Rebuilding public confidence for collective action against GBV
Six decades after independence, Nigeria’s gender-based violence (GBV) story is regrettable as the prevalence against females is on the rise; and the nation appears engulfed in it, as available evidence and media reports suggest an increase in the occurrence. This is a dark and dangerous situation.
The Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2018 (NDHS 2018) released recently, states that among women age 15-49, 31% have experienced physical violence and nine per cent (9) have experienced sexual violence. The Survey further states that physical violence and sexual violence may not occur in isolation; rather, women may experience a combination of different forms of violence. Overall, 33% of women age 15-49 in Nigeria have experienced physical or sexual violence: 24% have experienced only physical violence, 2% have experienced only sexual violence, and 7% have experienced both physical and sexual violence.
Similarly, 2013 NDHS stated that seven (7) percent of women age 15-49 reported that they had experienced sexual violence at some time; and the experience of sexual violence ranges from 6 percent among women age 15-19 to 9 percent among women age 20-24.
Also, prior to Covid-19 pandemic, the results of a survey published by NOIPolls in July 2019 suggested that up to one in every three girls living in Nigeria could have experienced at least one form of sexual assault by the time they reach 25.
Again, since the COVID-19 pandemic, one form of GBV that has spiked is sexual assault. So, amid the pandemic Nigeria is also undergoing sexual assault crisis; and it is becoming sever to the extent that the Inspector General (IG) of Police Mohammed Adamu, stated that there were 717 reported rape cases in the country between January and May; and 799 suspects have so far been arrested while 631 cases have been sent to court. Yet 52 cases are still under inquiry. Similarly, on June 11, the Lagos Police Command stated that 32 separate cases of defilement, forced sexual assault, incest, and sodomy have been reported by residents of the state in the last six months.
Therefore, it is no longer in doubt that there is a spike in the cases of sexual assault and other forms of violence in Nigeria since the Covid-19 pandemic. Even, some people have argued that the spike is directly proportional to the spike in the cases of Covid-19.
While, this assertion may seem anecdotal, hitherto the pandemic, it is a known fact that cases of sexual assault and other forms of GBV are under reported. However, the frequency in the reportage of some cases in the media has risen during the Covid-19 pandemic to the extent that it sparked off various protests and all the 36 governors agreed to declare a state of emergency over sexual violence and other forms of GBV against women and children. Similarly, President Muhammadu Buhari also declared that his administration was determined to fight GBV.
Specifically, on Covid-19 pandemic, while experts opine that stress, loss of income and isolation has exacerbated the risk of violence against women; the Minister of Women Affairs, Mrs. Paulin Tallen attributed it to women and children being locked down with their abusers in homes because of COVID-19.
Some of the consequences on the victims are social, medical and psychological problems. For example, genital tract traumas could lead to bleeding, fistulas; abnormal vaginal discharges, sexually transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancies which may result to unsafe abortions as well as sexual disorders and mental illnesses and other psycho-social problems; not discounting the social stigma that accompanies being identified as a rape victim.
It is in recognition of these consequences, that Lagos state government blazed the trail with the Protection Against Domestic Violence Law of 2007, which protects men, women and children. Another law that seeks to eliminate violence in private and public life, prohibits all forms of violence against persons, and seeks to provide maximum protection and effective remedies for victims and punishment of offenders is the Violence against Persons (Prohibition) Act (VAPP Act), which was passed into law on the 25th of May 2015 by the Former President, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan. This act aims to eliminate all forms of violence in both the private and public spheres; and includes the right to assistance for victims of violence. It establishes life imprisonment for rape offenders; 14 years imprisonment for offenders aged 14 and below, and it also provides a minimum of 20 years imprisonment without an option of fine for other age groups or persons who perpetrated the act. Ever since, only 15 out of Nigeria’s 36 states have adopted the legislation, which makes prosecuting the offenders a more complex task.
In addition, Nigeria is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Nonetheless, despite legislation and ongoing efforts to protect women and vulnerable populations against violence, much remains to be done in protecting victims and prosecuting perpetrators.
So, although Nigeria is a signatory to CEDAW and has passed a comprehensive law against all forms of violence including sexual violence, there is still prevalence of sexual violence and it is on the rise. So, the question is: why?
Despite these negative consequences, cases of sexual assault are still under reported in Nigeria for various reasons, which include: not reporting cases to the law enforcement officers because of the intent to protect the victims from public ridicule and stigmatisation; even when reported, before long, the matter is withdrawn for settlement which is a culture of condoning violence as family affair not deserving to be reported and treated as a crime; belief that the police may fail to prosecute the crime; alleged police extortion; alleged derogatory comments for reporting at the police station as victims are either vilified for their dressing, being at the wrong place at the wrong time or accused of making up claims of sexual assault; the negative framing and colouration given to victims of violence who flee from perpetrators; lack of persecution of offenders; low rate of prosecution and slow timeline for justice delivery, even some judges adjourn cases till the investigating police officers (IPOs) are transferred to other states or cannot be traced again all aimed at frustrating the complainant and most often than not, the court places the burden of looking for the offender on the complainant; lenient bail conditions for offenders and even when bench warrant is issued, some of them cannot be traced as some even change names and migrate to other countries, limiting the enforcement of the laws on perpetrators; lenient punishment for offenders; lack of trust in the judicial process; and no national template for victims’ trauma response among other reasons.
Others are women’s lack of access to legal information, aid or protection; states not adopting relevant laws that effectively prohibit violence against women; the low level of awareness about the laws/inadequate efforts on the part of public authorities to promote awareness of/and enforce existing laws; victims poor know of how to access justice; and the absence of educational and other means to address the causes and consequences of violence.
Thus, some have argued that our society to a large extent enables the crime, since victims often find brick walls at the hospitals, police stations and courts; and some judges give light punishment, which may not deter others. These scenarios enable offenders to perpetrate more of such crimes and become serial sex offender with impunity, and may also be the reasons for the poor success recorded in the fight against the crime thus far; despite efforts by several government agencies and civil society organizations to mitigate this crime.
The increasing spate of sexual assault is a national embarrassment and has become a great concern. It of a great concern not just from a human rights perspective, but also from an economic, health and moral perspectives; not discounting the physical, mental and social impact on the victims. Does it mean that what is taught in religious organisations does not impact on members’ way of life? In climes where there is the fear of God; and communities, where respect and common decency reign, females are honoured and highly-respected.
All said, the alarming trend of female sexual assault in Nigeria is inexcusable and universally condemnable. It is evil and should be speedily checked because sexual violence dehumanises the victims and devalues their sense of self-worth. Thus, there must be no place in our society for sexual predators. We must chain and lock this monster in a dungeon and females of all ages must be adequately protected.
In search for solution, the Nigerian state at 60, must be pragmatic! Thus, emphasis should be on the linkage of actions and SDGs 5 and 16. Against the backdrop that the multiple forms of violence women and girls are exposed to across their lives, is occasioned by gender inequality, seeking to address issues of sexual Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) will contribute to achieving gender equality and the empowerment for women and girls, which is focused on SDG5. Also, when attention is paid to making demands by citizens and duty bearers to act aimed at ensuring the prevention and mitigation of violence, Nigeria’s action is targeted at achieving SDG 16.
So, the list of GBV cases showing when they were filed in courts and the list of offenders that jumped bail should be compiled. Those that jumped bail should be declared fugitives and the Inspector General of Police (IGP) be made to declare them wanted. There should be a policy to compel judges to take the evidence of IPOs as soon as GBV cases are before them to encourage victims to seek for redress and reduce the frustration and burden of prosecution on complainants. The policy should also put a ceiling on the timeline for delivering judgement on GBV cases or else the government should set up special courts for handling GBV cases aimed at timely dispensation of justice.
These will rebuild public confidence; create the enabling environment for collective action against sexual violence; mobilise citizens to resist sexual assault and misconduct, which has reached the level of impunity in Nigeria; and make citizens to demand from duty bearers actions and contextually relevant strategies targeted at the prevention and mitigation of GBV in Nigeria.
• Abigail Ogwezzy-Ndisika, PhD, MNIPR, arpa Professor and Chevening Scholar Department of Mass CommunicationUniversity of Lagos, Akoka-Yaba Lagos
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