19 February 2013

Nigeria: Vaw - the Deepest Form of Debasement

The climate of impunity for violence against women is a policy choice and can be changed.

Rape is personal. It is the deepest form of debasement of another human being and it happens to people we know. So is domestic violence: that young woman being serially slaughtered by her boyfriend or husband is someone's daughter or sister. Even better, she is a human being; entitled like each one of us to dignity in her life, safety in her home, respect in her relationships and opportunities in pursuit of her ambitions.

I cannot write about violence against women like it's an out of body experience or an exercise in fancy jurisprudence. It is real. In my line of work, I deal with its victims regularly. Not a week passes without a case on my doorstep. Some of its victims are my friends and family. I have had to rescue a sister as well as another friend from chronic violence that nearly killed each of them. Both require long-term medical and psychological support.

Few things in life are as hard as the sight of a young child whose life and anatomy have been blighted by sexual abuse. I know of no experience among the living that competes with this for its capacity to inflict numbness and pain.

Rape has been in the news lately and so also has domestic violence. In South Africa, Oscar Pistorius, one of the contemporary stars of the Olympic movement and the cross-over poster boy of sports, has been charged with the gruesome, Valentine's Day murder of his girlfriend and model, Reeva Steenkamp. The gang rape and murder of a young woman in New Delhi, India, last December stirred nation-wide protests hardly seen since Gandhi's Salt March. In the United States of America (USA), the Republican Party lost at least two eminently winnable Senate contests in Indiana and Missouri respectively in last November's elections by fielding candidates whose views on rape showed that they could well have come from Outland. In the USA, by the way, there is a reported rape every 6.2 minutes and about 20% of women will reportedly be raped during their lifetime. These astonishing figures have galvanized policy and civic action against the epidemic of rape.

Even in notoriously repressive and censorious Saudi Arabia, a movement has been stirred by the sexual abuse and death last October of five year old Lama Al-Ghamdi. As reported by Christopher Dickey of Daily Beast, this child was hospitalized on Christmas Day in 2011 with "a crushed skull. Her left arm and some of her ribs were broken and one of her fingernails torn off. The child's mother, who is divorced from the father and did not have custody, says that hospital staff told her the girl's rectum had been torn open and the abuser had attempted to burn it closed. It took 10 long, agonizing months before, finally, the little girl died."

Here in Nigeria, we treat rape with criminal indifference or as a thing for laughs. It happens to other people or to women lacking in righteousness of the Nigerian kind. What about the women beaten, battered or killed in their relationships? Well, surely, they must have given the men in their lives good reason to take liberties with their physical integrity. That is just the way we view it over here.

Beneath our tendency to cynicism, condescension or national indifference, however, lies a national epidemic with astonishing public health consequences. According to the Gender in Nigeria Report, 2012, "[U]p to a third of women in Nigeria report that they have been subjected to some form of violence, including battering and verbal abuse, emotional and psychological abuse, marital rape, sexual exploitation, or harassment within the home"; "one in five women has experienced some form of physical violence", and "unmarried women are more likely to have experienced violence than their married counterparts." Even worse, the same report found that "violence is 'endemic' in some public institutions such as the police and certain educational institutions, where an 'entrenched culture of impunity' for the perpetrators of rape and other violence is reported to exist.... Crimes such as rape are under-reported and very few cases are brought to court."

Violence against women is a crime, and rape, as an act of violence, is a serious crime too. But, regularly, our security agencies and law enforcement officers are implicated in acts of rape. In 2006, Amnesty International issued a report, "Rape, the Silent Weapon", which alleged, among other things, that "rape by police and security forces [in Nigeria] is endemic, and that the government appears to lack the political will to tackle this human rights issue." In its 2008 report, a Presidential Commission headed by former Inspector-General of Police, M.D. Yusuf, accused the Nigeria Police of "detention, extortion, torture, rape, extrajudicial killings and other forms of brutality." A 2010 report by the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria and the Open Society Justice Initiative, issued under the title "Criminal Force" quoted an un-named Police Officer as claiming that the serial rape of sex workers was "one of the fringe benefits attached to night patrol."

Yet, in August 2011, the Commissioner for Police in Abia State claimed that rape did not happen in Abia because there had been no reported case of rape or sexual assault in the State in the previous year. Few bothered to ask why? As Attorney-General Dan-Soho of Katsina State claimed in November 2012, "rape is self-inflicted....in at least 90% of cases." He remains very much in position and victims of rape in Katsina State are well advised to look elsewhere because there is no hope for them in the Attorney-General's Chambers in their State.

The reported cases give lie to this silly fantasy, however. Five years ago, Grace Ushang, a young woman doing her National Youth Service Corps Programme (NYSC) in Maiduguri, was allegedly gang-raped and killed in Maiduguri. No one has yet been held to account. When she was killed, Ms. Ushang was reportedly dressed in the fatigues of the NYSC programme. Few NYSC Orientation programmes close without reported cases of sexual violence involving Male Youth Corpers or Camp security personnel. In Osun State, a traditional ruler stands accused in a trial in which he is alleged to have raped another female Youth Corper. This is a commendable exception to a pattern of denial, cover up and impunity for crimes of sexual violence in our country.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, no one knows the number killed by this epidemic of retailing violence against women in our country and we have no system for trying to find out nor do we care to do so. Yet, even patriarchy, in the rich majesty of its paternalism, levies a responsibility on men to protect their women. It is as if, conveniently, we have given up on this duty and are even less bothered about the legal responsibility to respect the rights and dignity of women in Nigeria.

Many of us, however, know women killed, deformed or maimed by these forms of violence. Each new day brings new reports of new forms of violence against women in the regular press - sundry incidents of acid baths on women by men who claim to have lost out in love battles; an insecure man slicing and dicing up their former female lover like a piece of pork; or another treating the wife's body as some table for ironing out domestic differences with a hot electric iron. Some others simply stuff the women in their lives, killing them. In a country in which autopsies are hardly performed and autopsy results can be purchased on the cheap, the easy thing usually is to blame God or the devil for vile crimes of hate and insecurity that have little to do with either.

This climate of impunity for violence against women, including sexual violence in particular, is not a fate ordained by an unaccountable deity. It is a policy choice. We can change it. This will, however require concerted and joined up action by government at multiple levels.

First, many of our laws will have to be changed. To begin with, we need to make clear what the age of sexual consent is. This is presently not clear under the law and many States willfully resist the implementation of the Child Rights Act on this basis. Under Section 282(1)(e) of the Penal Code, for instance, it is a crime of rape to have sexual intercourse with a child less than 14 years. This threshold of 14 years presumably, therefore, defines the age of sexual consent under the Penal Code. That is until you read Section 282(2) of the same Code, which provides: "Sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife is not rape, if she has attained puberty." (Italics added). Does this imply that marriage with a pre-pubertal child is lawful under the Penal Code and, if so, that such a child can consent to sex and such consent can be lawful when the same Code proscribes and punishes as rape sexual intercourse with a child under 14? No law should leave room for these kinds of speculation and the only way to eliminate such speculation is through articulate reform.

Second, we need to re-examine our Victorian laws of sexual offences, foremost among which is the crime of rape. In particular, the distinction between rape and defilement must be eliminated. Presently, the rape of a child is treated as defilement and is generally punished less severely (with as low as two years imprisonment) than the rape of an adult. This is both counter-intuitive and illogical, not to mention immoral and unjust. To every right thinking person, few things can rival the rape of a child in their egregiousness. The scale of punishment should be made commensurate with the nature of the crime. Absent this, we make our children preys to male predators who calculate that they can get away, lightly if all else fails, by taking liberties with innocent lives.

Third, the National Assembly can do something to help here by passing the Violence against Persons Bill. Section 55(1)(d) of the Penal Code, for instance, enables a wife to beat his wife as long as such beating "does not amount to the infliction of grievous hurt" and "for the purpose of correcting his wife" as long as such husband and wife are "subject to any native law or custom in which such correction is recognised as lawful." This kind of de-centralisation of domestic violence does not deserve any place in a country of equal citizens or a constitution of equal protection under law. Passing the VAP Bill into law can eliminate this. This Bill is now languishing into its third Parliamentary Session. There is hardly any justification for resistance to this legislative measure. The Distinguished and Honorable men and women in the National Assembly are also fathers, mothers, uncles, aunties, grand-parents, guardians. Some of them or their wards may, indeed, have been victims of such crimes. The next person they protect in supporting the VAP Bill, could be a family member or a loved constituent.

Fourthly, we need to firmly prioritize accountability for sexual violence and violence against women as a policing priority. Presently, there are few policing assets available for sexual violence and violence against women is generally viewed as a domestic issue not as a matter for rigorous application of the laws. This must change. There must be a way to make the next man know who claims to love a woman so much that he feels called upon to disfigure her face or dis-embowel her that this is not passion but crime. The unique thing about domestic violence is that it is one category of crime that, for any committed society, is easy to solve. In nearly all cases, the victim is known; the perpetrator is known; there would be witnesses to the acts of violence and there would be corroborating injuries. All that is required is the will and very limited skill to put the perpetrators away and make them face the consequences of their conduct. We can find that will.

Speaking about will, fifthly, the judiciary needs to play its own role. Many law enforcement officers readily confess that the reason they are not encouraged to take violence against women to court is because the bench, including both the Magistracy and the High Court, in many cases condones such crimes or treats them with levity. There is a suspicion that the judiciary also has its own fair share of abusive men; that some of such judicial officers treat these cases with a sense of "there-but-for-the-grace-of God..." and therefore find ways to frustrate criminal accountability for them. Better training and monitoring of such prosecutions would be necessary.

Bringing all these together, we may need to designate pilot locations for an anti-violence against women strategy and trial. Such a strategy would need the joined joint teams of law enforcement, social services, health personnel, psychological services and human rights teams, backed up with communications capabilities. With adequate training, these pilots will have between three to five years to establish themselves before being rolled out onto a wider footprint across the country.

Without such committed deployment of assets, we will continue to grow impunity for violence against women and to tolerate sundry forms of sexual violence. In the end, however, a country that cannot protect its women and its children from such crimes endangers its ability to protect anyone from any crime. Nigeria, after all, was supposed to be the country "where no man (or woman) is oppressed." If there is any oppression more offensive than rape, I don't want to know it.

Odinkalu is Chairman, National Human Rights Commission

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