Six years after IDG declaration, not yet Uhuru for the Nigerian girl-child
A few weeks ago, the city of Abuja was thrown into shock as they witnessed a series of shocking, unbelievable events regarding Aisha (not real name), a student of a government owned girls senior secondary school in Gwagwalada, Abuja, the nation’s capital. Aisha was finally expelled for refusing to abort a pregnancy, a pregnancy that resulted from a statutory rape. Before she was expelled, she had been under immense pressure to abort the pregnancy and refusing to bow to pressure, she was finally expelled by the school. Out of frustration and a desire not to halt her education, Aisha aborted the pregnancy herself on the school’s premises. Nothing was done to her rapist and he walks free while Aisha is traumatized, depressed and remains expelled.
This unfortunate scenario is what thousands of girls and women are experiencing on a daily basis in Nigeria. Even as Nigeria joined other countries in the world to celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child last week, the average Nigerian girl child has nothing to celebrate as societal, religious, cultural and patriarchal biases work against her and these are issues she would most likely battle with till the day she dies. According to the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT), 1 in 4 girls would be assaulted before the age of 18. This data is from reported cases as sexual assault cases remain largely unreported and covered up.
On December 19, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 66/170 to declare October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child, to recognize girls’ rights and the unique challenges girls face around the world. The IDG focuses attention on the need to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights. Six years after, our girl children in Nigeria are not better off as none of the adaptations has been duly followed in Nigeria.
Over the last 15 years, the global community has made significant progress in improving the lives of girls during early childhood. This is sadly not the case in Nigeria as a very recent Reuters report ranked Lagos as the eighth worst megacity for women. Nigeria’s largest city with an estimated population of almost 20 million people was sixth worst when it came to harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation and forced marriages and seventh worst for women to have access to economic resources such as education, land, and financial services such as bank accounts and loans. These are dire statistics and we can no longer bury our heads in the sand and wish this problem away. Despite efforts from several quarters, basic issues like female education, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sexual and gender based violence (SGBV), child marriages, lack of financial freedom amongst other issues still dominate the over-riding discourse.
In 2015, girls in the first decade of life are more likely to enroll in primary school, receive key vaccinations, and are less likely to suffer from health and nutrition problems than were previous generations. However, there has been insufficient investment in addressing the challenges girls face when they enter the second decade of their lives. This includes obtaining quality secondary and higher education, avoiding child marriage, receiving information and services related to puberty and reproductive health, and protecting themselves against unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and gender-based violence.
Recently, the ECOWAS court delivered a landmark judgment in favour of Dorothy Njemanze and three others v. Nigeria, ordering that Njemanze and two others be paid six million Naira each as compensation for failing to protect their rights, failing to investigate and prosecute the allegations of mistreatment meted out to them which amounted to gender discrimination and SGBV. Njemanze and the other three women were sexually assaulted, violated, beaten and abused by some military men five years ago and were labeled prostitutes because they were on the streets of Abuja at night. Njemanze of the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation says she was even more perplexed as violence such as this against women are what her foundation fights.
Working with young girls, Njemanze says they get an average of three cases every forthnight and are usually sexual abuse. “The deck is stacked against these young girls from the onset. Most perpetrators are roaming free today as the system makes it difficult to get justice for victims. The police charge child rape to the upper area court, which is even lower than a magistrate court, and rape is charged as gross sexual misconduct. The police charge children to take up rape cases. An officer at Apo Police Station (name withheld) charged us N2, 000 to open a case file for a girl raped by her father. In another case, a mother slit her daughter’s wrist to the bone and when a neighbor reported to that same police station, the police told the mother that it was the neighbor that reported her.”
“The police, hospitals and even the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) as well as other agencies that are supposed to help victims are actively working against them. We have young girls that have gone to the hospital after being raped and the hospitals asked for a police report first. We went to NAPTIP and they asked for a medical report. We went to Karmo police station and the officer there (name withheld) asked for N5, 000. When we asked what the money was for, they refused to say.”
Lamenting that the system frustrates young girls from seeking justice, she says actions like these prevent girls from going to the police as some girls are even called prostitutes and might even get sexually assaulted; hence, sexual assault cases go unreported. Despite the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) (VAPP) Act passed into law in 2015 and the child’s right act that protects the rights of Nigerian children, young girls and women are still suffering untold horrors.
According to Njemanze, justice and protection starts with the police. “The police need to stop calling sexual assault and domestic violence against women a ‘family matter’ and urging them to ‘go and settle at home’. Why should a woman ‘settle’ with someone who raped her, who violated her or beat her? Most times, the police criminalize young girls that come to report and re-traumatize them, labeling them prostitutes and insinuating that they led the perpetrator into assaulting them. Government is too complicit in this matter and until we begin to properly enforce laid down laws, perpetrators would continue in their reign of impunity because they know nothing would happen to them. Also, cultural and societal norms are causing a great deal of damage. Religion is also a problem as most times, religious leaders pressure the girls to drop assault cases and some even follow the perpetrators to ‘come and beg’.”
“There is a case presently of some girls that were forcefully abducted and made to convert and when we called the police, they told us they are observing public holidays and to call later, also not later than 9pm, as they close by 9. I reported a case of several rural parents giving away their children to people in big towns and in particular, a girl that was living with two civil defense officers and was accused of witchcraft and beaten to within an inch of her life. We were told that they liaise with the civil defense often so they need ‘soft landing’ for them. These are security operatives that are supposed to help and protect us.”
Two years after FGM was outlawed in Nigeria, this practice still thrives in many areas in the country, especially among the less educated. According to data from the Nigeria Demographics and Health Survey, 24.8 percent of Nigerian girls and women aged 15 to 49 have been circumcised, with states in the southeast region accounting for 45 percent of FGM cases; and south-western states accounting for up to 55 percent. Osun state has the highest prevalence of female genital mutilation/cutting in Nigeria with a prevalence of 76.6%, Ebonyi comes next with 74 %, Ekiti has a 72.3% prevalence rate while Imo has a 68 % rate and Oyo, a 65. 6% rate.
The report also shows that cutting occurs mostly at early childhood with 82% of women in Nigeria getting circumcised before the age of five.
In this part of the world, Nigeria boasts the highest number of child brides and records thousands of Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) cases yearly. In the North, boys outnumber girls 3:1 in schools and this number rises as they get older, as the girls drop out to get married from as early as 10 years old; a practice they see as a protective measure, regarding education for female children as tantamount to corrupting them and making them unmarriageable.
Sexual and reproductive health remain major obstacles for many girls and most were stunned when the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) revealed that more than 50, 000 girls die yearly from complications caused by unsafe abortions. Such was the case of Blessing (not real name) who after enduring three days of intense pain finally opened up to her parents on the unsafe abortion carried out on her by a chemist. Unfortunately, she passed away, leaving her parents in shock and misery.
Six years after Segun Arowolo stabbed his wife, Titi to death in their Lagos apartment, not much has changed for Nigerian women as several others have died from domestic violence since then. In spite of spirited efforts from several groups and bodies, reportage is still very low and in most cases, women that report are urged to ‘go and settle with your husband and be more submissive.’ Unfortunately, several have died trying to heed this advice.
As the global community launches the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for implementation over the next 15 years, it is a good time to recognise the achievements made in supporting young girls, while at the same time aspiring to support the current and upcoming generation of adolescent girls, to truly fulfil their potential as key actors in achieving a sustainable and equitable world. Government needs to pay more than lip service to enforcing laid down laws that protect and support women and the bodies charged with enforcing need to do their jobs properly. Until we begin to properly support and protect young girls and women, our future remains at great risk.
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