by Folarin Sagaya
Pretoria proved to be the setting for a rather tragic Valentine’s Day this year. In the early hours of February 14th Oscar Pistorius, the South African Paralympic Athlete, was arrested after his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was found dead at his home.
Exactly what transpired on that fateful night is still being debated by the media, in our homes, and crucially, in court. One thing however is certain, a young woman’s life came to an abrupt and untimely end at the hands of her male partner.
For many in South Africa this is an all too familiar tale and the only solace from this sorry episode is the light being shone on the country’s appalling statistics when it comes to violence against women.
Only a couple of weeks before Reeva Steenkamp’s death, Bredasdorp, another South African town, was the scene of one such gruesome act. The gang-rape and mutilation of seventeen year old Anene Booysen at a construction site. Anene died in hospital a few hours after being found by a security guard from the injuries and trauma she sustained. But South Africa is not alone.
Many of us still have fresh in our minds the events in Delhi on the Indian sub-continent in December 2012 when a twenty three year old physiotherapy student unwittingly boarded the wrong bus. She too succumbed to a similar fate.
In Nigeria we have had our fair share of awful incidents as these. Grace Ushang a National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) member was gang-raped and murdered in September 2009. Her only crime was being “indecently dressed” in Maiduguri, the northern capital city of Borno State. She was wearing the standard NYSC issued khaki trousers.
Sometime around September 2011 an hour long video of another young woman being subjected to similar abuse surfaced on the internet. The attack allegedly took place in Abia State, on university premises and involved some of the students. The assaulted woman never came forward and it is unclear, due to conflicting reports, if any of her attackers were ever caught.
The manner in which the relevant authorities at the time dealt with the issue leaves little hope for the unidentified victim or any others since. Abia State University and the Abia State Government did however immediately and categorically deny any connection between their institutions and the attack.
In July 2012 Cynthia Osokogu, in another example of a case that saw the light of day, was lured to Lagos from Abuja under false pretences, then raped and killed by a gang in her hotel room.
Many cases it is safe to assume go unreported out of fear of the stigma our society still attaches to the victims, for the lack of belief that anything will be done by the presiding authorities, or out of fear of further violence from the perpetrators. Not all instances of violence are sexual by any means, there are occurrences of just horrific physical abuse such as that suffered by Mary Sunday.
Mary has been permanently disfigured and is still in hospital having had a boiling pot of stew emptied over her in August 2012. She identified her fiancé as the attacker, he denies it and continues to go to work as police officer whilst the investigation is conducted.
Then there are the more readily dismissed forms of “corrective physical abuse” which many of us count as not being that serious. In this category of minimal severity are also all manner of psychological, emotional and verbal abuse. Mostly these assaults take place where the girl or woman should otherwise feel safest, her home, with a partner or family member.
There are a few reasons why Nigerians are very casual when it comes to domestic violence. One is the inherent belief propagated by tradition that girls are less than boys, that a girl’s journey into womanhood is one of subservience and her crowning glory is to produce children. This develops into machismo and eventually manifests as patriarchy in later life, where women are to be dictated to and spoken for.
We also have a culture of silence one that knows of many instances of abuse taking place but fails to speak up, as it is not our place to interfere in another man’s business.
Next up is the double standard, where a man can do what he wants and get away with but should a woman attempt the same, well she deserves what comes her way.
A recent example of this is the curious case of a two time former minister of our federal republic and his Facebook post just days after Reeva Steenkamp’s death. The former minister felt it timely to laud Oscar Pistorius for all his golden attributes and lament his misfortune at ever getting involved with the “pretty little model who the devil sent his way”. Not surprising his sentiments were coated in quasi-religious gobbledygook, religion being yet another tool used by many to give voice to their fears and disenfranchise women of their rights.
Because of this, access to education and literacy rates in the north of Nigeria for girls and women make for grim reading. Under the cloud of religion and tradition throughout Nigeria are other factors like forced or under-age marriages and financial dependency. A woman’s income and her control over it are undeniably linked to her abilities to either make a stand for herself or to be subjected to whatever cruelty is sent her way. It might seem like we have a large female work force and as such this shouldn’t be an issue but one need only consider the informal sector where girls as young as seven or eight are sent off to homes where they have no safety net, and the potential implications of that.
Tradition, religion, economics, lack of education and insufficient or weakly implemented laws are just some of the key considerations that make us all complicit when the next victim refuses to come forward.
These issues are not merely an emotional concern either, “promoting gender equality and empowering women” is after all one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by the United Nations member states in the year 2000 and seen as crucial to lifting developing nations out of poverty.
Gender disparities are an age-old problem, one which even the most developed nations on earth are still grappling with in some form or another. Where other countries are increasingly using the bully pulpit to ensure equal pay for equal work, self-determined reproductive rights, and quotas for the numbers of women in boardrooms or in public office, Nigeria should follow suit.
There are currently only 24 out of a possible 352 seats occupied by women in the House of Representatives and only 7 out of 109 senators are female. A crucial step towards achieving parity would be getting those numbers up.
Local agencies, advocacy groups, NGOs, international organisations, and concerned citizens can only do so much. The 2010 MDG report on Nigeria had the following prescient quote “despite major strides and attempts to improve the education of girls, there are still some constraints. These include poor implementation of government policies, weak monitoring mechanisms, low budgetary allocations to the education sector, poverty and cultural and religious practices like early child marriage, teenage pregnancy and child labour.”
One wonders if in 2015, the original deadline for attainment of the MDGs, the report will be any different.