By Naomi Ndifon

Gender-Based Violence (GBV) is a global pandemic. Race, ethnicity and/or nationality have not insulated women of different age groups from the ongoing scourge of violence in all its forms. Surveys show that 1 in 3 women globally has experienced sexual or physical violence in their lifetime. In Nigeria, where the criminal justice system, put in place to combat this crisis, is rigged with patriarchy and culture overrides constitution, these numbers have drastically escalated.

Despite the Nigerian government's seeming social development and economic progress, approximately 80 million women and girls are still victims of GBV; 30% of women and girls aged 15-49 have experienced sexual abuse. The 2013 National Demographic and Health Survey (NIDHS) and the 2016 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) assessed the percentage of women that have experienced varying forms of GBV in Nigeria. According to the 2013 NIDHS report, 28% of women aged 15-49 have experienced physical abuse, 7% have experienced sexual abuse and 62.6%child marriage. The 2016 MICS report also noted that 25.3% of Nigerian girls under 15 years had undergone female genital mutilation (FGM).

Understanding Gender-Based Violence

There are diverse ways to define GBV. At its core, it is a violation of an individual’s most basic human rights. Although GBV affects both men and women, women are disproportionately affected because this violence reflects and reinforces existing gender inequalities in society.

The United Nations (UN) describes GBV as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women.” Similarly, Article 1 of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) defines violence against women as “all acts perpetrated against women which cause or could cause them physical, sexual, psychological and economic harm, including the threat to take such acts, or to undertake the imposition of arbitrary restrictions on or deprivation of fundamental freedoms in private or public life, in peacetime and during situations of armed conflict or war.” Violence can take many forms; sexual, physical, verbal, and psychological (emotional). Forced early marriage, domestic violence, marital rape, trafficking, and FGM are also different forms of GBV. Likewise, structural or institutional violence, fuelled by socioeconomic disparities, can tip the scales of power in favour of men.

Culture, traditional beliefs, and societal norms are major determinants of the extent to which violence against women will thrive. Domestic violence, for instance, is regarded because of the structure of traditional Nigerian marriage. A conventional perspective on marriage means a woman gives up her right to herself. In communities where a bride price is paid, it is common for the husband to believe that he now owns his wife and can treat her as a possession. In their study on domestic violence against women in Nigeria, Balogun and John-Akinola (2015) found that because patriarchal culture dictates that women should be submissive to their husbands, women are socialised to accept and not challenge domestic violence as a cultural norm. Physical abuse is regarded as a tool that a husband uses to chastise his wife and improve her and sexual abuse (marital rape) as part of the husbands' matrimonial rights. In effect, marriage gives up a woman's right to herself.

National Legal Framework relating to Gender-Based violence

The Nigerian criminal justice system mirrors that of the British, its former colonial masters. The Nigerian system of law and order dates back to the early 1800s pre-colonial era where native courts were established in traditional monarchy fashion to execute various sanctions for crimes (most of these sanctions bordering on inhumane). Upon the arrival of the British and colonial rule, these native justice systems evolved with structure, incorporating the customary law and establishing the English-style court system of justice in 1862, a system created to cater to the needs of Nigeria’s growing commercial regulations. However, this system has undergone tremendous changes to suit the times and Nigeria’s cultural disparities independent of British influence. The System comprises the police, the courts, and the prisons. It is given its legal foundation through the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Certain provisions in the 1999 Nigerian Constitution (Revised in 2011) emphasize human rights regardless of gender. Article34(1)(a) of the Constitution provides that every person is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly, no person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment.

However, the Nigerian Constitution has been generally unfavourable to women who are victims of domestic violence. Although there are explicit punishments for assault under the law, codes such as the Criminal and Penal Codes still have discriminatory provisions. For instance, Section 55(1)(d) of the Penal Code gives legal backing to wife battering, a serious dehumanising act of domestic violence and contravenes Article 34 the Nigerian Constitution. Section 55(1)(d) of the Penal Codes provides that: Nothing is an offense which does not amount to infliction of grievous hurt upon any person which is done by a husband to correct his wife, such husband or wife being subjected to native law or custom in which such correction is recognized as lawful. Section 6 of the Criminal Code, likewise, expressly legalises spousal rape through the following provision: ‘unlawful carnal knowledge means carnal connection which takes place otherwise than between husband and wife. It follows, therefore, that a husband under Nigerian law can never be guilty of raping his wife.

In Sections 353 and 360 of the Criminal Code, we can further unravel the deep gender inequality in the legal system and how assault against women is not held at an equal standard to assault against men. Section 353 of the Criminal Code provides that: Any person who unlawfully and indecently assaults any male person is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for three years. The offender cannot be arrested without warrant.” Section 360 on the other hand provides that: Any person who unlawfully and indecently assaults a woman or girl is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years. While indecent assault against men is considered a felony, indecent assault against women is merely a misdemeanour. By tagging assault against women as ‘misdemeanours’, these provisions enable trivialising gender-based violence issues.

The Nigerian Police Force Gender Policy

Before enacting the Gender Policy of the Nigerian Police Force, operational procedures and protocols regarding cases of gender-based violence within the police unit were biased in favour of men. The responses by these law enforcement agents to women-specific issues were deeply entrenched in internalized gender stereotypes and a gender-biased system of handling cases of violence against women.

After the sensitisation workshop in 2009, the Nigeria Police Force, in collaboration with UN Women, UNFPA, and other civil society organisations, developed the Gender Policy for the Nigerian Police Force. The Policy’s overall goal is to eliminate all gender-based discriminatory regulations and practices within the Nigeria Police Force. It will also ensure that the Police Force, as a significant security organ of government, is effectively handling GBV cases within the larger Nigerian society. This Policy has pushed for retraining and re-education of police officers on handling GBV cases, increasing women’s representation in the Police Force to create a more enabling environment that supports victims of GBV. To ensure that the frameworks theorised in the gender policy are adequately implemented, the Nigerian Police Force was required to set up Gender Desks across all institutions at the Federal and state levels and a Gender Critical Mass charged with community sensitisation of GBV. Although Gender Desks have been set up, the implementation of this Policy has still been below par.

The Nigerian Police Force and Handling of Gender-Based Violence Cases: The reality

A most gruesome instance of the reality of gender-based violence and Nigeria’s criminal justice system was seen in 2019 when the Nigerian police, together with officials from the Abuja Environmental Protection Board (AEPB), raided two clubs in Abuja and arrested 65 women for alleged prostitution. The police officers demanded bribery of 3,000 Naira each ($7.32) to release the women. Those who didn’t have the money or weren’t willing to pay for their freedom were raped with empty water sachets as condoms. Twenty-two women were arraigned and charged with prostitution, coerced into confessing with the threat of being sentenced to six months in jail and having no proper legal counsel at the time, eventually withdrew their statements for fear of jail term and paid a fine to the court. In response to the inhumane treatment, Nigerian women took to social media and the streets protesting the indignant violation of those women.

Unfortunately, there are several stark disparities between the provisions of the Police Gender Policy and the actual reality of how gender-based violence cases are handled. Adebayo (2014) noted that a staggering 97.2 % of abused women do not report the crime to the authorities. 40% abandon their cases after the initial reports. The Women At Risk International Foundation reported in 2018 that over 10,000 girls are raped or sexually assaulted every day in Nigeria. Yet, as of 2016, Nigeria had only 18 recorded rape convictions. The survivors who sum up the courage to report to the Police get so disappointed because the incidences are trivialised and deemed a private matter to be settled between families. Sometimes, victims end up feeling even more traumatised after encounters with the police authorities. Similarly, the US State Department 2014 country report for Nigeria noted that ‘Police often refused to intervene in domestic disputes or blamed the victim for provoking the abuse. In rural areas, courts and police were reluctant to intervene to protect women who formally accused their husbands of abuse if the level of alleged abuse did not exceed customary norms in the areas.’

Current Initiatives by the Government for a Legal Reform: The Bills, the Challenges

The National Gender Policy, approved in 2006, was another step taken by the Federal Government in response to the rising cases of violence against women. One of the key principles of the National Gender Policy is the promotion and protection of women’s rights to fill the gaps of the 1999 constitution.

In 2015 President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act into law; more than five years after it was first presented in the National Assembly. The Act, created to strengthen all pre-existing laws and emphasise penalties for several gender-based offences, prohibits all forms of violence against persons in private and public life. Unlike the Criminal Code provisions, the VAPP Act sets a minimum penalty of 12 years imprisonment for sexual assault and provides financial compensation for survivors. It also establishes a sex offenders registry to allow the government to monitor the activities of sex offenders.

Yet very little has been achieved concerning executing these policy goals and objectives in the last decade. Because the VAPP Act was passed in the National Assembly, it is only applicable to the Federal Capital Territory until the adoption by other states. So far, only 18 of the 36 states in Nigeria have adopted legislation needed to implement the VAPP Act at the state level. Implementation of The Act is critical to ensuring women get justice and that the government and police are held accountable.

Nigerian Women against Gender-Based Violence in Nigeria

Several Nigerian women have taken a bull-by-the-horn approach to tackle gender-based violence in their communities. Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, for example, founded the Stand to End Rape (STER) initiative, a youth-led enterprise advocating against gender-based violence (GBV), teaching prevention in communities, and supporting survivors with legal, social, and psychological services.

Another women-led organisation tackling Nigeria’s rising GBV crisis is the Women at Risk International Foundation (WARIF), founded in 2016 by Dr Kemi DaSilva-Ibru, a specialist gynaecologist. WARIF, a non-profit organisation established in response to the high incidence of sexual assault, rape, and human trafficking occurring amongst young girls and women across Nigeria, raises awareness and provides clinical and psychosocial treatment to victims.

The HandsOff Initiative raises awareness of abuse and assault through outreach programs for young children and teenagers. Market March is a social enterprise working to end the sexual harassment of women in markets and public spaces. The Value Female Network uses education to eradicate female gender mutilation in rural communities in Western Nigeria.

Asides from organisations, in recent years, Nigerian women have taken to using social media as a tool to rally and seek justice. With hashtags such as #MarketMarch, #SayHerNameNigeria, #AbujaPoliceRaidOnWomen, #JusticeFor, #EndRape, Nigerian women continue to amplify the voices of survivors and hold government parastatals accountable for justice to be meted out equally.

Conclusion: The prospects, the possibilities

Gender-based violence in Nigeria has been on an alarming rise in recent years. Yet, provisions within the Constitution that place explicit value on the lives of Nigerian women and State-heavy sanctions for abusers have not been made. The 1999 Constitution and Sha'ria law, practised in parts of Nigeria, asseverate women's secondariness and reinforce further trivialisation of GBV cases at police and court levels. The incorporation of international laws that make more progressive provisions for women is not enough. The 1999 Constitution must be amended, independent of cultural influences, to assert that Nigerian women's lives. Implementation of these gender-sensitive reforms at all levels of the justice system is crucial to changing the national response to violence against women.

The rise in women-led private sector engagement, digital media sensitization to gender-based violence, and social media as a tool to raise awareness at a community level and seek justice for GBV survivors reflects a glimmer of hope for combating GBV cases more effectively and thoroughly.

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