The rise in the cases of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), especially one of a sexual nature has become a thing of great concern in Nigeria, even as the country continues to face the scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It becomes even more worrisome as the number of reported cases of Sexual Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) continue to rise, which literary depicts that there are little or no safe spaces to live and thrive in the country as a woman without the fear of abuse.
In 2020, there were cases of the brutal rape and murder of Nigerian women and girls across the country. From the case of Uwaila, a university student, who was brutally raped and murdered in a church where she had gone to study, to the cases of Barakat and Grace that were raped and murdered in their homes.
With Nigeria championing as the world poverty capital, there are fears as to what the spread of the pandemic could mean for vulnerable populations in the Northern part of the country, especially in the North East, a region already experiencing high levels of insecurity and violence, unequal gender power relations, and social exclusion.
Indeed, the most significant short, medium, and long-term impacts of the pandemic on the region has gone beyond the health sector and is most harsh on livelihoods, levels of VAWG, conflict dynamics, and social relations.
Among the challenges facing the elimination of VAWG is the non-availability of forensic tools and experts for the investigation of SGBV, Harmful Practices (HP), and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) of women and girls, while law enforcement practices and attitudes have not been overly supportive of victims and survivors of SGBV and VAWG.
Contrary to legal provisions, SGBV/VAWG/HP manifest in various dimensions in homes, communities, public places and places of work. These include domestic violence, emotional violence, rape, sexual harassment, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), disinheritance, and stigmatisation among others.
Also, violations of the SRHR of women and girls manifest in forced marriages, child brides, teenage motherhood, forced pregnancies, denial of maternal care including antenatal and safe delivery care, Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF), unsafe abortion, and denial of use of contraceptives.
These practices become obstacles to the achievement of equality, development, and peace, which deprives women of the enjoyment of their rights and fundamental freedoms. Also, the culture of stigmatisation of women and girls that complain about sexual offences contributes to perpetrator impunity and continued SGBV.
In the North East, there were cases of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), where men beat their wives when they asked for money for food, threatened them with divorce, or accused them of having COVID-19 due to a cough, as a way to escape responsibilities.
Despite IPV being the most common form of VAWG, it was still an area the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) personnel knew little about, as not all of them see IPV in their mandates and do not conduct outreach and provide services accordingly.
According to a report “The Impact Of COVID-19 On Conflict, Gender And Social Exclusion In North-East Nigeria” released by the European Union in conjunction with the British Council, majority of the respondents in Yobe State recounted incidents of SGBV including male family members and neighbours raping young girls. In Biu and Potiskum, there were cases of abduction of young women for rape, and somewhere men broke into homes while people were sleeping to rape teenage girls.
In Borno State, even before the pandemic, there were cases where some members of the Yan Gora, a Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) charged with policing COVID-19 restrictions, were accused of taking advantage of their power and link to resources, including food, to commit sexual abuse of young women and teenage girls.
According to findings by Ripples Nigeria, the two cases reported to SARC in Maiduguri during the first two weeks of lockdown both concerned the Yan Gora. A girl around 12 years old was reported to be raped by a member of the taskforce while going to fetch firewood. The second case, a 14-year-old girl, who was repeatedly raped by a Yan Gora man in Maiduguri, was brought to SARC six weeks pregnant.
Speaking on the Yan Gora cases, a women’s rights activist in Maiduguri, said the task force sees itself as untouchable given to the “too much” power given to it by the government, noting that if actions were not taken to stem their excesses, there would be more SGBV cases in the state.
Meanwhile, some women and girls said they were sexually harassed by those in charge of humanitarian distributions since assistance by international agencies and local NGOs were disrupted, saying they were sometimes forced to exchange sex for movement, safety, food, shelter, and other resources.
From a United Nations Nigeria report, “Gender-Based Violence In Nigeria During The COVID-19 Crisis: The Shadow Pandemic”, adolescent girls faced risks of early and forced marriages, increased sexual exploitation and abuse, early pregnancy, and child labour to alleviate family hardship.
Also, measuring the progress in the observance of norms for the eradication of SGBV/VAWG/HP and improvement of SRHR of women and girls in Adamawa State, data from the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), Nigerian Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), and Nigerian Education Indicators (NEI) all showed that the State was still lagging.
In Adamawa, there is no existence of any gender law or SGBV/VAWG/HP/SRHR policy. The state has not adopted the Child Rights Act (CRA), Violence against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPPA), has no specific law prohibiting domestic violence, and was yet to set up an SGBV Response Team supported by law.
However, Adamawa State as a part of the Nigerian Federation is bound by all treaties ratified and applicable to Nigeria. These include the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), SDG5 and other relevant goals.
In its Penal Code, the State recognises that 18 years is the age for marriage and informed consent, stating that anyone below the age of 18 is a child by law; thereby criminalising sexual acts with persons below the age of 18.
However, data obtained from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) showed that Adamawa State still had a high rate of early marriage and teenage motherhood, while the rate of attendance and completion of basic education, delivery by skilled birth attendants in health facilities, as well as the usage of modern contraceptives remained poor.
Meanwhile, the 35 per cent Affirmative Action for Adamawa women were not yet in place. Also, health establishments in the state were lacking qualified personnel, equipment and facilities, while its law enforcement challenges include lack of dedicated courts to try SGBV and the stigmatisation of victims.
In Sokoto State, there was no specific law prohibiting domestic violence and the state was yet to enact a gender policy and the Right to Education Law that prioritises the education of the girl child.
Although the state recognised that 18 years was the age of informed consent to sex and marriage in its Penal Code, it was yet to set up an SGBV Response Team and still allowed early marriage and teenage motherhood, informal childbirth delivery and no use of modern contraceptives.
Despite the free education programme in the state, the attendance and completion rates of girls in basic education was low, while monitoring and evaluation were still poor. 35 per cent Affirmative Action for Sokoto Women was also not yet in place.
Meanwhile, health establishments were also lacking qualified personnel, equipment and facilities, while judicial and law enforcement challenges like the lack of dedicated courts to try SGBV and stigmatisation among others, was still a hurdle to the eradication of SGBV/VAWG/HP in the state.
In the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), there was no existence of any dedicated court for the prosecution of SGBV/VAWG/HP and denial of the SRHR of women and girls, which contributes to the slowing down of prosecution processes and leads to the denial of justice for survivors.
Also, the territory still faced the challenges of logistics, inadequate training, unavailability of forensic tools and experts for the investigation of SGBV/VAWG/HP and SRHR of women and girls, while awareness and sensitisation on the processes of reporting, facilitation and getting justice on SGBV issues remained low.
From the communiqué on the Training of Trainers on Implementation of National Action Plans (NAP) on SGBV/VAWG/HP/SRHR, for women rights groups and CSOs in the focal states of Adamawa and Sokoto, and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), made available to Ripples Nigeria by CSJ, available data showed that the region still had a long way to go.
The training, convened by CSJ in collaboration with the European Union-United Nations Spotlight Initiative (EUUNSI), was conducted to help eliminate VAWG and achieve a Nigeria where vulnerable women and girls live a life free from violence and HP.
Going by the communiqué, the states were yet to adopt specific laws prohibiting domestic violence even after the Body of Attorney Generals of the 19 Northern states had promised to adopt VAPP across all the states.
Speaking with Ripples Nigeria, Lead Director, CSJ, Eze Onyekpere said there was a need for radical awareness and dissemination of information on national and international standards on SGBV, as well as the strengthening of networks and coalitions at the state and local government levels, and commitment to bridging the gap between laws, policies and their implementation.
According to him, CSOs and women’s groups should get more involved with the official agencies in the gathering of data on SGBV/VAWG/HP and SRHR, advocacy for the adoption of CRA, the establishment of SGBVRTs, and enacting of specific laws prohibiting domestic violence in the states and FCT.
He said the challenges of child marriage and teenage pregnancy could be tackled in the region through the enforcement of the Universal Basic Education (UBE) requirement, for all girls to be in school until they turn 18 years of age.
His words: “There should be sensitisation and engagement of religious leaders on the provisions of the Penal Codes on the age of marriage and consent to marriage, as anyone below the age of 18 is deemed to be a child by law. This can be done through media advocacy, litigation and other forms of advocacy.
“Also, there should be engagement on the budgets of the Ministries of Women Affairs, Education, Health, Justice, Agriculture, Information, Budget and Planning, Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs, among others and ensure that expenditure proposals are realistic and in tandem with revenue sources, which would lead to budgets being fully funded.”
Meanwhile, he called for the establishment of youth-friendly, adult literacy, skills acquisition, and women empowerment centres, among others, and stressed the need for the deployment of information, technology, and ecological resources, for the eradication of SGBV/VAWG/HP, and promotion of SRHR in the region.
Also, former Head of Strategies, CSJ, Charles Ofomata, said there was a need for MDAs to commit to working together for the drafting, adoption and implementation of State Gender Policy and raise awareness on national and international standards, as well as strengthen relationships, cooperation and collaboration among them.
He stressed the need for MDAs to seek the adoption of CRA, the establishment of SGBVRTs, and enact specific laws prohibiting domestic violence, noting that the states should take up the promise of the Body of Attorney Generals of the 19 Northern states, to adopt VAPP across all the states in the region through the engagement of the executive and legislature.
“The states should commit to the full and strict implementation of the Penal Code provisions that 18 years is the age of the majority and informed consent and anyone caught having sex with persons under the age of 18 should be vigorously prosecuted,” he said.
Speaking on the level of girl-child education in the country, a teacher and former Vice Principal, Lady Ibiam Girls’ Secondary School, Enugu, Mrs Veronica Uzoho, told Ripples Nigeria that despite the universal basic education law and programme in the country, over 60 per cent of the 13.5 million out of school children that did not attain basic education were girls.
She stressed the need for the National Assembly to collaborate with the Nigerian Law Reform Commission (NLRC), Federal Ministry of Justice, and relevant CSOs to undertake a comprehensive review of laws and policies at the federal level against the background of state obligations in CEDAW and other relevant standards, while the State Houses of Assembly, relevant agencies and CSOs should replicate the same at the state level.
On her part, Founder, The Basileia Vulnerable Persons Rights Initiative and Commissioner for Gender, Agriculture, and Rural Economy, African Youth Commission (AYC), Jennifer Agbaji, said there was always an increase in violence towards women and girls whenever there was an economic emergency.
According to her, cases of SGBV in the country are under-reported due to the issues of stigmatisation of victims, culture and traditions that make certain forms of violence to be considered a norm.
She said: “Studies have shown that child abuse is related to parental stress, poor impulse control, and social isolation as well as factors such as poverty and lack of social capital.
“An instance is a case in Kaduna State where a man reportedly beat his 18 years old daughter into Coma along with her two friends. A similar case was also reported of a man who beat his pregnant wife to death.
“The inability to provide brings a feeling of irresponsibility and frustration to men, hence arising to different displays of aggression, but this is not in any way an excuse to become abusive, as the effect remains with the victim.”
She called for the increase in funding for researches about GBV by government and donor organisations, and for the provision of safe space centres and other temporary facilities of shelter for women, girls, and children, as a measure of separation from abusers.
Meanwhile, Nigeria as a country has a fundamental obligation to align her laws, policies and practices with the requirements of international and regional treaties on the human rights of women including CEDAW, and should not use her domestic laws, policies and practices as a defence to violating international and regional treaty obligations.
Also, gender mainstreaming has not been robustly implemented in government programmes, while the capacity for gender-responsive budgeting was yet to be developed. Also, the experts stressed the need for VAPP Act to be robustly implemented and adopted in all states of the federation.
There should be a commitment to advocacy for the establishment of a special court to expeditiously try cases of SGBV/VAWG/HP and the denial of the SRHR of women and girls, while all stakeholders should be engaged in the struggle against SGBV/VAWG/HP and promotion of SRHR.
By Victor Ifeanyi Uzoho…
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