by Sylva Ifedigbo
Some will argue that there is really no dramatic increase in cases of rape and other forms of violence against women, that what we are witnessing instead is an increase in the reportage of such incidents especially with the advent of the social media and citizen journalism. Whatever side of the argument you belong, the important fact is that cases of sexual abuse and gender based violence remains a fact of life in our society, occurring at rates that are both scary and unacceptable.
Women and girls live daily in fear of various types of sexual violence at home and in public spaces. It happens on streets, public transport and parks, in and around schools and workplaces, in public sanitation facilities and water and food distribution sites, or in their own neighbourhoods. According to a 2013 global review of available data, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence while 1 in 3 women are expected to be raped once in their lifetime.
A minimum of 3,800 rape cases were reported in the print media alone in Nigeria in the last 3 years according to Ipas Nigeria, an organisation that works to strengthen women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights across the globe. The facts gathered from these reported cases and other research studies by both Ipas and other similar organisations indicate that the prevalence of rape cuts across ethnicity and geo-political zones being as much a problem in the North of the country as it is in the south. The perpetrators also cut across all social classes and religious orientation. Cases have been reported involving traditional rulers, police officers and clergy men, persons who are otherwise supposed to be custodians of values, morality and the law.
Rape cases involving minors and the elderly seems to be on a startling increase. A huge percentage of cases is by acquaintances and trusted relations. In a study carried out by Ipas Nigeria in Kano state, it was found that one of every three gynaecological presentations at the hospital was a rape case with 41% of victims aged 1-9 and those aged 10-14 years making up 31%. Furthermore, more than one-third (37%) of the survivors presented with sexually transmitted infections (STI) while 21% presented with varying degrees of injuries to their genitals. In a similar study conducted in Benin City, 48% of rape survivors were less than 13 years of age(Olusanya et al). Besides the injury to the genitalia and the possibility of contracting STIs, rape presents grave physical, psychological and reproductive health consequences for victims, families and the community.
Closely related to rape is the issue of domestic violence and spousal battery which also afflicts women in all social strata and geographical locations in Nigeria. Victims who are poor or not financially independent often the most affected because oftentimes they are constrained to continue living with the abuser or forced to adhere to cultural injunctions that prescribe that a woman should remain in her husband’s house.
One might wonder, if these things are readily reported and openly discussed in the country, why then is it still a huge problem. The answer is simple; Nigeria currently has a very poor legal framework to address violence against persons as the existing laws are restrictive, obsolete and do not effectively address the prevailing challenge. For example, a provision on the Penal Code operational in the North of the country allows a man to chastise his wife in order to correct her. In addition, the burden of proof which requires a victim to provide two witnesses to the act allows many perpetrators of rape to go away unscratched or with very light convictions.
It has become important therefore that something urgent be done to strengthen our laws and bring them in line with current acceptable standards and knowledge. It is heartening to note however that there have been some pragmatic steps in that light, with the highpoint being the VAPP Bill which is currently before the National Assembly awaiting passage.
VAPP is an acronym for Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill. It is an amalgam of nine related Bills before the National Assembly during the 5th and 6thAssembly and seeks to eradicate violence against all persons in both the public and private spaces. The Bill seeks to abolish all obsolete laws relating to issues such as rape, molestation and assault, while expanding their definition to bring them in line with present realities. For example, the proposed law recognizes that both men and women can commit or be victims of rape. The bill also makes provision for compensation to victims and the protection of their rights in line with the provisions of the Maputo protocol.
Issues concerning female genital mutilation, harmful widowhood practices and spousal rape are also addressed by the bill. Also prohibited in the proposed law is the abandonment of Spouse, Children and dependants without sustenance and makes provision for a regulatory body that will see to the implementation of the law, a vital provision which was not captured in the Child Rights Act. There are in addition, provisions for the establishment of a Special Trust Fund for Victims of Violence against Persons.
This law however has made a very slow progress in the National Assembly. Indeed it has had unsuccessful gestations in past Assemblies which ended without its passage. The reasons are not farfetched. With many lawmakers more focused on the next elections and what they can accumulate to retain their seats, it is very easy for laws on violence to be ignored. This is in addition to the pre-existing phobia common in male dominated Assemblies for issues of gender equality and a tendency to see laws that have a seeming bias for women as an indirect ploy to make them equal to men.
That we need to protect women, children and the vulnerable in our society is a fact that cannot be overemphasised. Indeed it is a matter bothering on common sense. Flowing from that therefore it is expected that enactment of laws that protect them and strengthens the enforcement of their rights should be accorded priority. It is on this premise that I call on the Nigeria Senate to urgently work towards the passage of the VAPP BILL before the end of this legislative Assembly. This will perhaps be the most important legacy the distinguished members can leave for the generations unborn.
On our part as private citizens we must continue to stand and speak against rape and other related kinds of violence. We must in addition to teaching our girls to say no, also teach our boys to stop when she says no. And when rape occurs we should report it and not cover it up as a family matter for in doing this, we perpetuate the problem and keep the scares on the victims forever fresh.
Sylva Nze Ifedigbo, creative writer and op-ed columnist writes from Lagos Nigeria and tweets from @nzesylva.