This Day (Lagos)

19 February 2013

Nigeria: Why Transformation Agenda Must Include a Life Free From Violence

Violence against women persists because a culture of complicity exists at all levels of the criminal justice system, Olawale Fapohunda writes...

South Africa was in the news over the past two weeks for all the wrong reasons. First, was the case of a 17 year old girl who was brutally raped and murdered under gruesome circumstances. Last week, the Olympian Oscar Pistorious fatally shot his girlfriend. Abuse and violence against women have always been a source of concern in South Africa. Indeed such violence is said to be widespread, common, and deeply entrenched that it has now become a tragic reality of living in South Africa. It is estimated that as many as 380,000 women are raped each year in South Africa, i.e., more than 1,000 are raped each day in a total population of approximately 34 million.

Given the current social conditions in Nigeria, there is now, more than ever, a need to develop a comprehensive and constructive dialogue around the status of Nigerian women. In my respectful view I do not believe that South Africa has a higher number of incidents of rape and attempted rape, battery, and other forms of physical assault directed against women than Nigeria, the differentiating factor is that cases of these nature are reported and recorded in South Africa while in Nigeria the exact opposite is the norm.

Statistics in the area of women abuse in Nigeria are notoriously difficult to establish largely because of underreporting. This is due to several factors: the acceptance of such violence as normal by individuals and the authorities, lack of confidence in the police, the shame women experience in describing assaults particularly of a sexual nature, economic dependence on abusers, fear of future reprisals, and the difficulty in obtaining convictions. It is important to begin the process of collecting, analysing and disseminating national data on prevalence, causes and consequences of violence against women and girls, profiles of survivors and perpetrators, and progress and gaps in the implementation of national policies, plans and laws.

Statistics on battery are, if anything, more difficult to establish. Domestic violence takes place within a traditional context that views the family or household as a private domain within which conflict should be contained and settled without outside interference. The title of Erin Pizzey's well-known text, Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear (1981), epitomises this kind of attitude in most Nigerian Communities.

It is generally established that the incidence of violence directed at women in particular tends to reflect the general level of violence expressed in any society. It cannot be reasonable denied that our society is fast becoming a violent one with levels of violence increasing across all states and communities in Nigeria. The spate of bombings, kidnappings, killings and violent crimes are clear indicators in this regard. It is therefore not surprising that reports of incidents of violence against women are on the increase.

Overcoming violence against women in the Nigerian context requires holistic review of the law and justice framework for the protection of the rights of women. Violence against women persists because a culture of complicity exists at all levels of the criminal justice system. There's not enough exposure and conviction against those who are perpetrating acts of violence against women. There will likely be less aggression against women if the legal consequences of such actions were more severe. There is an urgent need for legal reform. Definitions of rape, the lack of recourse to effective legislative controls in cases of battery, the legitimisation of rape in marriage, and the fact that sexual harassment is not subject to designated legislation in Nigeria all serve as specific illustrations of legal obstacles to deterrence of women abuse. This weak legislation is an important factor that leads to a low level of conviction in cases of violence against women and allows offenders to continue without fear of retribution.

Law reform is important but will be inadequate unless there is effective, just, and unbiased policing. Besides the flaws inherent in existing legislation, the enforcement of such legislation, particularly by the police force as well as courts has also come under criticism. Often the Nigeria police are viewed as unsympathetic toward or skeptical of women's reports of violence. In a recent case in the Federal Capital Territory, there were reports of the police themselves perpetrating violence against women. Such practices need to be severely punished if violence against women is to be seriously counteracted.

Nigeria needs a police force that inspires confidence of all and in particular vulnerable persons. Police intervention in matters of violence against women requires even more specialised skills and training. The need for a review of the police curriculum have been subject of multiple discuss. The lack of civility in the police treatment of victims is also a contributing factor to the underreporting of violence against women. Underreporting is significant in increasing the incidence of crime since there is less possibility that offenders will be apprehended. The non-arrest and conviction of offenders heightens their confidence. The result is a tendency for them to repeat their offences.

The need for public education and awareness cannot be overemphasised. One of the reasons for the lack of sustained campaigns around the issue is because there are few organisations working in this field. Rather, what exists in large numbers are organisations. whose activities revolve around the perception of women as a constituency that needs to be mobilised and organised for the purposes of elections or related matters rather than in relation to issues specifically related to women's oppression, e.g., violence and abuse.

The exercise of leadership is essential to end violence against women. President Jonathan has several times stated his commitment to improving the status of women; however dealing with the scourge of violence against women requires not only a clear demonstration of political commitment but also systematic and sustained action, backed by strong, dedicated and permanent institutional mechanisms. The Federal and State Governments should build on the work done by NGOs, scale up and institutionalise it. Governments at the Federal, State and Local levels should allocate adequate resources and funding to programmes to address and redress violence against women. The social, political and economic costs of allowing this violence to continue unabated are great and call for a commensurate investment in women's security. Such an effort requires increased political will expressed through a much greater commitment of financial and human resources. Sectors such as justice, health, housing and education are critical in assisting women who survive violence to access effective legal, health and social services, as well as in enhancing prevention work.

The knowledge base on all forms of violence against women should be strengthened to inform policy and strategy development. Information that assesses and evaluates what policies and practices are most effective is particularly scarce. The Federal Government should take responsibility for the systematic collection and publication of data, including supporting NGOs, academics or others engaged in such activities.

Ultimately, there is no solution that will stop all violence against women. However, there are solutions that can make a substantial contribution to reducing the problem. The cycle of violence can be broken by making a concerted effort to improving the quality of life of all Nigerians. If greater employment opportunities, better living conditions, and the implementation of a democratic political system can be reinforced, as key result areas of the Jonathan administration's transformation agenda then there is likely to be a decrease in the heightened social and economic frustration present in Nigeria. This may result in less displacement of aggression from the political, economic, and social arenas to the domestic domain where women and children are the primary victims. Further, the fundamental human right of every woman and girl to live a life free from fear and violence must be a non negotiable component of the transformation agenda.

Fapohunda is a Commissioner, with the National Human Rights Commission.

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