The Nigerians Fighting for the Right of Women to Live Without Abuse
Valentine Iwenwanne reports on why violence against females is embedded into the country’s patriarchal society and how progress is slowly being made
Gender-based violence in Nigeria spiked during the first two weeks of lockdown during the Coronavirus crisis. Some of these incidents tragically resulted in the death of victims, the rape of children – including incestual rape – and tenant-landlord assault.
At the end of May, Vera Uwaila Omozuwa, a 22-year-old microbiology student, who had sought the quiet of her church in Benin City, southern Nigeria, as a place to study, died days after being raped in the place of worship – a crime that has sparked outrage across the country.
According to a 2014 UNICEF survey, one in four girls have experienced sexual violence before the age of 18 in Nigeria. Of those who have experienced sexual violence in childhood, only 38% tell someone about it and as few as 5% seek help.
For many years, multiple counts of rape, sexual and domestic violence have been the hallmark of social coexistence in Nigeria. Deeply-rooted patriarchy pushes survivors away from either seeking help or coming forward to speak due to the fear of not being believed and being subject to undue scrutiny and shame.
Addressing social norms to prevent gender-based violence is more effective than mere focus on the individual accused and the morality of the society.Rashidat Funmilayo Raimi
Dorothy Njemanze, a women’s rights activist and founder of the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation, says that the violation of women and girls’ rights has been a norm across Nigeria.
“Fundamental disrespect for the female gender is very rife in Nigeria; their human rights are treated as women’s rights which often lead to the broadest form of dehumanisation,” she says. “It doesn’t get the attention it requires.”
Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria has recorded more than 43,000 cases of the Coronavirus and more than 800 deaths. Since January, Nigeria has recorded more than 700 rape cases, with the country ranking abysmally low in the Global Gender Gap Indices.
Nigerian women are faced with tough odds. Chapter four of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution states that every individual is entitled “to respect for the dignity of his person” as well as “to his personal liberty”, but sexual offences are not expressly articulated as violations of either.
Sexual harassment is an especially difficult crime to prosecute and, in most cases, survivors don’t come forward – either because they cannot afford the high cost of engaging the police or because they feel that the justice system is broken. The absence of provision for victim support makes it even more difficult for the families of victims to sue for justice.
They has also been push-back from the legislature. In March 2016, Nigeria’s upper chamber voted down the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill which aimed to accord women equal rights to those of men in various spheres of life and to impose certain measures to address past and current discriminatory practices.
Women Fight Back
A coalition of rights groups and NGOs marched to Nigeria’s Parliament last June, calling for it to declare a state of emergency on Nigeria’s age-long patriarchy, rape culture and sexual violence.
Among the demands was a call to pass the Violation Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP) – which has found success. The lower chamber in Bauchi – one of the remaining 11 states yet to pass the law – has now passed the VAPP into law, while the Nigeria Governors’ Forum has also adopted different protocols on sexual and gender-based violence in their states.
Nigeria adopted the Child Rights Act in 2003 to domesticate the international Convention on the Rights of the Child. It expands the human rights bestowed to citizens in Nigeria’s 1999 constitution to children, covering survival, development, participation and the protection rights of children and adolescents.
Although 24 out of Nigeria’s 36 states have adopted the Child Rights Act, including the age at which children can consent to sexual activity, the remaining states yet to pass the law are in the highly conservative north of the country.
Tony Ojukwu, the executive secretary of the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria (NHRC), says that the Child Rights Act has been faced with clashes of customs, traditions, religion and law within the Hausa Fulani community in Nigeria’s northern region where child marriage is normalised.
“Many of the child brides end up suffering from vesicovaginal fistula or VVF due to the level of sexuality and responsibilities of motherhood that they are exposed to,” he told Byline Times. “Some die, others live with it.”
In the upper chamber, mass support for the castration of those found guilty of rape was thrown out. The NHRC has joined forces with the Nigeria Police Force, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons, and Nigeria Ministry of Women Affairs, to ensure that policies meant to punish offers are properly implemented.
But Rashidat Funmilayo Raimi, a sexual and reproductive health rights advocate and programme assistant at the Health Reform Foundation of Nigeria, says that fighting rape in Nigeria goes beyond enacting policies.
“Addressing social norms to prevent gender-based violence is more effective than mere focus on the individual accused and the morality of the society,” she says. “We need to do more on addressing the root cause of rape.”
Nigeria launched its first national Sexual Offenders Register in 2019 to help members of the public and security agencies conduct background checks and identify sex offenders.
Tony Ojukwu says that consensus is building.
“I see that, in the near future, the states that have not passed the Child Rights Act in the north will do so in the best interest of Nigeria.”
Valentine Iwenwanne is a Nigeria-based journalist and photographer covering global health, development and the environment. His work has appeared in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, Devex, TRT World, Ozy, Equal Times, CNN Africa and more. He tweets at @valentineiwen