Violence against women, especially violence of a sexual nature has been an epidemic in Nigeria. It has become increasingly evident that there are no safe spaces to live and thrive as a woman in Nigeria, without the fear of gender-based violence of a sexual nature. The recent cases of the brutal rape and murder of Nigerian women and girls, have shone a fresh light on this epidemic. The Nigerian Police in a recently released statistics, report that 717 cases of rape have been reported between January and March, 2020.
This occurs, while the world grapples a global pandemic. Women and girls are always in danger, and factors such as a public health emergency exacerbates these existing insecurities. It is important to bear in mind that, the statistics provided by the Nigerian Police consist only of reported cases. It is crippling to imagine the vastness of unreported incidents of rape and sexual violence, especially cases in which women and girls have no choice than to continue to live with their abusers.
A few weeks ago, news broke of the rape and murder of Uwaila, a university student brutally raped and murdered in a church where she conducted private study; Barakat and Grace were raped and murdered in their homes. It is important to say the names of these victims of sexual violence and murder, not only because we need to humanise women, but because it must be stated that the system failed these women, and maybe by remembering them, we can make a promise to make concerted efforts towards building a society that considers women humans and worthy of protection under the law and in social and cultural settings.
Negative Mindset: Discrimination Against Women
Social, cultural and unfortunately, intellectual circles in Nigeria, are rife with sexual violence and women are automatically blamed for the occurrence of this violence. This is easily traced to patriarchal and misogynistic structures that dehumanise women, through the deification and/or vilification of womanhood. Abrahamic religions continue to reinforce the notions around women — A woman can either be perfect or bad, she cannot just be a human being with rights and agency. This problematic view of women and womanhood, is seen in the immediate uprising which occurs once a rape case is mentioned either to the authorities or on social media. Women who report their abusers are immediately taken apart and their lives scrutinised in bits, while society looks frantically for factors that justify the actions of the abuser. This level of scrutiny is rarely extended to the male perpetrators of rape, patriarchal privileges affords male abusers a misplaced benefit of the doubt.
Rape culture which is endemic in Nigeria as with any other clime, is rooted in patriarchy and the need to contain, suppress and punish women. It must be reiterated that, even though rape is violence of a sexual nature, it is not rooted in sexual behaviour and gratification, it is a weapon employed by socio-legal and socio-cultural structures, to punish women. A quick look at the Criminal Code and Penal Code in Nigeria, provides the evidence of the ways in which discrimination against women is endemic. The Criminal Code Act and the Penal Code Act exempt married women from being raped, the Penal Code being more literal and unapologetic about this exemption.
These criminal provisions are not only relics of colonialism, they also perpetuate the idea of women’s inferiority and suppression, all rooted in the patriarchy. Thus, sexual violence against women cannot be removed from society, without the full and substantive liberation of women. The Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (VAPP Act) tries to fix this lacuna in the law, the definition of rape in the VAPP Act can be read to provide protection in cases of marital rape, but this inadvertent, bare minimum protection is inadequate and problematic. The protection of all Nigerian women must be intentional, finding its root in the Constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, and other international human rights instruments ratified by Nigeria.
It is not illogical to assert that, the prevalence of rape and other sexual violence is not solely due to a lack of relevant criminal laws under which perpetrators can be brought to book. Section 375 of the Criminal Code Act applicable in Southern Nigeria, defines rape as ‘having unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman or girl without her consent’, the absence of consent includes consent obtained by force, through threats, intimidation and deception. Section 358 of the Criminal Code, prescribes life imprisonment as punishment for a conviction on rape.
Section 282 of the Penal Code applicable in the Northern Nigeria equally prohibits rape, but limits the scope of consent to the absolute absence of consent and consent obtained by the threat of death or harm. There is a plethora of State criminal laws across the Federation, prohibiting and prescribing punishments for the offence of rape. The Violence Against Persons Act which expands the scope of sexual offences to include men and married women, prescribes life imprisonment as punishment upon conviction. The law seems clear, but the presence of impunity is clearer.
Impunity is fuelled by a failing criminal justice system, in tandem with social and economic inequalities. The lack of data on sexual violence and sexual offenders in Nigeria, makes it almost impossible to assess the level of impunity caused by the criminal justice system. However, recent records shows that, there have only been about a paltry 65 rape convictions in the Nigerian courts between 1973 and 2019.
The juxtaposition of this number with the number of reported cases, over 700 reported cases in the last five months, is a cause for alarm. In addition to a failing criminal justice system, inequalities both in rights and socio-economic access, continue to afford perpetrators with economic and social privileges to intimidate and silence victims of rape many times, using the Nigerian Police. In a system where inequalities are deeply entrenched and justice is but an illusion, the further intimidation and re-traumatisation of victims of sexual violence by perpetrators and the justice system, is only a symptom.
Considerations and the Way Forward