Who’s afraid of non-violence against women?
Violence against persons, particularly the vulnerable groups which includes women and girls, is rooted in obnoxious cultures and traditions commonly practiced in Nigeria. These range from physical, sexual and emotional abuses. Many women, especially in the southern parts of Nigeria, are prone to violence such as female genital mutilation, forceful ejection from marital homes owing to the death of a husband. Other harmful cultural practices include forceful shaving of a woman’s head to mourn dead husband, being forced to drink the bath water of the deceased husbands and being subjected to physical humiliation such as battery and assault, all of which arise from long-held abominable cultural beliefs are only a few to be mentioned. Surprisingly, though, Section 55 of the penal code (in operation in Northern Nigeria) gives legal backing to the corrective beating of a child, pupil, servant or wife as long as this does not cause ‘grievous bodily harm’. In spite of this, the legal and judicial systems provide women with little protection against violence. While rape is punishable by life imprisonment in Nigeria, the burden of proof hangs on the shoulders of the alleged victim. Also, the pain and shame of reliving the experience coupled with societal pressure to keep silent often discourage women from reporting sexual violence. The police don’t help her situation either. They often dismiss cases of domestic violence as a ‘family affair’ and are reluctant to intervene even when the woman sustained serious bodily harm. The customary law offers even less protection. The Sharia provides that a husband can withdraw maintenance if his wife declines sexual intercourse. It also states that a woman alleging rape must produce four witnesses. In the absence of proof, a woman can be punished for adultery ranging from a prison sentence to public flogging.
Just before leaving office, on May 25, 2015, President Goodluck Jonathan signed a number of bills earlier passed by the National Assembly into law. Prominent among them is the Violence against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015 bill, which has now become an Act of the National Assembly. The Senate had earlier in May, passed the Violence against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015 into law. Although the Act prohibits all forms of violence against persons in public and private life, its implementation is the needed tool to reducing violence in Nigeria. The VAPP Act adequately addresses forms of violence against women and girls, which are more often than not, overlooked and condoned by society.
The VAPP Act seeks to prohibit female circumcision or genital mutilation, forceful ejection from home and harmful widowhood practices. It also prohibits abandonment of spouse, children and other dependants without sustenance, battery, and harmful traditional practices. VAPP also intends to eliminate violence in private and public life and provide maximum protection and effective remedies for victims of violence, and punishment of offenders. It also prohibits economic abuse, forced isolation, and separation from family and friends, substance attack, depriving persons of their liberty, incest, and indecent exposure, among others. But, until the VAPP Act, there was no federal law specifically addressing sexual harassment and domestic violence in Nigeria.
Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, who presided at the session where the bill was passed, said the bill would provide adequate protection for the vulnerable in the society and punish those who take advantage of them.
The VAPP Act is a child of 14 years of agitations by the Civil Society Organizations with the formation of the Legislative Advocacy Coalition against Violence against Women (LACVAW) in 2001. Activists have consistently pushed for national legislation prohibiting violence against women. First presented to the House of Representatives in May 2002, the Bill on Violence Against Women became a Bill on Violence Against Persons in 2008 when it was harmonized with 8 other Bills on gender-based violence in the National Assembly. It took some seven years for it to be passed into law.
Under the new law, spousal battery, forceful ejection from home, forced financial dependence or economic abuse, harmful widowhood practices, female circumcision or genital mutilation, harmful traditional practices, substance attacks such as acid baths, political violence and violence by state actors suck as government security forces constitute offences. Victims and survivors of violence are now entitled to comprehensive medical, psychological, social and legal assistance by accredited service providers and government agencies, with their identities protected during court cases. The National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) is named as the service provider.
Presently, the applicability of the VAPP Act outside the FCT is subject to legal debate. There is, however, clamoring for the VAPP law to be passed in all the 36 States of the federation so as to protect the vulnerable in the rural setting. However, 13 States have enacted related legislation with Plateau state joining Imo, Ekiti, Kogi and Anambra to become the fifth state to pass the Gender and Equal Opportunities Act which seeks to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in education, employment, indigeneship and other spheres of life.
Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Senator Aisha Jummai Alhassan at a media parley themed: ‘Parleying to popularize the VAPP Act’, organized by her ministry in Abuja recently, urged all states to harmonise their Acts in line with the VAPP Act. According to her, “issues of violence against women has for long been trivialized by both the general public and policy makers. Consequently, the true extent of violence against women and gender-based violence in Nigeria is not known”.
Senator Alhassan hailed those states that have taken concrete steps to improve the situation of Nigerian women through laws, policies and institutional mechanisms that promote women’s human rights. These state-level initiatives include the protection of widows against human rights abuses viz Oyo and Anambra states, Protecting the Girl-child, Benue, and Kano, Trafficking in Women and Girls, Edo, Gender Based Violence, Ebonyi state, Protection Against Domestic Violence Law, Ekiti state, Violence Against Women Law among several others.
This calls for all states to embark on legal reforms and access to justice for women whose rights have been violated. Interestingly, some states already have laws in place to address domestic violence, such as The Prohibition Against Domestic Violence Law No 15, 2007 of Lagos State and the Gender-Based Violation (Prohibition) Law, 2011 of Ekiti State.
“Violence against women has become one of the most visible social issues in the country so for me, the 14 years of continuous struggle that led to the successful passage of the VAPP Act on May 5, 2015, and its subsequent assent on May 25, 2015, is highly commendable. In addition, the resilience and participatory posture involving a coalition of actors led by the ministry was apt and worthy of praises”, the minister said.
Alhassan was optimistic that the VAPP Act would ensure justice is done to women, girls and other vulnerable groups who are being subjected to all forms of violence. The VAPP Act is presently the only Act that prohibits all forms of violence against persons both in private and public life and provides maximum protection and effective remedies to victims and punishment for offenders. To achieve full implementation of the VAPP Act, Nigeria must deliberately eliminate the entrenched barbaric cultural practices to protect her most vulnerable citizens from all forms of abuse.
“Recognizing the work ahead, I call on all stakeholders, to work tirelessly to ensure that a holistic strategic action is put in place to actualize success in the VAPP Act implementation. I also wish to call on religious and traditional leaders as well as the media, our Civil Society Organisation partners, especially the LACVAW coalition group. I urge you to join hands to lift the veil of silence, to support all vulnerable persons especially women and girls to speak out against what is happening to them and to protect them from violence. I canvass your support in ensuring the VAPP Act is passed, adopted and implemented across all states of the federation”, she said.
In her remarks, Permanent Secretary in the ministry, Mrs. Binta Bello who said the goal of the media parley was to set in motion, coordinated engagements and institutional mechanisms to drive a coherent implementation of the VAPP Act, posited that “The Act is clearly not enough to end gender-based violence, but the media parley is seen as a critical beginning, a call to action, a tool for securing concerted efforts across all sectors and an opportunity to mobilize all sections of the society.
“The rationale for the media parley is the need for awareness creation on the VAPP Act which will ensure its implementation at all levels and ultimately guarantee the protection of the rights of women and girls and to ensure that investments made in enacting the Act are sustained and that stakeholders have a better understanding of the provisions of the Act. The main thrust of the project is to institutionalize and implement the VAPP Act with relevant government Millennium Development Agencies, MDAs, security officials, the Judiciary and working closely with the Civil Society groups and partners”, she said.
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