opinionBy Theodora Oby Nwankwo
If laws do not provide adequate safeguards against sexual and gender-based violence it will be perpetrated with impunity.
Rape is defined as the invasion of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body by force, threat of force, coercion, taking advantage of a coercive environment, or against a person incapable of giving genuine consent. Rape can be perpetrated by any person in a position of power, authority and control, including husband, intimate partner or caregiver.
Child sexual abuse, defilement and incest constitute any act where a child is used for sexual gratification. Any sexual relations/interaction with a child and can be perpetrated by someone the child trusts, including parent, sibling, extended family member, friend or stranger, teacher, elder, leader or any other caregiver, anyone in a position of power, authority and control over a child.
Rape, sexual assault, and stalking are matters of serious concern - not only because of the physical, emotional and psychological trauma which they engender in the victim, but also because these are practices which are being tolerated by a society ostensibly claiming the rule of law.
It is on record that rape is on the increase in Nigeria and no single day passes without reports in the newspapers and online, about incidents of rape. Rape victims are on the increase with many of the rapes occurring in homes, schools, on the roads, in uncompleted houses/structures, and all over our towns and villages. Infants, children, young girls, married women and elderly women are among the victims. Gang rape by groups of armed men is also on the increase and more deaths resulting from rape especially gang rapes are being reported. According to a recent poll in Nigeria, almost three in 10 Nigerians claim to know a rape victim, with stigmatisation cited as the main reason many rape cases go unreported.
What are the causes of the recent explosion of rape cases in Nigeria and in other countries?
The root causes of sexual and gender-based violence lie in a society's attitudes towards and practices of gender discrimination, which place women in a subordinate position in relation to men. The lack of social and economic value for women and women's work and accepted gender roles perpetuate and reinforce the assumption that men have decision-making power and control over women. Through acts of sexual and gender-based violence, whether individual or collective, perpetrators seek to maintain privileges, power and control over others.
Gender roles and identities are determined by sex, age, socio-economic conditions, ethnicity, nationality and religion. The disregard for or lack of awareness about human rights, gender equity, democracy and non-violent means of resolving problems help perpetuate these inequalities.
Some have argued that women attract rape to themselves by their indecent dressing exposing their bodies. Swaziland recently banned mini dresses because it's one of the causes of rape. The attempt to pass a similar law in Nigeria by a Senator a few years ago met with strong resistance. I hold the strong view that rape can never be justified on these flimsy reasons. A look at the nature of cases reported recently show that infants have been raped and women over 70 years have been raped. The Opi Nsukka case of mass rapes of women over 70 years proves that the way a woman dresses is not an excuse to rape. Women with disabilities especially women who are mentally retarded are victims of rape and sexual assault.
A 4 year old girl was raped and her account of the incident to her father shows that serious and drastic action needs to be taken by law enforcement, our social services, parents, etc. to stem this tide. She said to her father: 'Uncle Onye put his wiwi in my ansarot and urinated on me." By "urinating", she meant ejaculating.
Two men were arraigned before the Court for allegedly raping a woman afflicted with Down syndrome in the midnight of July 10, 2010
and the Police Command paraded a 21-year-old for allegedly having carnal knowledge of an 18-year-old deaf and dumb.
What is of great concern too is that very young boys are more and more getting involved in this dastardly act. A 16-year-old boy defiled a nine-year-old schoolgirl, who was on her way home from school in company of her friends. The doctor's report indicated that the victim suffered some lacerations on her private part and her hymen was broken.
A 63-year-old man, attempted to defile a two year old girl in his room.
The suspect, who is old enough to be the victim's great-grandfather, allegedly lured her into his room, stripped her and was struggling to penetrate into her before he was caught. This could not have been because of what she was wearing.
A 15-year-old girl was allegedly raped and impregnated by the 40-year-old welder who is supposed to be a family friend. Her story was published in the Punch Newspapers along with her photograph. He held her tightly, covered her mouth with clothes and tied her with ropes before violently raping her. According to her, because she had not had sex before, she had bruises and blood covered her private part.
In another gang rape development, a 13-year-old girl, a Junior Secondary School student was reportedly invited into one of the suspects' apartment. While there, the owner of the apartment a married man with five children, whose family was away, had carnal knowledge of her, alongside his two friends. She was, thereafter, instructed not to tell anyone and also threatened to kill her if she did. She was later confirmed pregnant, at 13 years!
A more pathetic case is that of 18 year old Esegi, who was gang-raped to death in a shop in 2012 in Yenagoa. The report said that she was violently tortured and raped to death by unknown persons in broad daylight. Another lady believed to be in her early twenties was raped to an unconscious state by four men in Warri, Delta State. It is not yet clear whether she survived tit or not.
Rape is widespread and has been reported in all states of the federation included Abuja the FCT. In November 2012, a woman was drugged in a taxi, abducted and raped and threatened with blackmail by her abductor.
The church is not exempted from this epidemic. A 42-year-old pastor of a white garment church who allegedly raped a 12-year-old foster daughter of his neighbour was arraigned before a Magistrate's Court, in Lagos.
Rape is very barbaric especially when the perpetrator is one's spouse. Yet it is not a crime in the Nigeria's legal system, as culturally, a typical Nigerian woman is often seen as the husband's property and he can deal with that property as he wishes. As long as she is legally married to her husband, she cannot be raped. The Penal Code specifically excludes "sexual intercourse by a man with his own wife" from the definition of rape, so long as she has attained puberty.
Rape in other parts of the world
Civil society organisations are calling on President Jacob Zuma to establish a commission of inquiry into sexual violence and to also set-up a special fund aimed at ending the increasing incidence of sexual violence in the country, following the brutal gang rape and murder of 17-year old, Anene Booysen, which continues to make news headlines around the world. She was buried a few days ago.
Horrific, violent attacks on women including rape in the vicinity of Tahrir Square in Egypt have been reported. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH/A), an initiative set up by a number of Egyptian human rights organisations and individuals, received reports of 19 cases of violent attacks against women on 25 January 2013 in the vicinity of Tahrir Square.
Recently a woman who was gang raped in New Delhi, India died from injuries sustained. The 17 year old girl who was gang raped in South Africa also died.
Also the horrendous gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey resulting in an uprising of students and concerned citizens in Delhi and the rest of India.
Factors Responsible for Epidemic
Failure of good governance is the obvious root cause for the current unsafe environment eroding the rule of law; lack of adequate laws on violence against women as well negative attitudes towards women.
Attitudinal changes to correct the aberration of gender bias have to be brought about in the institutions of governance including the courts. There is need to improve the work culture, and in civil society to improve the social norms for realising the constitutional promise of 'equality' in all spheres for the womenfolk. Focus on the machinery for implementing the laws is, therefore, a significant part of this exercise.
The duty of the State, therefore, is to provide a safe environment at all times for women, who constitute half the nation's population; and failure in discharging this public duty renders it accountable for the lapse. The State's role is not merely reactive to apprehend and punish the culprits for their crimes; its duty is also to prevent the commission of any crime to the best of its ability. Crimes against women are an egregious violation of several human rights demanding strict punishment with deterrence to prevent similar crimes in future by the likeminded.
Very few convictions of perpetrators have been recorded and in these few cases, punishment has been appalling.
Victims/survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are at high risk of severe health and psycho-social problems, sometimes death, even in the absence of physical assault. The potential for debilitating long-term effects of emotional and physical trauma should never be underestimated.
Understanding the potential consequences of sexual and gender-based violence will help actors to develop appropriate strategies to respond to these after effects and prevent further harm.
There are serious and potentially life threatening health outcomes with all types of sexual and gender-based violence including Homicide, suicide, maternal mortality, infant mortality and AIDS-related mortality. In non-fatal situations outcomes include acute physical injury, shock, disease, infection, disability, chronic infections, chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion, STIs, including HIV/AIDS, menstrual disorders, pregnancy complications, gynaecological disorders, etc.
Emotional and psychological consequences include post traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, fear, anger, shame, insecurity, self-hate, self-blame, mental illness, suicidal thoughts, etc.
Some of the unfortunate social consequences are blaming the victim/survivor, social stigma, social rejection and isolation and increased gender inequality. Most societies in Nigeria tend to blame the victim/survivor. This social rejection results in further emotional damage, including shame, self-hate and depression. As a result of the fear of social stigma, most victims/survivors never report the incident. Indeed, most incidents of sexual and gender-based violence go unreported.
If national laws do not provide adequate safeguards against sexual and gender-based violence, or if practices in the judicial and law enforcement bodies are discriminatory, this kind of violence can be perpetrated with impunity.
Community attitudes of blaming the victim/survivor are often reflected in the courts. Many sexual and gender-based crimes are dismissed or guilty perpetrators are given light sentences. The punishment meted out to perpetrators constitutes another violation of the victim's/survivor's rights and freedoms, such as in cases of forced marriage to the perpetrator. The emotional damage to victims/survivors is compounded by the implication that the perpetrator is not at fault.
The victim/survivor is insecure, threatened, afraid, unprotected and at risk of further violence. If police and security workers are not sensitive to the victim's/survivor's needs for immediate care, dignity and respect, further harm and trauma may result because of delayed assistance or insensitive behavior.
The starting point in dealing with this epidemic is to put in place adequate laws with adequate punishment. The Violence against the Persons Bill has been pending in the National Assembly since 1999. Passage of this bill which would not only protect rape victims but equally provide protection for victims of violence including physical, sexual, psychological, domestic, harmful traditional practices and discrimination.
The bill seeks to stiffen punishment for rape as perpetrators get away with light punishment as light as 2 months' imprisonment with option of fine. If this bill is passed and it is properly implemented by the law enforcement agencies and courts, perpetrators would think twice before committing rape because they can go to jail for life.
If a larger number of victims come out boldly to report such incidents and ensure a follow-up, then there would be diligent prosecution. If victims are sure that perpetrators will be punished they will be more disposed to report the cases.
Letting perpetrators get away with sexual harassment and assault has fuelled violent attacks against women in recent months - continued impunity will only lead to further crimes.
Stigmatisation of victims is largely responsible for the culture of silence. Society needs to be sensitised to understand that stigma has contributed a lot to the increase of rapes in the society and they have a role to play in reducing the incidences of rape.
Rape should be taken quite seriously by everyone. Rape is degrading, demeaning, and demoralising. The incidence of rape in Nigeria has been on the increase over the years, but it is now much worse. Lawlessness and injustice seem to have taken over in Nigeria. The courts have to be more proactive in dealing with rape cases to curb the impunity that is taking over in Nigeria.
A proper investigation and documentation of the prevalence of sexual violence is needed. Police officers should ensure proper investigation of and prosecution of rape cases will go a long way in discouraging perpetrators from committing rapes and indecent assault.
The case of the Nigerian Army dismissing four soldiers attached to the Brigade of Guards for raping some women and extorting money from them in Abuja last month is a good example of proactive handling of such cases.
The errant soldiers raped some women, including a married woman on December 18, 19 and 20, last year and extorted money from the victims at River Plate Park, close to the Federal Character Commission, Central Business District, Abuja. The National Human Rights Commission had petitioned the authorities of the Nigerian Army and the Police to fish out those behind the dastardly act.
Mrs. Nwankwo is Nigeria's representative at the United Nations Committee on Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)