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SPECIAL REPORT: Lack of legal provisions, cultural sentiments fueling marital r*pe in Nigeria



By Arinze Chijioke

In the early days of Sandra Izuckukwu’s marriage in 2019, her husband, Sunday Izuchukwu, did everything she asked. He had told her when they first met that she was the kind of woman he had always wanted.

He loved her dearly and they both lived at Maryland, a suburban neighborhood in Enugu South Local Government Area of Enugu State, South-eastern Nigeria. On one occasion, enough to demonstrate sacrifice and love, Sandra took ill at a time of lack; Izuchukwu sold some of his properties to pay her hospital bills. They were not married at the time.

“I was happy so I accepted to marry him and I believed all he wanted was to make me smile,” Sandra said. “I felt he was the best thing to have happened to me.”

The only time Izuchukwu – a native of Mbowo, a community in Awgu Local Government area in Enugu state – beat Sandra up over a “little misunderstanding” they had, he apologised and promised it would not happen again. She cracked on with the relationship, not seeing the ominous dark clouds following that violent abuse.

In 2020, just barely a year into their marriage, the narrative changed when Sandra – a native of Amodu Nkanu west, also in Enugu State  became pregnant and delivered her baby who died immediately after delivery.

She was broken. But about a week after she lost her child, Izuchukwu started demanding s3x. He could not wait any further having waited for months to let her deliver their baby. Each time he complained that he was horny and wanted sex, she begged him to give her some time to regain her physical strength and be emotionally and mentally stable.

“I told him I needed to get over the death of my child and that we would get back together again,” Sandra said.

But Izuchukwu was resolute. He said he could not wait any longer. Soon, he started forcing her and each time they had s3x, she screamed. The pain was often unbearable, she said. But Izuchukwu did not care. All he wanted was to get satisfied.

Sometimes, he will beat her up if she refused. He would tell her that she had no right to deny him s3x since he was the man of the house. At some point, he stopped talking to her.

“I had to just accept it against my will,” Sandra said. “Each time we finish and he sees that I am deeply pained, he would ask me to go and get Ampiclox and that I will be fine.”

One day, when she could not bear the pain any longer, she went to a hospital and was told that she needed time to fully recover. When her husband came back from work and she told him what the hospital had said, he said she loved to complain too much.

He asked her to find an alternative to make him happy since she could not bear the pain of s3x. She found an alternative- oral s3x. But that did not always satisfy him. On one occasion, he accused her of sleeping with other men- her reason for not giving him s3x.

Escalating to NGO

In early October, when she saw that Izuchukwu was not willing to give her time and that the situation was beginning to threaten her marriage, she reported to Women Aid Collective (WACOL), an NGO handling cases related to Gender-Based Violence, GBV.

Before she reported the case, Sandra had packed some of her things to Mayor in Achara Layout, another suburban area in Enugu, where she has been staying with a friend, pending the resolution of the matter.

At WACOL, Head of Legal Clinical, Barrister Ijeoma Ezeude said they sought the consent of Sandra to handle her case after she reported it, after which they wrote a letter of invitation to her husband to enable them hear his own side of the story.

“When he came and we heard both sides of the story, we tried to mediate between both parties“, she said. “We counseled them and advised them to go back and think about their actions and whatever decisions they want to take.”

She explained that the entire process always begins with counseling of the parties involved and that the NGO would only go to court if the woman who reported the case wanted it.

“She must give consent to any legal aid we want to provide for her”, she said. “But she is exploring the option of settlement with her husband at the moment”.

Mrs. Egodi Igwe, Head of communications Unite said the organisation also provides psychosocial support for women who go through trauma because of exposure to rape in their homes.

“We also provide medical support at our WACOL Tarmasac treatment centre if there are injuries in case of rape cases or injuries resulting from wife battering, “she said.

Additionally, she said they provide financial support for women who lose their sources of livelihood while in abusive marriages to enable them to start businesses.

She said the NGO also runs shelter services which are temporal-within the period of crisis to enable the victims to relax, think and know how to move forward because in rape cases, the traitor tends to tout the victim and even threaten them.

“If the victim, especially in a marriage situation, is in a safe place, she is able to provide all necessary information needed to handle the case,” she said. “While they remain in our shelter, we continue to evaluate their situation and know when it is best for them to go home or find somewhere else for them”.

Sandra’s case is a window…more women suffer too

Sandra is only one out of many married women who have been victims of marital rape and have had to go through a lot of emotional trauma as a result, with their stories often untold, largely due to cultural sentiments.

Ndidiamaka Joseph has had to endure a more troubling experience. Helpless and trapped by culture, she now lives in Enugu with her three children after her husband threw her things away from their house at Agbani, a town in Nkanu West Local Government because she could not bear the pain of always giving him sex whenever he wanted it.

At some point, Ndidiamaka said her husband started sleeping out to frustrate her. She said he also stopped eating her food.

“He had to even bring in another woman into our house and told me he does not want to see me again,” she said. “He has since abandoned me with my three children”.

Marital rape in the Nigerian space

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993), in its Article 2 declared that ‘violence against women shall be understood to encompass marital/spousal rape.

Sadly, marital r*pe remains a common occurrence plaguing Nigerian society and one of the least reported in the country due largely to the societal stigma attached to it in Nigeria.

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Many traditions and customs in Southern Nigeria, like other parts of the country, view a woman as little more than property, thus by marriage, her husband has unrestricted power to have sexual intercourse whenever he wants, experts working in the area of Gender-Based Violence said.

Cultures that practice the collection bride price or dowry for marriage suggest a transactional nature giving the husband proprietary rights over the wife including free access to s3x.

As with other forms, the major ingredient of this form of rape is the absence of consent or use of force, or threat to acquire consent. And either of the spouses in a marriage could be a victim of this form of rape.

But in most cases, victims of spousal rape hesitate to report for several reasons including family loyalty, fear of their assailant’s retribution, inability to leave the relationship and lack of a cause of action in law or they may not know that rape in marriage is against the law. Even when they do, they only want to be counseled.

Onyinyechukwu Joy, Executive Director of Heroine Women Foundation- a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), advocating for an end to Gender-Based Violence- saying women who have brought complaints say it is either they are forced by their husbands or pushed into it against their will.

According to her, men who are often found to perpetrate rape, and lawmakers say it is ridiculous for a married woman within the confines of marriage to say she is being raped and that she does not enjoy her marital right.

“Those who complain say their spouses carry out the act according to their own choice and time, without considering the health, emotional state and peace of their wives who often go out to work come back tired and exhausted”, she said.

No legal provisions 

In Nigeria, the laws on rape provide rape exemptions for married couples, meaning that a husband cannot be guilty of such offence against his wife.  Section 6 of the Criminal Code, in southern Nigeria, defines ‘unlawful carnal knowledge’ as a carnal connection that takes place otherwise than husband and wife.

Section 357 of the same code provides that: Any person who has unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman or a girl, without her consent, or with her consent, if the consent is obtained by force or by means of threats or intimidation of any kind, or by fear of harm, or by means of false and fraudulent representation as to the nature of the act, or, in the case of a married woman, by impersonating her husband, is guilty of an offence which is called rape.

A legal practitioner with Charlse Anthony (Lawyers) LLP, Chukwudi Unah, Esq, said

the provisions of the code limit rape to non-consensual sexual intercourse between people who are unmarried thereby providing an exemption to married men.

Also in section 282 of the Penal Code, in northern Nigeria, a husband cannot be charged with marital rape once the marriage is subsisting and the wife has attained puberty then any sexual intercourse with her is never rape.

The exceptions to this under common law – which is applicable in Nigeria – includes where a decree of divorce is in existence, where the parties are living separately under a separation order of a court, where the husband has given an undertaking not to return to the wife, where a party has filed or started divorce proceedings, where there is a separation order agreed upon by the parties and where there is a court order prohibiting contact with the wife.

This provision goes against several international treaties to which Nigeria is party, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, and the Protocol on Rights of Women in Africa amongst others.

Historical perspective

Some of the earliest documentations of marital rapearose through an affirmation of its exemption to the offence of rape.

Sir Matthew Vale in his book History of the Pleas of the Crown, remarked that “the husband cannot be guilty of rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual consent and contract, the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”

It was not until the late 20th Century that the laws began to change to recognise r*pe by a spouse as criminal, partly as a result of widespread activismundertaken by feminists which promoted the idea of bodily autonomy of a woman whether married or not leading to changes in rape laws that criminalised marital rape.

Experts on GBV strongly believe that a marriage license should not be viewed as a license for a husband to rape his wife with impunity and that a married woman has the same right to control her own body as does an unmarried woman.

But while some men accept that non-consensual s3x is rape and deny either of the parties their rights, others say that the Nigerian laws do not provide for marital rape and as such, a married man cannot be said to rape his wife or vice-versa.

Kenneth Azahan is married. He says a wife is not a slave and as such a man cannot have s3x with her without her approval in the guise that they are married, same way the woman cannot force her man to have s3x with her.

When our reporter reached out to Sandra’s husband, he denied ever forcing his wife to have sex with him. He said it was a crime for a man to try to force his wife over s3x and that both parties needed to have an understanding.

But Sandra’s claim and the findings from the NGO handling their case contradicted the husband’s claim.

Enugu’s committee on the prevention of gender-based violence

In May 2021, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu State inaugurated a steering committee on prevention of gender-based violence in the state. At the inauguration, Ugwuanyi, represented by his deputy, Cecilia Ezeilo, said the body had the mandate of developing and implementing programmes and policies for the prevention of gender-based violence in Enugu State.

The governor lamented that GBV had eaten deep into the fabric of society and that it cuts across most human societies, irrespective of gender. He said the committee must work hard to consign gender-based violence to the dustbins of history in the state.

The committee’s terms of reference include to: Conduct public awareness campaigns on reporting cases of gender-based violence; provide for the rehabilitation and promotion of the welfare of victims and develop a gender-based violence prevention sustainable plan for the state through synergy between the private and public sectors.

Joy, who is a member of the committee, said there was an improvement in the number of women speaking up after they had been abused in their homes. But the problem yet lies in the fact that there are no legal provisions that punish perpetrators.

Responding to this, however, the chairman of Enugu State House of Assembly Committee on Information, Jeff Mba, said the assembly has not considered making or amending laws that will sanction marital rape offences because they have not received petitions and complaints about cases of spousal rape.

“We receive petitions and complaints from every quarter and from different groups in the society which we act upon,” he said. “But we have not received anything in that regard, the issue is scanty”.

He noted that although the Nigerian culture, like many cultures in Africa, does not permit the existence of marital rape in homes, the assembly will not hesitate to bring up legislation that will block it when it begins to constitute a menace in the society.

Advocating for victims of spousal rape

Although Nigerian laws provide rape exemptions for married couples, Heroine Women Foundation among other NGOs has been at the forefront of advocating for women who have been victims of such abuses.

Joy said her organization, for instance, has spoken up on the need for marital rape to be criminalised on several conversations around Sexual and Gender-Based Violence to ensure that married men often seek the consent of their wives before sex.

She explained that these conversations have often had lawmakers in the state, Enugu State government as well as wife of the state governor in attendance. But rather than commit to criminalizing marital rape, they have often spoken about the need for husbands and wives to have conversations and reach conclusions each time they want to engage in sex for peace to reign.

“Part of what we also do at the Heroine Women Foundation is to advise women to have conversations with their husbands and make them see reasons why there has to be an understanding, “she said.

She said that there was the need for the government and lawmakers to sanction spousal rape because women often are subjected to emotional trauma; thrown out, beaten, and battered by their husbands when they refuse to consent to sex.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The real names of Sandra and Sunday Izuchukwu and that of Ndidiamaka Joseph are protected on their separate requests, citing personal security and fear of stigmatisation. 

Support for this story was provided by the Media and Gender Project of Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism #CREATESAFESPACES.

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