Reuben Medlyne likes going to the local market in the Yaba district of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, to shop for clothes — especially the secondhand items that are a real bargain.
But there’s a risk involved.
“Whenever I visit Yaba Market, the traders start touching and harassing me immediately [after] I alight from a bus or a bike. I can’t help but reply ‘no touch me again,’ ” says Medlyne, who’s a student at the University of Lagos.
It’s a common occurrence. In a poll of 105 women from February 2019, The Guardian Nigeria found that three quarters of those surveyed said they had experienced harassment at Nigerian markets.
The traders say that’s just the way they drum up business. “We are hustlers, so sometimes we need to touch,” says Victor Robinson, who sells ladies’ trousers at Yaba.
Another trader, Emmanuel Ugorji, says women bring on the harassment. “There are women that dress indecently, prompting the touching,” he says. “So it’s a sign they want men to touch them.”
But now there’s pushback. Last October, Damilola Marcus started the Market March Movement to bring an end to sexual harassment at Yaba and other markets across the country.
Marcus, an architect who runs a design studio in Lagos, was herself fed up with the catcalling and touching at the market.
In December, Marcus staged a protest called “Market March” at Yaba Market. Women walked around the market wearing yellow T-shirts and signs inscribed with messages like “stop touching us.” The event trended on social media throughout the day.
“I always knew it happens and it was a major problem and it would not be okay if everyone sits back and [does] not do anything about it. I believe in the power of protest and the belief that citizens have the right to protest,” she says.
As the women protested, chanting “stop touching us,” some furious male traders threw stones and sachets of water at them.
“We must touch,” the men chanted in response.
According to Lagos state criminal law, sexual harassment is a felony, subject to three years imprisonment. But Marcus laments the lack of implementation by the police.
In January, she started an online petition to push for better enforcement of the law. Currently, it has 37,382 signatures. “We want the traders who harass women to bear the consequences for their actions,” says Marcus.
The petition also calls for the police force to create a special anti-sexual harassment squad, with the power to directly punish those who harass women in markets. Currently, the police can only arrest and bring perpetrators to court, where the judiciary would then assign a punishment. Marcus hopes to deliver the petition to the government when it reaches 50,000 signatures.
The Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team says penalties are put in place to punish defaulters of market/sexual harassment, but such penalties vary based on the extent of the crime committed. Some of the punishments include imprisonment or restraining orders.
“Over the years, we have been engaging market men and women across all the local governments in Lagos state on the issue of sexual harassment,” says Damilare Adewusi, a social worker with the response team. The team helps people understand Nigeria’s laws around harassment — and refers suspects to the appropriate authorities.
Adewusi told NPR that the response team is aware of the Market March Movement.
“It gladdens our heart [that Market March is fighting sexual harassment] and as we know, we cannot solve this social issue alone. The fight against sexual offences in our communities does not lie on the shoulder of the government alone but with all enlightened individuals vying for an end to this evil practice in our society,” says Adewusi.
There was a march at Ogbete market in Enugu, a state in southeast Nigeria on March 23. Market March plans to take the protests to other markets. Two markets in Lagos will be visited sometime this year.
Market March has been effective at reducing market harassment in markets, says Jekein Lato-Unah, head of projects and human rights and advocacy at Stand to End Rape Initiative, a nonprofit organization that focuses on creating awareness on violence against women and girls and who’s not involved with the Market March movement.
“I visited the market sometime in January this year and what used to be five to ten men verbally harassing me was reduced to just one man raining curses on me because I told him off. We don’t expect change immediately but it’s good to know a lot of them digested Market March messages,” Lato-Unah says.
Some of the traders who had been interviewed for this story said that the protest has changed a lot of things in Yaba. “The [Market March movement] created an awareness. Many traders have stopped to touch women. I don’t touch again. I raise the clothes for them to see,” says Robinson, a trader at the market.
Medlyne stopped going to Yaba market for a while because of her experience with harassment. But she was surprised when she visited two weeks after the protest was held on December 15.
“I went there to shop and I also wanted to know if the Yaba Market March really worked. I got to Yaba and I went from stall to stall,” Medlyne says. “On a normal day, the male traders [would] drag and force me to follow them but they didn’t. One of them said, ‘Sister come I get jeans, come na, I no go touch you.’ I just laughed and walked away.”
Iruoma is a freelance journalist covering global health, agriculture and development. He was a reporting fellow with the International Center for Journalists in 2017. Follow him @kelechukuiruoma.