Gay women in Nigeria: The dangers of finding love online - CNN

Trigger Warning: This story contains graphic content and may be disturbing.

Editor’s Note: This story is part of Systems Error, a series by CNN As Equals, investigating how your gender shapes your life online. For information about how CNN As Equals is funded and more, check out our FAQs.

LAGOS, NIGERIA Izzy was feeling hopeful about the year ahead. It was January 2010 and she was about to meet a woman she’d been chatting with online for a few weeks.

She took her time getting ready, choosing to wear a pair of jeans and a button-down shirt to look casual yet, hopefully, impressive.

Her date had been pestering her to meet for some time, she remembered, but she had wanted to wait. “I was happy we were finally meeting physically,” Izzy recalled.

The two women had initially planned to meet in a public place, but her date changed the venue at the last minute, saying it would be more comfortable and safer to meet in her home in the Ogba neighborhood of Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.

Even during the chaos of her assault, Izzy said she had a moment of realization that this had been planned all along.

Referring to her date, she said: “They were doing all this to me, and they weren't doing the same thing to her.”

‘In Nigeria, we call it kito’

Izzy is one of thousands of queer Nigerian women, men, and non-binary people subjected to a practice known locally as “kito,” according to data shared by multiple organizations with CNN. It involves someone pretending to be interested in a relationship with a target, usually through social media or on dating apps, and luring that person into a meet up where they are then physically and verbally assaulted, and often extorted. Sometimes, the perpetrators film the attack.

“This type of harm exists everywhere, but in Nigeria we call it kito. Kito is anything done to harm a member of the LGBT+ community due to their online activity,” explained Akudo Oguaghamba, founder and executive director of Women's Health and Equal Rights (WHER).

When it comes to women, multiple experts told CNN that these attacks are typically more severe and sexual in nature and, sometimes more prolonged, with the victim only being kitoed once a more serious relationship has formed.

Remi Makinde, interim executive director of The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs), an organization working with the LGBTQ community in Nigeria, explained that bisexual women and lesbians may also be victims of “corrective rape”: when sexual assault is committed specifically because of the victim’s sexual orientation and with the intention of making them heterosexual. Makinde reported that during the assault, the attackers may say things like, “we will teach you how to enjoy a man.”

Makinde said kito attacks against queer Nigerians have been happening for more than a decade, due to high levels of homophobia, fuelled by conservative and deeply religious societal views in the country. But the activist thinks these attacks became more prevalent after the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was signed into law in 2014. The act prohibits same-sex marriage, the witnessing or administering of same-sex marriages, publicly being in a same-sex relationship and the registration, support of, or participation in gay clubs or societies, all of which is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

“Attacks against members of the (LGBTQ) community have always happened but were not as rampant as they are now,” Makinde told CNN. According to the activist, the passing of the act into law “fueled more homophobic attacks, further shrinking the voices and visibility of members of the community.”

Lucky O. Yusuf/CNN
Data available on kito attacks reflects only those that occurred in Lagos. Experts highlighted that numbers will be higher across Nigeria and among queer women, who are less likely to report them or share their experiences.

A clear sense of scale is difficult to obtain, experts explained. Local nonprofit WHER told CNN they helped 1,871 victims of kito from 2018 to 2022, including 590 people identifying as women, while Nigeria-based online media advocacy group Pride TV shared that they have helped 1,253 people since 2020, ranging from 180 to almost 500 people per year, of which around half (524) identified as women.

In 2023 alone, TIERs shared that they helped 65 men, women, intersex and trans people in Nigeria who were targets of kito attacks in which they were physically abused. Two of them identified as women. The nonprofit also shared that more than 550 people were blackmailed and extorted, many of whom were first targeted online.

Damola Bolaji, TIERs’ advocacy and communications officer, told CNN that these numbers reflect just a fraction of attacks that have happened during these timeframes, because, as she pointed out, the data only reflects attacks in Lagos – and only attacks that have been reported. Figures will be higher across Nigeria, Bolaji explained, and among queer women, who are less likely to report them or share their experiences because they face more stigma than gay or bisexual men due to having not met the expectations placed on them by society to get married and have children. Those with children fear losing them if their sexuality is revealed.

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Attacks against members of the (LGBTQ) community have always happened but were not as rampant as they are now.

Remi Makinde

Kito attacks have eroded trust in digital platforms that once offered a way to find community and intimacy in a society still deeply hostile toward homosexuality.

“You are trying to reach out to someone that is like you, someone that you can have a relationship with, someone that you know you can relate to, and then you fall prey (to) people who are either camouflaging as queer or who are queer and just nefarious,” said Makinde.

CNN interviewed 16 women who said they were kitoed by people they met on social media platforms or dating apps between 2010 and 2023. Each had horrific stories to tell about being beaten, stripped naked in public, robbed, blackmailed, and sometimes, raped.

Two women alleged that they had been extorted for months after an initial attack, five said they were targeted by their own friends or family. Two others who dared to remain online after their first assaults told CNN they had been kitoed more than once – Izzy being one of them. Separate to these accounts, CNN spoke to two more women who were targeted by neighbours or friends who learned of their sexuality.

The result? “Extreme fear which leads to a heightened sense of distrust of other people,” a therapist who works with TIERs told CNN.

The therapist, who asked to remain anonymous because they are not out to their family, explained that because many queer Nigerians need to hide their sexuality, kito victims are often unable to formally report the incident or even tell people about what they have endured, and end up suppressing their experience.

‘Converting’ your sexuality

Izzy’s nightmare continued long after her attack.

Her mother found a church which agreed to take her in but there, she said, as a pregnant young woman with a masculine appearance, she was made to attend prayer meetings, known as deliverance sessions, intended to rid her of demons.

Izzy said she also had to endure sexual advances from men within the church community, including pastors. “At night I couldn’t sleep without a man coming to touch me,” she said.

Izzy fled the church after three months. But, explained that after several more months of sleeping in cars or squatting with friends, desperate, she returned home, and her father reluctantly took her back in.

Audio has been edited and revoiced for brevity and anonymity.

Practices that attempt to convert a person’s sexual orientation or their gender identity are common in Nigerian society, across its various religious groups, and can include psychological, medical or religious “treatments” that may either be forced or voluntary.

Twenty-eight-year-old Rafiat – whose name has also been changed – told CNN that last year she underwent six months of conversion therapy at an Islamic school in Oyo State in southwest Nigeria, after her mother walked in on her “making out” with her girlfriend.

At her mother’s insistence that she get married and bear children, in May, Rafiat met a man on Tinder who confided in her that he too was gay. They got on so well that they quickly moved in together and made plans to wed, in an arrangement Rafiat said would allow her to be herself while conforming to societal expectations. But her boyfriend soon changed.

She said he began to extort money from her, becoming violent if she refused. She told CNN he would say: “You know, I know things that people shouldn't really know about you. Do you know what they would do if they found out you were like this?”

Rafiat’s family urged her to go back and appease her abuser, telling her: “You're not supposed to fight back. As a woman you're supposed to be calm, submissive.”

In addition to Rafiat, three other women told CNN that they had entered into marriages as a cover for their sexuality or had children in order to relieve some of the pressure they felt, especially from their mothers.

Too afraid of the consequences to tell anyone – including the police

Walter Ude is the creative director of the Kito Diaries website and Kito Alerts Instagram page, two online platforms where LGBTQ people share their accounts of being targeted, as well as safety tips to help others better protect themselves. Between 2018 and 2022, both platforms have received 403 reports of queer people being kitoed, Ude shared, including 89 reports from individuals identifying as women.

In an effort to protect them, Ude arranges marriages between queer women and men and said that it is common for these relationships to turn sour. However, he explained, women will often not walk away for fear that their sexuality will be exposed or for fear of losing their children. In Nigeria, he added, “there seems to be a blemish that comes from being a divorcee."

“Typically, women are raised to not speak up and try to deal with their miseries alone to avoid being shamed,” said Odafe Umufo, head of content at Pride TV, a Nigerian online media advocacy group.

Several of the women CNN spoke to echoed Umufo’s point as they explained why they had told no one about their attack nor had they filed a police report. “What would I have said happened?” one woman asked rhetorically. “Even the police exploit us.”

Izzy told CNN that when she reported her attack to the Lagos police, they condemned her actions, not her attackers’. “They told me I was a wayward child, that I opened my legs for (them),” she said.

Another woman alleged that a policeman witnessed her being attacked at a bus stop in a bustling Lagos neighborhood but carried on walking when her attackers exclaimed that she was a lesbian.

Accounts from some of the women suggest that kito attacks are a form of organized crime. “They (often) work as gangs,” WHER founder Oguaghamba said.

One victim told CNN that her attackers casually told her that this was what they did for a living. They let her go after she had given them her phone, her bank card and PIN number.

The Lagos Police Command did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

With inadequate protection under the law, queer women try to protect themselves

While the word “kito” may be Nigerian, the practice of online catfishing and attacking LGBTQ people offline is not unique to Nigeria. According to Human Rights Watch, similar cases have been reported in other West African countries and in neighboring Cameroon.

However, human rights experts say that Nigeria’s Constitution – in which freedom of conscience and expression are enshrined – and its Cybercrime Act (passed a year after the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act) should, in theory, protect every citizen of the country, regardless of their sexual orientation.

In practice though, as digital rights lawyer Mojirayo Ogunlana told CNN, authorities do not have a good grasp of the law. She said she wants law enforcement agencies to receive training from LGBTQ organizations so they are better able to put aside their own biases and rigorously investigate kito cases. But Ogunlana admits that the problem is bigger than Nigeria’s law enforcement agencies.

“The major problem is ignorance,” she told CNN. “Ignorance that is being infested by religiosity.”

The National Human Rights Commission in Nigeria is responsible for investigating alleged violations of human rights in the country, such as the kito attacks and harassment these women have faced. The Commission did not provide comment to CNN ahead of publication.

In the meantime, isolated and inadequately protected by the law and law enforcement agencies, queer Nigerians are having to implement their own protections, CNN learned. These, however, are not failsafe.

Izzy said she became more careful about dating after her 2010 attack. She interacted for longer with the people she met online, insisted on video calls with them, and only agreed to meet in public. But even having taken these precautions, Izzy was the victim of another kito attack.

In 2016, instead of meeting the woman she had been speaking to for a few weeks, Izzy said a man dressed in a military uniform turned up.

Izzy said that this man extorted ₦85,000 (US $427) from her for almost a month in March that year. She said it only stopped after she destroyed her sim card, and he was no longer able to contact her.

Izzy said she now uses another phone number, and all the women who shared their kito stories told CNN that they have had to shut down their accounts on the platforms where they had been targeted.

With the loss of safe digital spaces, these women’s worlds have largely closed in. Many said they now only meet people vetted through their networks and on recommendation, as though part of an exclusive club.

CNN attended a “wellness party” Rafiat hosted in her home for her friends who had suffered various forms of attacks because of their sexuality. While the world around them remains hostile, here, the women were supporting each other, sharing stories of trauma but also tales of nights out as they laughed and sang Nigerian pop songs.

Despite the pain, Rafiat was hopeful, defiant even.

“I'm a Muslim. I'm gay. I like women. And I'm not ashamed to say it,” she said.

Even meeting this way carries safety risks, experts say, these parties can always be infiltrated by people looking to cause harm or make a quick buck – but for now, it’s the best option they have.

My kito experience

Six more women open up about the abuse they’ve endured because of their sexuality.

Select a story to hear their account.

Names have been changed to ensure their safety and excerpts have been edited and revoiced for brevity and anonymity.

Have you been affected by abuse?

If you or anyone you know has been affected by abuse, the following services are available to help you:

In the US

National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522. Available 24/7. Can connect callers with local resources and immediate support. Also available through online chat tool.

National Sexual Assault Hotline: Call 1-800-656-4673. Provided by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Available 24/7. Also available through online chat tool.

Around the world

International violence helplines: A worldwide list of directories is provided by UN Women. You can also find a list of national agencies on The Pixel Project.