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Sexual and gender-based violence: Hidden social pandemic under radar of COVID-19 lockdown – Part 2

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PHOTO: Ann Godwin/Guardian Nigeria

In mid-April during the lockdown, a female tenant, Rose (not her real name) was physically brutalised by her landlord in Lagos. The neighbours who live in Akowonjo where the attack happened are calling it “see wetin COVID-19 cause” in Pidgin. 

With the lockdown running into weeks, there has been a shock isolation response by both men and women resulting in some cases, in extreme reactions to provocation, economic burden, emotional strain and jealous rage. Landlord-Tenant gender-based violence dynamics is becoming topical. There are documented incidences of landlord’s jealous rage. Social media is rife with videos of neighbour-to-neighbour violence resulting in physical harm and some cases death of husbands fighting for the honour of their wives or girlfriends. Civil society organizations and Non-governmental agencies across Nigeria, as first responders, have been inundated with reports covering spousal violence, landlord-tenant violence, homeowner-house helps violence, boyfriend-girlfriend violence, violence on widows, police-sex worker violence, and police-citizen violence.

The video of Rose caught in the grip of her landlord’s verbal assault, sexual harassment, and physical violence was recorded by the neighbours who sent the video to Dr Gabriel Oyediji, a Social Worker, Intervener and National Secretary of Association of Orphanages and Homes of Nigeria who responded to the case.

Figure 1 Source: ASOHON

In my interview with Dr Gabriel Oyediji, regarding what led to the violent assault on Rose, he narrates that the “woman’s landlord confronted her for hanging her clothes on a line in the compound. Without a thought to his next action, the landlord went to the line and threw the woman’s clothes away. After doing that he confronted her again, this time, asking how she got the expensive new car she drove. Using his influence and connection to the police, the landlord hastily put a call to the police asking them to come and arrest the woman. The tension between the landlord and the tenant escalated to the point where the landlord punched the woman on her face and head, and tried to undress her publicly, while hitting her head against the wall until the neighbours, some who began to video the altercation from a distance, raised their voices to call attention and get help from others.”

Dr Oyediji goes on to describes the violent attack on Rose during COVID-19 lockdown as a 3-phase-tragedy. “The first tragedy that occurred in this incident has to do with the woman’s neighbours. They did not interfere in the incident because they wanted to maintain social distance. Now, this allowed misunderstanding between the tenant and landlord to escalate.” However, when it became obvious that the landlord would do more harm if not stopped, the neighbours threw caution to the wind to save Rose. Rose’s husband, who is not around, is away on missionary work in Rwanda. The determined neighbours took the matter to the police in Akowonjo in hope of getting justice for Rose.

The “second tragedy” that happened to Rose according to Dr Oyediji occurred inside the police station in Akowonjo with the police. “They arrested the woman and not the perpetrator of violence – the landlord. Also, the female DPO at Sasha police station in Akowonjo, Lagos, passed judgment in favour of the landlord due to his influence in the area.”  The matter was then reported to the Area Commander in charge of the area who assigned an inspector to investigate the case.” 

The “third tragedy” that befell Rose Dr. Oyediji goes on to explain was when “according to the woman she said the Investigating Officer made a demand of N25,000 as a precondition before commencing any investigation. The woman said to me that she explained to the officer that she had only N10,000 sent to her by her husband for feeding and the money was at home. The police officer now told her he would follow her home on an okada to collect the money. As soon as she gave the officer the money, he arrested the offender, the landlord, and took the landlord to the police station.” However, when Rose, the investigation officer and her neighbours got to the police station Dr Oyediji says “within 30 minutes neighbours witnessed a quick online transaction from the offender to the police officer done in the open. And within 40 mins, without making a statement, the offender, the landlord was released and sent back home.”

However, Rose’s neighbours cried foul and with the intervention of Dr Oyediji, he brought in the Area Commander into the matter. “Seeing the degree of the injury done on the woman, the Area Commander asked her to go for medical assessment. Cranial x-ray was done and it was suspected that she had subdural haemorrhage (bleeding under the skull).” As at the time of this report when I asked that I speak to Rose, I was told she was having a CT-Scan to determine the extent of the subdural haemorrhage. However, Dr Oyediji says “a full investigation into the matter has been requested by the Area Commander requesting an appointment with the woman and a full investigation into the result of the medical report.” 

The health condition of the woman, as at the time this report was put together, according to Dr Oyediji “has not improved and she’s under medical management. She suffers severe pains and constant headaches as a result of being pinned to the wall, punched on the nose, with her head hit many times against the wall while the landlord harassed her sexually in the course of inflicting violence on her.”

Domestic Impatience: The Social and Emotional Impact of Covid-19 Lockdown
Foluke Ademokun who is a Monitoring and Evaluation Expert and Executive Coordinator with Ajoke Ayisat Afolabi Foundation, says “domestic jealousy and anger; living with an abuser; tension due to the economic impact of the lockdown; the tension between tenants and female landlords; feeling of being trapped at home; domestic impatience by both men and women are some of the reports we have received since the lockdown began.” 

Dr Abiola Akiode-Afolabi, “there was a high prevalence of gender-based violence even before the COVID-19. What COVID-19 has done is to aggravate that. Tension has built up, there is a lot of uncertainty, there are fears around and people are not sure whether they’re going to get their jobs back, and many more are not sure what to expect. People are also not sure how they’re going to satisfy the social burden that comes with an economic downturn if this COVID-19 crisis does not get a result asap. The statistics from South Africa and the US shows that there is more domestic violence across the world than what we used to experience before the COVID-19.”

In Delta state, according to the Attorney General and Commissioner of Justice, Peter Mrakpor, “there were 134 sexual-based offences with 17 cases filed in January 2020 pending in various high courts in Delta state alone. Across Delta state, in the last quarter of 2019, a growing problem of sexual and gender-based violence was recorded, of which over 50% are underreported. An alarming number of reported cases, however, are settled in and out of the police station without conclusive investigation and prosecution due to poor/unprofessional handling of such cases by the police and other government agencies”.

Dr Gabriel Oyediji adds that says: “The lockdown has taken away social life, relaxation points have been closed down, get-together and play centres have been shut down. So you can imagine the Reversive Coefficient on life at home. It takes away some tolerance, and there have been reports here and there of gender-based violence of more women at the receiving end.”

The Triggers
Domestic impatience is triggered by predisposing, perpetrating, and perpetuating factors. The predisposing factor is largely economic breakdown in the family, which is now escalated by the lockdown. Dr Oyediji explains that “the economic breakdown in the family system is predisposing husband and wife to impatience because their needs are increasing, but the food is disappearing, and resources are dwindling.” The poverty, he explains,  is a predisposing factor given that the economy of average Nigeria is low.

Dr Oyediji explains: “imagine an extension of the 14 days to two more weeks with limited access to food, no new source of income. Impatience is and will continue to escalate because the mitigating and backup factors are not provided. Palliative relief and sound social services are not provided or not properly managed.” In Alimosho Local Government Area where he is domiciled, he says: “A bag of rice was given to 1000-2000 persons to share. Six loaves of bread and five kilos of rice was given to a community of over 10,000 people to share! It is a comedy and a tragedy. It is a shame on the nation. Patience is dwindling, and the tolerance level is dropping because the demand at home is rising, the resources to meet the demand are dwindling. These are the perpetuating factors that make it continuous unless the interventions come we begin to follow the intervention processes as well as the investments and the relief pattern, and resources begin to meet the demand, then respite will come.”

Lack of shelters for victims in Nigeria is also another challenge.  Prof. Olubunmi Ashimolowo, of Gender Development Initiative, says: “People have nowhere to report cases to now, as most human rights organizations and government facilities are shut down as a result of the lockdown.” 

Also, civil society groups and NGOs are not positioned to maximize their position as first responders to SGBV or domestic violence issues because they are not categorized as essential services by the government. This makes it difficult for them to provide quick professional service and support to victims of GBV during the lockdown.

Lack of post-intervention reliefs in Nigeria is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to managing GBV and DV reported cases. Dr Gabriel Oyediji shares his experience regarding this: “When you intervene on domestic violence and say you want to make the man face the music or woman face the music, and particularly the man, by the time you take the man to the family court, and put the man in detention, the family suffers, and the man suffers. In most cases, the woman does not have a good job that can sustain the family, she cannot pay rent, feed the children, thereby leaving the disarray. When rent expires, landlords put pressure on the woman and we begin to regret the intervention because sometimes we create more problems than the ones we’re trying to solve. The same woman now begins to flirt around, move from one man to another, and before you know it, she catches HIV, she dies and leaves her children behind to suffer. This is a big complication.”

In countries with well-developed intervention systems and shelters in place, the woman does not suffer after her partner, the man is arrested for abusing or wounding her. These countries provide housing, monthly allowances for the woman and her children for their welfare. Making recovery faster for them and preventing dependency behaviours towards their abuser. There is, therefore, a need for combined efforts by the federal and state governments to increase social welfare funds, allowances and budget so that intervention on domestic victims would be easier.

Solutions to Domestic Impatience and Managing SGBV and DV
With the rise in gender-based violence across the country, the Domestic Referral Centres, WARDC, WRAPPA, and WILPF organized a webinar on the challenges faced by organizations responding to gender-based violence. The webinar reviewed what works, what is not working, and what needs to be done to strengthen the efforts of organizations responding to gender-based violence during COVID-19 shutdown. 

Dr Akiode-Afolabi, the Founding Executive Director of WARDC explains that: “Statistics in Nigeria and around the world show that 1 in every 3 women suffer from one form of violence or the other. It could be domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and if you put that into the context that means there was a high prevalence of gender-based violence even before the COVID-19. What COVID-19 has done is to aggravate that. Tension has built up, there is a lot of uncertainty, there are fears around and people are not sure whether they’re going to get their jobs back, and many more are not sure what to expect. People are also not sure how they’re going to satisfy the social burden that comes with an economic downturn if this COVID-19 crisis does not get a result asap. The statistics from South Africa and the US shows that there is more domestic violence across the world than what we used to experience before the COVID-19.”

Rebecka Andersson, Secretary-General, Unizon, a coalition of over 140 shelters for victims of gender-based violence in Sweden, highlighted that “70% of shelters in Sweden are run by NGOs”. This she explains makes it easier for them to carry out more effective management support for victims.

In Nigeria, however, since the lockdown, most human rights activists say they tap into their networks and go out of their way to personally provide support to persons who are being abused while adhering to social distancing guidelines to mitigate emergency cases. But without authorized passes, many works virtually with the police to refer cases of GBV to women and government institutions to respond to them, reach out to relatives to provide shelter as the primary option for providing shelter for the abused since there is limited access to shelters and even before the lockdown, the shelters across Nigeria were not adequate. 

Why is the comfort of the victims of domestic violence especially in families crucial? Dr Oyediji says: “Many times, after the man has been sent to prison the woman is harassed and terrorized by neighbours and the community who accuse her of putting her husband in the cell; her own family alienates her, calling her derogatory names for reporting her abusive husband to the police. This affects the woman’s mental and emotional state. So what’s the point of taking the man from the house only for the woman and the children to suffer its aftermath?”

Dr Abiola Akiode Afolabi highlights that “Nigeria became the first country in West Africa to pass the Violence Against Persons Act at the national level. To date, 12 states in Nigeria have also followed suit in passing this law.” These states are Ogun, The FCT, Ekiti, Oyo, Osun, Benue, Kaduna, Edo, Kogi, Anambra, Enugu, and Rivers. However, according to Dr Akiode-Abiola: “The truth of the matter is, some of these laws are not properly implemented. Some statutory bodies are supposed to be created under the law that have not been created in about 80% of the states where the violence against a person act has been passed, even at the federal level. Also, the fact that the institution and the governors are not very responsive to issues relating to women and children, it means we don’t have enough shelters, we don’t have enough mechanisms that can help women out of this violence. Across Africa patriarchy is still endemic. At the level of community, at the level of the state, and even at the level of those who are making laws, they still see women as a second class citizen and so you see women suffer a lot from widowhood practices, genital mutilation, sexual and gender-based violence and a whole lot of violence that in communities.”

Mindset Shift Change
To tackle gender-based violence issues during the lockdown, human rights organizations such as WARDC, WRAPPA, and WILPF are coming up with creative solutions to protect women and children. They are leveraging access to community radio stations to enlighten people and are tapping into social media spaces to create awareness in pidgin, English, and especially in local languages to reach diverse groups. Despite these efforts, more needs to be done to *strengthen the response mechanism to gender-based violence issues. It is important for the government to review the laws related to GBV issues and ensure they are applicable to recent events and are implementable. The community may create support systems for unemployed women, these may include access to traditional leaders, women groups, extended family groups, etc. People need to be educated about secondary trauma and how to effectively manage it. It is important for individuals to take on more responsibility and see GBV as an economic and social issue; as an issue of politics and as an issue that we all need to address to be able to allow for a free non-violent environment. A non-violent environment can lead to a whole lot of development for the country.

In an interview with Dr Akiode Afolabi, the founding director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Center, she highlights that Nigeria became the first country in West Africa to pass the Violence Against Persons Act at the national level. To date, 12 states in Nigeria have also followed suit in passing this law. The states are Ogun, The FCT, Ekiti, Oyo, Osun, Benue, Kaduna, Edo, Kogi, Anambra, Enugu, and Rivers. However, according to Dr Akiode-Abiola: “The truth of the matter is some of these laws are not properly implemented. There are some statutory bodies that are supposed to be created under the law that have not been created in about 80% of the states where the violence against a person act has been passed, even at the federal level. Also, the fact that the institution and the governors are not very responsive to issues relating to women and children, it means we don’t have enough shelters, we don’t have enough mechanisms that can help women out of this violence. Across Africa patriarchy is still endemic. At the level of community, at the level of the state, and even at the level of those who are making laws, they still see women as a second class citizen and so you see women suffer a lot from widowhood practices, genital mutilation, sexual and gender-based violence and a whole lot of violence that in communities.”

According to Dr Akiode-Abiola: “Gender-based COVID-19 awareness on radio and TV must also be by the government using targeted information to disseminate information on how the prevention of GBV can be done in our community and other places. And we should also direct the provision of designated services and shelters to remain open and accessible to vulnerable people during this period as essential services. If People don’t do that it might be very difficult to address the effect of GBV and it could mean a whole lot of things after COVID-19. With homes being broken, some women might also die as a result of violence; there’ll be more trauma, emotional, psychological, and a whole lot. So it is important for the government to address it.” 

During the webinar on Gendered impact of COVID 19 – Lessons from Spain, Sweden, Ghana, and Nigeria, WARDC, WRAPPA, and WILPF highlighted some action points to address GBV, explaining that we must work towards achieving a society that is free from violence. It is everyone’s responsibility to join the fight against GBV. The community has a role to play, to promote a violence-free culture amongst the people including children from a very tender age. We must promote the culture of equal respect for all. Train the boy child and girl child to understand that violence is NOT and NEVER an option despite the situation.

To make this possible, prevention is better than to inflict, can be used as a mantra to look into how we manage our environments, disseminate information, and work as a community to eradicate and prevent more gender-based violence. This requires that people must learn to speak out and do away with the culture of silence while managing home environments, it requires spotting red flags and mitigating factors.

WARDC, WRAPPA, and WILPF added that community, religious leaders, traditional rulers must buy into the fact that there should be zero tolerance to GBV, domestic violence, and all forms of abuse and violence against all gender and must stop shielding high profile individuals who are abusers. Since it takes a village to thrive, there must be general agreement that the society is ready to support zero tolerance. The society too needs to be sincere in tackling GBV, and that includes the government and other state actors. People can serve as deterrents and are used as scapegoats.

The laws at state and federal levels must be domesticated where necessary and enforceable. People must be able to implement the law. Passing the domestic violence act in Lagos State intensified the work against domestic violence. More persons walked in and used hotlines to report cases to DSRVT and Mirabel Centre. The more people have information on enforcement successes, the easier it becomes for NGOs to follow up on the cases with the police to ensure that justice is done in each case. Mirabel Centre has in the last 3 to 4 years handled over 5,400 cases. If people know where to report, and that their case gets to a logical conclusion, people will report.

Support mechanisms must be effective, accommodating, and responsive to the needs of the target audiences. Essential services and facilities in the form of short term shelter, hotlines across the country, legal, and trauma counselling services nationwide are provided as a mandatory social system structure. Increase the turnaround time of testing during lockdown to save more women in abusive homes. Hotlines should be free and manned 24/7. And a new recovery plan post-COVID-19 must not be adopted. More shelters need to be built as pointers for victims to escape their abusers and restart a new life. There is also a need to have more referral systems as the current ones are not enough. Lagos has been a good model in terms of creating institutions that can respond to GBV but it still has a lot more to do. The government needs to commit more support to ensure zero tolerance for GBV. The organised labour needs to change its strategic focus from wages only, and think more exponentially and holistically in addressing other human rights abuses as an inclusive strategy.

They need to begin to ensure a lot more enlightenment from early on among boys, girls, teens, and adults as a preemptive measure rather than an interventionist approach are critical to nipping GBV excuses or reasons in the bud. More town hall meetings with religious, traditional, and community leaders as a support system and champions to end GBV.

The government needs to recognize WOMEN and stop treating them as second class citizens as many have not been included in policymaking and stimulus packages regarding how this can be most effectively put to use. Women’s input on this matter is invaluable.

The government should designate and strengthen gender desks and family support units within police departments and other departments of government. The police force must stop trivializing GVB, domestic violence, molestation, rape, etc. The culture of silence is bred when police become complicit. When police are found complicit, jail terms should be the consequences of being an accomplice in the abuse and violation of women’s rights in the face of violence and abuse of all kinds. Police need proper training in handling GBV and DV. Police need to employ more paralegals units in its force and also put an end to police brutality towards all. Jail terms for police offenders would serve as a deterrent.

The need for a paradigm shift from ‘we against them’ to ‘we for we’ across all gender-driven initiatives and strategies across the world as a proactive approach. Male gender champions lack space and need to be right inside the drive to end GBV. This means expanding and amplifying the voices on GBV and other forms of violence from a place of the solution and social interventions and jurisprudence.

The government needs to understand the legitimacy of supporting NGOs, CSOs, and other human rights organizations to have a special task force managing GBV. Permits and passes should be given to CSOs and NGOs during this lockdown to act swiftly and professionally when needed.

Food banks and other palliative programs need to be better organized, properly monitored, and duly accounted for to the public. This requires transparency by the government at both local, state and federal levels to show public accountability of money spent on social palliatives keeps everyone on their toes to be accountable

Bridge the gap between the haves and have nots. Internet access infrastructure needs to be developed in rural communities and urban areas lacking such. Focused sensitization through jingles in many languages to bridge the gap of enlightenment on GBV and information accessing services that are important for women and other marginalized groups who may be in violent situations in family settings, neighbourhoods, or from action or inaction from other state actors.

There must be an immediate stop to xenophobic attacks against foreign women, asylum seekers, and IDPs.     

This Outbreak story was supported by the Pulitzer Center and Code for Africa‘s WanaData women data science initiative.


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