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Student raped and killed in church wanted to become a minister and 'preach the word of God,' sister says

Lagos, Nigeria -- Uwaila Vera Omozuwa was studying microbiology at university in Nigeria's Benin City, but her passion was theology.

Even after she gained admission to the University of Benin last year, the 22-year-old didn't stop taking theological classes at a local parish of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Edo State, her older sister Judith Omozuwa told CNN.

But Omozuwa's life was cut short in a brutal attack. Last Wednesday the student was found dead, lying half-naked in a pool of blood at the church where she had been a member of the choir for many years, according to a church official.

Despite the best efforts of doctors to save her life, Omozuwa, whom her family described as "kind and intelligent," died days after the attack.

"She wanted to be a minister and preach the word of God. The church was her favorite place to be," Judith, 24, said by phone. "That she was murdered where she always found peace is just devastating."

Omozuwa usually went to the church on weekdays to study to avoid distractions from her siblings at home, her sister said.

The student went more regularly in recent months as her university was one of the dozens shuttered by authorities as part of measures to halt the coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria.

Uwaila Vera Omozuwa.

On the day her sister was attacked, Judith said she walked with her to the gate of their home before she left for church -- not knowing that it would be the last time she'd see her sister alive.

"Uwa complained that we made a lot of noise at home watching TV and it was getting worse now that everyone is at home.

"That day she was wearing one of my clothes and I was teasing her.

"She said that is what sisters do."

A man has been arrested in connection with Omozuwa's death and police say forensics show that she been hit on the head with a fire extinguisher found at the scene.

Edo Police Command spokesman Chidi Nwabuzor told reporters earlier this week: "The item used in the assault, which was a fire extinguisher, was recovered. Immediately the operatives... screened the fingerprints, which led to our suspect."

Omozuwa's family told CNN that medics said she was raped, but the police have stopped short of calling it rape and instead described it as "inhumane sexual assault."

Rape is considered a stigma in most Nigerian families and it's extraordinary for her family to reveal that this happened to her, Amnesty International Nigeria Director Osai Ojigho told CNN.

"It shows how police are unwilling to even investigate rape cases and will rather probe murder allegations. Both are heinous crimes and none should be dismissed for the other," Ojigho said.

CNN has made several attempts to reach the police team in charge of the investigation with no response so far.

However, for the first time in recent years, Nigeria's police said it planned to strengthen its response to gender-based violence, adding that it had deployed special detectives across the country to work on gender violence cases.

"This is to strengthen and enhance the capacity of the units to respond to increasing challenges of sexual assaults and domestic/gender-based violence linked with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and other social ills within the country," the statement announcing the change said.

The force is also calling on citizens to come forward with information that could assist them in ongoing probes of sexual assault and domestic violence cases in the country, Nigeria police spokesman Frank Mba said in the statement.

Violence against women is a daily reality in Nigeria, where 25% of girls have experienced sexual violence before the age of 18, compared with 10% of boys, according to a 2014 UNICEF study.

Uwaila Vera Omozuwa.

Omozuwa's death is part of a recent spate of violence involving young women in Nigeria and the killing has become a rallying cry as women call on authorities to tackle gender-based violence in the West African nation.

A group of university students marched to the police station in Benin City in protest on Tuesday, and Nigerians have been using the twin hashtags #JusticeForUwa and #SayNoToRapists to speak out against violence against women and girls.

Police say they have 11 suspects in custody in connection with the recent alleged gang rape of a 12-year old girl, according to local media reports.

Just days after Omozuwa's death, another name was trending on social media -- this time a teenage college student in the southwest of the country who was allegedly raped and murdered at her family home, according to local media reports.

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari called Omozuwa's killing a "barbaric act" in a tweet on Tuesday and offered his "deepest condolences" to friends and the victim's family.

He added that he expects the Nigerian police to "speedily and diligently" investigate the case to ensure justice.

Meanwhile, rights group Amnesty International has called on the Nigerian government to declare a "national crisis" on rape.

Amnesty's Ojigho told CNN that authorities need a zero-tolerance approach to end the violence targeted at women.

"No matter where you are in Nigeria, in the north or south, in the city or rural, Christian or Muslim, every woman and girl is at risk of rape. Nowhere is safe or immune to this violent crime against women," Ojigho said.

Nigeria's National Human Rights Commission said it was looking into Omozuwa's death and also released a video on Twitter asking Nigerian men to resist rape thoughts.

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