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Analysis – Nigeria’s rape epidemic and the social norms that allow it to fester

Nigeria (The Southern African Times) – Protesters are demanding that the government do more to tackle a rampant culture of rape and sexual violence in Nigeria following a significant spike in rape cases.

On Saturday 6 June, human rights campaigners gathered in the country’s capital, Abuja and marched round the police headquarters and last week Monday, the Women Against Rape in Nigeria (WARN) marched to state parliament demanding that a state of emergency on rape and sexual violence is declared. Similarly, Amnesty International has called on the Nigerian government to declare a national crisis on rape.

The protests and calls for the government to do more follow several high profile rape cases that have caused a widespread outcry. The women and girls in these cases were either raped or killed and in some instances, both. Added to this, are reports that the lockdowns enforced to minimise the spread of coronavirus has also led to a spike in rape as those that are most vulnerable are locked down with their abusers.

The high-profile rape cases include a 12-year-old girl who was raped by up to eleven men in Jigawa, Tina, a 16-year-old student, reportedly shot and killed after two police officers opened fire at a bus stop in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city. The case of Vera Uwalia ‘Uwa’ Omozuma, the 22-year-old microbiology student was the tipping point and sent shockwaves throughout the nation and garnered international attention. Uwa was brutally raped and beaten to death at a church in Benin City after going to church to study. Osai Ojigho, the director for Amnesty International in Nigeria said that in the case of Uwa it resonates because it demonstrates that now, even in ‘places of worship, it [rape] is getting there.’

The hashtags #JusticeForTina, #JusticeForUwa, and #WeAreTired were trending on Twitter, a rallying cry used to raise awareness, express frustrations and demand that the government do more to tackle gender-based violence.

According to Pauline Tallen, the Nigeria Minister of Women Affairs, every year, an estimated two million women and girls are sexually assaulted. A national survey conducted by UNICEF in 2014 found that one in four Nigerian girls are sexually abused before age 18 and in a study conducted by the World Bank in 2019, up to 45% of women didn’t seek help after experiencing sexual or physical violence for fear of being stigmatised. Stigmatisation and the fear of being shunned from communities are just a few, in the long list of structural and societal barriers that disempower survivors.

Structural and societal barriers

Societal norms and cultural attitudes are perhaps some of the greatest barriers that Nigerian women must contend with. Women are often seen as subservient to men in a place where patriarchal traditions form the bedrock of society. Victim blaming and shaming is still very much prevalent and the woman is perceived to be at fault or has done something to warrant sexual violence such as dressing ‘provocatively’ or being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Marital rape and domestic violence largely go unrecognised as the woman is still viewed as being the property of her husband.

Such attitudes have permeated the criminal justice system too. Martial or spousal rape is not against the law and so cannot be prosecuted because the judiciary doesn’t recognise it. Other flaws in the legal framework include the fact that by law, victims of rape must have their story corroborated in order to prove it in court. This devalues the survivor and makes them feel less credible.

Despite the introduction of the Sex Offenders Register in 2019 and the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act in 2015, prosecutions in Nigeria are few and far between. The continuous failings of the criminal justice system do little to deter perpetrators or give survivors much hope. This could explain why many cases go unreported.

However, there are a growing number of community-based initiatives that are leading the way in providing survivors with adequate support and remedial action.

The efforts of community-based initiatives such as Stand to End Rape (STER), a youth-led-not-for-profit organisation set up in 2015, provide support for survivors including legal aid, assistance and mental health therapy.

Women At Risk International Foundation (WARIF) set up in 2016 adopt a more holistic approach. Through a series of preventative measures in the form of education around consent as well as medical support and assistance, WARIF has filled a much-needed gap, by providing intensive support and care for victims.

Online platforms such as The Consent Workshop and Wine, Whine and Whine provide a safe space for much-needed conversation around sexual violence. Its modern look and feel are attractive for the millennial generation who are working hard to eradicate a culture of silence and shame.

However, such efforts are futile without the necessary backing from the government. Many of these initiatives are privately funded and the greatest battle that they must face is a slow and ineffective judicial system with laws that are counterproductive. The government must firstly provide more funding to these grassroots organisations but more significantly, work hand-in-hand with them to reform legislation and ensure that it applies across all states so that women are safe everywhere. It must adopt a tougher stance on sexual violence; a passive approach is no longer acceptable. It should do more to amplify the voices of initiatives such as The Consent Room and the work done by WARIF in deconstructing and dismantling cultural attitudes to sexual violence. Such attitudes only seek to increase gender inequity further and leave women powerless over their own bodies.

The fight against sexual violence in Nigeria is a long and arduous one and the government must do more to protect women and ensure that they are valued. The pains and stain of Chibok still remain and it will require all parts of society to minimise the threat that women and girls face daily. But, it must start with the government, by treating sexual violence as serious a crime like any other and leading a nationwide campaign that seeks to dismantle cultural norms that devalue women.

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Ola Owojori is an international affairs analyst with 10 years of experience in policy development and project management. She holds a B.A in Politics and Linguistics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and an M.A in Conflict, Security and Development from Kings College London. Ola’s areas of interest include international security, violence and conflict, global health security and governance.

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