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Addressing the scourge of domestic violence

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It was quite early in the morning, and characteristically I was already on my way to the office, to beat the usual Lagos early morning traffic gridlock.  However, as I moved, I heard a strange stiffening noise. As I lifted my eyes to the direction of the strange noise, what I saw made me sick. It was a middle aged man viciously flogging a young woman. Out of curiosity, I walked to the scene of the gory incidence only to discover that the young lady being so viciously whipped by the man was actually his wife. I had witnessed such tragic cases of wife battery before, but it was only in Nollywood movies.  I had not seen anything as close as this in real life. But here we are; this is real!

Globally, domestic violence has become a worrying blight.  According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, nearly 2.5 million cases of sexual violence were reported globally in 2014, with many countries reporting more than 100 instances of rape or sexual assault per 100,000 people. Domestic violence is often defined in varied and broad terms depending on the country and calling of the person wanting to enforce the law. What constitutes domestic violence and degree of occurrence in Nigeria may vary from what it is in countries such as America, Britain, India or Saudi Arabia.

According to one study, the percentages of women who have reported being physically abused by an intimate partner vary from 69% to 10% depending on the country. In Nigeria, spousal abuse has become a scourge and there is a report that 50% of our women have been battered by their husbands at one time or the other and unbelievably, more educated women (65%) are in this terrible situation as compared with their low income counterparts (55%).

Basically, all forms of domestic violence have one purpose: to gain and maintain control over the victim. On the effect of domestic violence, children are often the most hit in terms of setbacks and the trauma they go through and which are most times irreparable. A child who is exposed to domestic violence during his/her upbringing will suffer in terms of developmental and psychological welfare. Depression and self esteem issues can follow due to traumatic experiences while problems of attitude and cognition in school can start developing, along with a lack of skills such as problem solving.

In Nigeria it is a problem as in many parts of Africa. In Nigeria, especially, there is a deep cultural belief that it is socially acceptable for a woman to be disciplined by a man.  According to Amnesty International, a third of women in Nigeria have been subjected to physical, sexual and psychological violence through husbands, partners and fathers.
With the upward curve of this outrageous trend in Nigeria, in 2003, Lagos state government enacted laws that protect not only women but also men, children, servants, maids and everyone who may be victims of domestic violence. The law states clearly that if you beat your wife you will go to jail. The law elaborates that in case of man and woman abuse, it does not matter whether there is valid contracted marriage between the victim and the perpetrator of the act but as long as they are living together or co-habiting in a home setting, the law must take its course.

In furtherance of the state government’s position on domestic violence, Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode and His wife, Mrs. Bolanle Ambode, recently joined top government functionaries as well as other stakeholders in a symbolic walk against domestic violence. At the event, Governor Ambode called for the amendment of Protection Against Domestic Violence Law, 2007, and advocated 25 years jail term for rapist and perpetrators of all forms of domestic violence. Hopefully, stiffer legislation against this scourge would come up in months to come.

In Nigeria, many victims of domestic violence usually lack the courage to seek legal redress on the violations of their rights due to lack of positive response from the society. Domestic violence is so entrenched in our society that even the victims condone such violations of their rights as some perceive it as sign of love and the socio-religious belief that a broken marriage or relationship is a mark of failure in life. Due to poverty and economic dependence on men, many female victims may also choose to suffer in silence for fear of losing the economic support of the male perpetrator. This trend is evident in several of the reported cases where victims prefer to withdraw their complaints where it becomes apparent that punitive measures will be meted out to the abusive spouse. Their usual objective is for the authorities to appease rather punish the abusive partner for fear of backlash.

Where the victim is courageous enough to seek legal redress, the Nigerian legal system is more adversarial than reconciliatory.  The outcome of most judicial proceedings is usually the termination or straining of the relationship of the litigants, and this is true of a domestic violence victim who takes the perpetrator to the police station or the court for redress under the present law. The police also operate from the prejudices and stereotypes of the male dominated customs and traditions of the society. Many victims of domestic violence, who lay complaints at police stations, are usually taunted, humiliated, and their complaints trivialized, probably because the complaints desk officer often engage in wife battery himself.

There is, therefore, need for a spirited public enlightenment campaign on the evil of domestic violence. The populace must be sensitized on what constitutes domestic violence, stipulated punishments for perpetrators and other such related issues. It is also essential that a special complaints desk is made available in all police stations to address all issues relating to violence against women. This, of course, leads to the issue of training for special officers who are to handle the beat. It is also necessary to organize constant training for legal officials, law enforcement agents, legal practitioners and others who are critical stakeholders in the matter. Similarly, law enforcement and court mechanisms also have to be made friendly and accessible to women.

As it has been firmly established, the rate of domestic violence in our society has got to a level that calls for tactical planning and resolution among all stakeholders. Every segment of the society must, therefore, provide a common front to confront this blight in our society. This is the time to move beyond the realm of rhetoric and take decisive action against this evil.

• Vandefan  is of the features unit, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.


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