The International Women’s Day has come and gone. A time to reflect on the progress made on issues affecting women and a call for change in the gaps therein. 2015 may be regarded as a watershed in this respect. Having “finished” with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, member countries of the United Nations agreed on 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. Hence, the theme for this year’s Women’s Day is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality. The draft outcome document titled “Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” was formally adopted by world leaders at the United Nations Summit for the post-2015 development agenda held in New York from 25-27 September, 2015. The Agenda seeks to end poverty, promote economic prosperity, social development and environmental protection for all countries.
The underlying objective of this year’s theme is the need to accelerate the 2030 Agenda through effective implementation of the SDGs, especially goal number 5 – to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Curiously, Nigeria is not amongst the ninety-one countries that had signed up with UN Women to step it up for gender equality!
As a Law lecturer and researcher in Gender and the Law, it is submitted that this year’s theme presents another unique opportunity to revisit the critical issues in Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Nigeria (SGBV). As I have noted in some of my published works, this type of violence is used to target individuals or groups based on their gender. Worse still, in times of conflict, threats and acts of SGBV are used to instill fear and employed by perpetrators to exert dominance and control over their victims. Rape, sexual slavery; forced marriages; forced pregnancy, kidnapping, genital mutilation and sexual harassment are common examples of SGBV in society. The culture of silence continues to ferment these social vices. However, various researches have shown the endemic practice of SGBV in the country.
The effect of SGBV include emotional trauma such as shame, guilt, fear; medical consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases; vesico-vagina vistulae, pre and post-natal complications; excessive bleeding; urinary retention and infections, and even death. This writer shares the view of the UN Commission on Status of Women that eradication of SGBV is necessary to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. Obviously, a girl or woman that is faced with the any of the effects described above will hardly be positive about accessing education, economically contributing to societal development or participating in governance. She will be locked up in her own world trying to survive her ordeal. The ‘culture of silence’ suppresses women’s skills, talents and experiences that are necessary for sustainable development. Against this background, we will re-examine issues of rape and female genital mutilation which require urgent “step up’’ action by Nigeria.
In general, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) upholds the inherent rights of every human being. Specifically, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women 1979(ratified by Nigeria and yet to be domesticated) prohibits all forms of discrimination against women. The Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (domesticated as Child Rights Act and adopted as Child Rights Laws of States) contains a plethora of rights to protect children – including girls, of course. One of the critical concerns of the 1995 well attended (Nigeria inclusive) Beijing Platform of Action is ending violence against women. The Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003), Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa are some of the African initiatives to empower women, promote gender equality and eliminate violence as well as harmful practices.
In Nigeria, available statistics show an alarming trend. For example, in the findings of the latest Crime Victimisation and Safety Survey, 5 % of the respondents stating they had been raped or victims of rape. The South South has the highest incidence of 10 % followed by the North East – 6 %. The South West and North West recorded 4 % each. The North Central recorded 3% and South East, the lowest with 1%. The incidence of rape has been on the increase from 3% in 2011 to 5% in 2013 (CLEEN 2013). In Kano State, 214 rape cases were recorded in 2014 (Kano State Police Command). In Lagos State, rape cases rose astronomically from 41 in 2007 to 301 in 2014 according to the Office of the Public Defender, Lagos State.
Worse still, there is a fast emergent situation of rape in conflict situations in Nigeria. International NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and some national NGOs have documented the dreadful experiences of women and children in Ogoniland (Delta), Choba (Rivers), Odi and Odioma (Bayelsa). These hapless victims were subjected to rape, torture, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy in the hands of the Security Forces. (Amnesty International, 2006). The incidence of the over 234 women and girls who were abducted by Boko Haram and rescued from the Sambisa Forest is still very fresh in our memories. It was reported that over 50% of them were already pregnant!
It is noteworthy that in spite of the prevalence of rape in Nigeria, the law has not provided much respite for the victims. Admittedly, both the Criminal and Penal Codes prescribe life imprisonment as the maximum punishment for the offence of rape. However, the prosecutor must establish penetration and lack of consent of the complainant. The use of physical injuries on the body of the complainant to prove lack of consent as well as insistence on corroborative evidence by the courts has made rape a man’s offence but a female trial. Consequently, the attrition in rape cases is very high, victims prefer to keep silent and nurture their harrowing experiences unnoticed!
The other common form of violence against women embedded in our culture is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is defined by the World Health Organization as the partial or total removal of the female external genital or other injury to the female organs for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons. In view of our large population, Nigeria highest absolute number of FGM in the world, accounting for one quarter of the estimated 115-130 million circumcised women in the world (TC Okeke et al, “An Overview of Female Genital Mutilation in Nigeria” Annals of Medical and Health Science Research, 2012). The 2013 National Demographic and Health Survey showed that 25% of Nigerian women were circumcised. It is most prevalent amongst Yoruba women (55 %) followed by Igbo (45 %). The largest percentages were in Osun State (77 %), Ebonyi (74 %) and Ekiti (74 %).
Significantly, states such as Ebonyi, Edo, Cross River, Osun, Ogun and Ekiti have enacted laws against female genital mutilation. In a similar vein, the recently enacted Violence Against Persons (Prohibition Act) 2015 is a welcome development. This Act prohibits all forms of violence against persons in private and public life. It expanded the definition of rape. The provision on awarding compensation to rape victims is novel and necessary part of the adjustment processes for victims. In addition, a register is to be opened for convicted sexual offenders which are to be accessible to the public. It equally prohibits female genital mutilation. The Act further covers spousal battery, harmful traditional practices, attack with harmful substance and violence by state actors. The Act is a federal legislation, but it contains encompassing provisions on sexual and gender based violence. It is the submission of this writer that every state in Nigeria must adopt it as a starting point to stem SGBV.
In stepping up and meeting the goal 5 of the SDGs, there is need to combat gender stereotypes. The rape myth should disappear; not all raped girls and women would be asking for sex! More than anything else, the perception that women are sex objects must change. We need to raise public knowledge and awareness of gender-based violence with its attendant socio-economic and medical consequences as indicated above.
To further tackle the situation, Nigeria must develop a National Plan of Action on Gender-Based Violence. This will detail short and long term preventive strategies; measures to tackle violence and assessment plans; methods of dealing with multiple and newly emerging forms of violence and the context in which it occurs. This writer commends the initiatives of UNICEF and US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention for funding the National Survey on Violence against Children in Nigeria. From the Survey, Priority Actions have been developed on the modalities of collaborative tackling of violence against children by the different Ministries. Lagos State has adapted the Priority Actions to meet its peculiarities. This was launched about two weeks ago; other states should do the same.
There is need for access as well as high quality service for survivors. Many rape survivors suffer in silence because of lack of concrete evidence to prove their cases. A survey conducted revealed that many women would in fact have washed away traces of what had happened from their bodies before reporting in a bid to remove from themselves the unclean memories. This writer recommends that other states should follow the Lagos State example. The Domestic/Sexual Violence Response Team has inaugurated the Sexual Assault Standing Order and the Sexual Assault Evidence Examination Kit. The objectives are to facilitate examination and management of patients after sexual assault as well as providing the tools for gathering of evidence.
Specifically, the deep rooted cultural practice of FGM can be tackled through sensitization campaigns. In the states where the practice is endemic, traditional and community leaders must be engaged. The practitioners must be educated on the health hazards, the extant laws and the consequence of punishment. The citizens can be enlightened through the radio jingles, television promotions and counseling services by health officials.
The Governor of States with high prevalence of FGM must allocate sufficient resources and training to those working with survivors. Also, they need to provide support services to alleviate the physical and psychological harm of the mutilation.
As we celebrate the Women’s Day, you will all agree with me that we all yearn for sustainable development in Nigeria. According to Ban Ki-Moon, it is the pathway to the future we want. It offers the framework to generate economic growth, achieve social justice, exercise environmental stewardship and strengthen governance. In line with this view, this writer supports the assertion of Michelle Bachelet (President of Chile) thus, “as long as women face violence and discrimination, our efforts to eradicate poverty, achieve equality, advance human rights and democracy will not succeed”.
Nigerians, it is time for change…
Dr. Iyabode Ogunniran is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Public Law, Faculty of Law, University of Lagos.