back home and he is angry with them because they cannot support the home financially. Meanwhile, they have the babies to take care of and they can’t do anything. We allow them to bring their babies so that while they are raising their babies, they are still not useless to their families. This will help them to be economically empowered and be able to contribute financially to the family.
What would you say are the problems common with women, going by the different cases you have treated?
We have noticed that domestic violence is a major one and that is why we started the institute. In our course of working and struggle against domestic violence, we visit prisons regularly to give legal aids to female prisoners and to men who cannot afford legal services. We notice that most problems of domestic violence are precipitated by poverty – economic dependence of the woman. Even those who are in Kirikiri (prison) facing murder trial, or awaiting trial are people who fought with their spouses and in the course of fighting, accidents happened and the men died. Usually, they would be arraigned for murder until they are able to prove that it was an accident, and they convert it to manslaughter. Most of them are awaiting trial because there are no witnesses, and prosecution cannot move further. So, we notice that most of them were caused by quarrels over trivial issues like “I ask for chop money, e no give me. I come lock im clothe, he come beat me and we come dey fight!” So, everything revolves round money or poverty in the home. Or again, another very funny one is: “I pick his telephone, he didn’t allow me to see what is inside. He rushed, e beat me and I beat him” Telephone calls! Again we have noticed that as the society gets more urbanised, the cases of rape gets more. If you ask me, why, I would say it is not the urbanisation that is responsible. It is because women did not want to speak out until recently. Up till today, despite the urbanisation of our society, people still prefer to keep quiet. This is because they believe they will be stigmatised. They are afraid that no one would marry her. And I say, no. Millions of people will still be available to marry you. If you do not speak out and we get the offender prosecuted to serve as a deterence to others, the potential offenders will do same and the danger will continue for unsuspecting young girls in the society. Some will come to you to complain, and when you pick it up and the case begins they begin to develop cold feet. “Lawyer, we don’t want to pursue it again; lawyer, they have begged us; lawyer, my parents said…” Because of these, offenders get away unpunished. It is just very unfortunate.
What would you say is responsible for the increase in cases of women killing their husbands?
It is in reaction to the men’s action. When you push the goat to the wall, he turns back to face you. That is an adage in my part of the country. It is usually a reaction on the part of the woman against domestic violence, discrimination and all forms of abuse women go through.
But the ones in recent times have to do with the enlightened and financially comfortable couples?
The ones you call enlightened are also undergoing domestic violence in their homes. Domestic violence or discrimination is not a respecter of status, or race. There was an ambassador who was recalled some years back because he beat his wife. At that level! There was a king, in one of the South West state who beat his wife and he was dethroned. The wife eventually died. There was a banker that killed his wife. It has nothing to do with education or race or societal status. I think it is something that cuts across the generality of men folk and it is rooted in the vice of men. It is a woman that has undergone violence in the home, oppression and abuse that will one day go to the extent of reacting and over reacting. I want to tell you about the one that killed the husband and severed the private part. That may be outrageous, I would agree with you. I heard that there had been issues of violence in the home for very many years; childlessness too, which is also one of the problems in homes that often precipitate domestic violence. I don’t want to talk about it because it is subjudice. It is still in court.
Usually, there are cases of quarrels, fight oppression in such cases and people continue to tell them to patch up. That is why when we go on air to talk, we always tell them, stop patching up, so that it doesn’t get to the level of killing the other person. When you start noticing incessant abuse, violence in the home, it is better to give yourselves space so that you come back to your senses. If you continue to patch up, one may end up killing the other. That is one of the things we should be careful of.
How best can a marriage be best sustained and enjoyed?
Communication! It is good to speak out. Talk to yourself and make sure that your husband is your friend. Mary your friend; you must be the best of friends. If you are passing through any issue, make sure that you open up the issue and solve it once and for all. If you continue to allow it to bottle up, it gets to a time it will explode. And when it explodes, it explodes into violence in the home. Quarrels and violence in the home do not start in a day. It builds up gradually. So, don’t allow it to build up. As soon as it comes, bring it up, open it up, discuss it and find a lasting solution to it. If you bottle it up and the bottle is over filled, it bursts. It bursts into violence.
Which of the different cases you have handled in this area makes you terrible the most?
So many dirty things happen! For example, and this is very common – a stepfather raping the step daughter who is seven years old. I almost wept. When the girl came, she said I don’t want to see men, I hate tall men – because the stepfather is tall. That girl is going to grow up hating men, tall men in particular as she said. Or the one they brought to me recently. A three years old girl molested by the father. The father! The biological father! The mother divorced the father and because she said she was in school she could not take the children along with her, she left the two children with the father; they are young. According to her, the father started molesting the girl. A three years old girl. You will agree with me that a three years old girl has nothing to attract a man. So, it is either that the man is mentally sick or using it for something else. This part of the world, they believe in so many things.
There is also the case of a woman who has been having series of domestic violence. The man would beat the wife and she kept reporting. So, one day, she came back home at about 10.00 p.m. and the husband started to beat her. It was at Ikorodu. The woman ran out of the house and went to the nearby police station to take refuge. There and then, the police officers on duty raped her. It was a case of “from frying pan to fire”. And the husband rushed to me: “I want you to help me deal with the policemen.” I said, look at you. You pushed your wife to the lion’s den. If you had not beaten her that night she would not have gone to the police station to seek refuge. So, these are things women go through. When you look at the different experiences, you will agree with me that women are endangered. We need a voice for them, defend them and fight for their rights. It is desirable.
*Concluding part on Wednesday