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Dealing with sexual violence in Nigeria

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I am not a fan of false equivalences, so I admit to not joining in conversations about why the #MeToo movement that is sweeping Western countries cannot or is not happening here. Still, my breath caught when I read the news of the two-year-old child who was sexually abused at the hands of a man in Chrisland School in Lagos. I was a see-saw of emotions, from being dismayed (but unsurprised) at the school’s reaction of protecting its sexually abusive staff member, to being heartened by the Lagos State Government’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Response (DSVRT) team’s response. If we are going to properly say #timesup on sexual violence in Nigeria, we would need more agencies like these and it made me think about what it would take to tackle sexual violence and harassment in Nigeria.

Lagos State’s DSVRT work has a lot still to do, but by recording 100% more reports on sexual violence in the state in 2017 than in the previous year, we see how important political will behind state-led efforts can be to give people the confidence to come forward and seek justice. Other states must step up, but a domestic and sexual violence response team in a largely-agrarian state in the northwest would embark on its sensitization campaign differently from one in an urban southwestern city like Ibadan or Lagos.

These differences are important, but even more important would be community engagement that seeks to improve the experience of seeking justice. We also cannot pretend that addressing sexual violence and harassment requires a campaign that specifically targets lower-income populations; addressing discrimination in the workplace should sensitize large and small organizations everywhere on how building workplaces that are sensitive to abuse of power and safe for all staff can boost staff morale and improve outcomes. Like the #MeToo movement has shown, misogyny and gender-based discrimination is not the preserve of the poor, “unexposed,” and/or uneducated.

Also, adequately dealing with sexual violence in Nigeria must also take into consideration Nigerians living in conflict-prone communities throughout the country. Chitra Nagarajan, a researcher with the Managing Conflict in Northeast Nigeria, shared a recent gender assessment done in northeast Nigeria. This assessment shows that, with the conflict in the region has come the breakdown of community leadership institutions, as community leaders with the means flee to state capitals for safety. This means that seeking redress through traditional authorities can be hard.

Of the 1,884,331 displaced individuals and 1,234,894 returnee individuals recorded in 5 April to 15 May 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration’s Displacement Index, 56% of the population are children, 55% are female and 7% are over the age of 60. These women face danger from both members of the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) as well as the Nigerian military, both of whom have been accused of harassment of all community members, sexual harassment, violence and abuse against women and girls, extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses. We already have seen in the #MeToo movement how stories of lower-income women (like waitresses and cleaners) are not getting told nearly as much as women who are wealthier, more popular and in more lucrative professions (like actresses or corporate executives). Any reckoning that will leave safer work environment for women in Nigeria simply cannot afford the lack of inclusivity.

Comprehensively dealing with sexual violence also means addressing the economic challenges that leave people vulnerable. Many displaced women in the northeast are forced to engage in sex in exchange for money, food and other items, or in order to be able to leave camps to earn money for themselves and their families. Girls are sent out by families to hawk items for sale, with the silent understanding that they are, in fact, selling their bodies to bring back money to their families. Also, according to the assessment, women and girls IDPs in camps, informal settlements, and host communities, face sexual violence when carrying out routine activities such as collecting firewood, fetching water and using toilets and showers. In some cases, men hosting displaced women and girls have sexually abused them, forcing them to have sex in exchange for food and shelter. While no study has been conducted in the northeast on early and forced marriage, it is worth considering that across the border in Niger, 20 percent of fishing households interviewed by Oxfam reported having to marry their daughters earlier than they wanted to reduce pressure on the family’s scarce resources like water and food.

Dealing with sexual violence and harassment is not a favour to be done for women; it is dealing with a major challenge with real socioeconomic costs at individual, household and society level while creating models of engagement that protect everyone.


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