opinionBy Yinka Shokunbi
It has been five agonising weeks for families and relations of over 200 girls who were abducted from the Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, as no one seems to have a clue about their whereabouts or under what condition they are living with their abductors.
"The April 14 abduction has really brought the attention of the whole world to the evil that has been going on in many parts of the Northeast, especially in Borno State, where on daily basis, young girls and women have become victims of sudden disappearance without anyone having traces of who has been responsible for the kidnap and killings", said Dr Fatima Zana, native of Bama, Bama Local Government, and Founder, Purple Heart Foundation, Abuja.
Zana, who shared her experience at a recent Ipas, Nigeria Stakeholders Forum on how to pressurise the Senate to pass the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill (VAPP) to law, explained how a vigilance group in Bama found the bodies of two teenage girls in the forest "in a very gruesome state" some six months back.
According to Zana, "the two girls, like many others in recent past, had been declared missing for a while from their homes and then the vigilantes set out to search for them. The state in which the bodies of the girls were found was suggestive of the fact that they had been mercilessly raped through all orifice on their bodies and later left to die".
She told our correspondent in an interview, "I became involved in the bringbackourgirls campaign to let the whole world know that it is not the first time such incident is happening. Boko Haram has been abducting girls for the past three years in the state but then, we called them the unknown girls because they have been taken from their homes, streets, and farms and everywhere as nowhere in particular are safe for us in Borno".
According to her, "In the case of Chibok, which has now become a household name, we want people to understand that these girls are not only from the Chibok community; there are many others from other local government areas as well who were abducted because their parents live around the area.
"For all anyone may care to know, many of the girls (like others who are daily kidnapped elsewhere in the country) could already be pregnant in addition to the psychological trauma they are made to pass through", echoed, Ipas Country Director, Dr Nihinlola Mabogunje.
Mabogunje told our Correspondent, "The saga for the Chibok girls is just a tip of the iceberg. I am told that in Maiduguri, this has been going on and I gather on monthly basis, the number of girls that are being raped from 78 when I took over (last December) to 94 and these are those that are reported and I'm sure 90 per cent of the cases are not reported".
As it is, if it happens that any of the girls upon release from the nest of the Boko Haram, is found pregnant, the present penal and criminal codes of the country do not permit the choice of safe termination of such pregnancy; in fact, the laws restrain any woman from making such choice "unless her life is threatened". The provisions of these laws are as follows:
For instance, the Criminal Code Section 228-230; 297 states:
"Any person who with intent to procure miscarriage of a woman whether she is or not with a child, unlawfully administers to her or causes her to take any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind or uses any other means whatever, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment of seven years.
"Any woman who with intent to procure her own miscarriage, whether she is or not with child, unlawfully administers to her causes her to take any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind or uses any other means whatever, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for seven years".
"Any person who unlawfully supplies to or procures for any person, anything whatever knowing that it is intended to be unlawfully used t procure the miscarriage of a woman, whether she is or is not with a child, is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for three years".
"A person is not criminally responsible performing in good faith and with reasonable care and skill a surgical operation upon an unborn child for the preservation of the mother's life, if the operation is reasonable, having regard to the patient's state at the time and to all the circumstances of the case"
The Penal Code on the other hand in Sections 232 and 233 states as follows:
"Whoever voluntarily causes a woman with child to miscarry, shall if such miscarriage be not caused in good faith for the purpose of saving the life of the woman, be punished with imprisonment for fourteen years".
Explanation: A woman who causes herself to miscarry is within the meaning of this section.
"Any person who, with intent to cause the miscarriage of a woman regardless of whether she is pregnant or not, does any act that causes her death is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years".
In the explanations of the Senior Policy Advisor, Ipas Nigeria, Hauwa Shekarau, The phrase "Any person" used in the sections does not place women's health as the exclusive preserve of health providers. All that the Law requires of any person to do is to exercise "Reasonable care and skill".
"This means that the Law has failed to protect women from unsafe abortion in the hands of unqualified persons", she argued.
Shekarau who is also the President of International Federation of Female Lawyers (FIDA) pointed out that the legal indications for abortion in the country is quite restrictive -to save the woman's life'; consequently, "women who do not fall under this indication (like those abducted or kidnapped and raped and or become pregnant through incest), are left to their own devices.
"Those who are not economically empowered resort to quacks and herbalists. Thus making unsafe abortion a silent and persistent pandemic", said Shekarau.
However, due to the increased incidences of violence against women in recent times against the background of poor legal framework to address these violence, poor judicial response to perpetrators, socio-cultural dimensions to these violence among others, the need for a more formidable and stronger law to take care of all forms of violence against everyone, not just women arose hence the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Bill, which had been before the Federal Legislatures since the Fifth Assembly awaiting final passage into Law. At present, the VAPP Bill, which was passed by, the House of Representatives in March 2013, is now before the Senate awaiting passage before President's assent.
According to Mabogunje, "It is time that every Nigerian woman and man take a firm stand which would enable everyone make informed choices on what each wants to do with his or her reproductive health rights; collectively calling on the Senate to urgently pass the VAPP Bill into Law and Ipas is there to give the needed support to make this happen", she promised.
The VAPP Law seeks to eradicate violence in the public and private spaces and also provides framework to protect rights of, and provide compensation for anyone who falls victim of violence as well as punish offenders accordingly.
In the words of Mabogunje, "I have been speaking to people from Maiduguri, particularly the people involved in the Chibok saga; they are already into procuring abortion for their children through illegal means. It's already been done; so why don't we make sure these girls do not have an added trauma to their lives. Some of them would have their wombs damaged from the concoctions their parents are procuring", she pointed out.
Continuing, "I have been wondering what could be happening to those girls, if they are raped and become pregnant, certainly, their parents may not likely want to allow the girls to keep the pregnancy and something would be done; what is done, only God knows.
"If they have the opportunity to information, they would probably secure a safe abortion but if they do not have, they would certainly go to a quack, make some concoctions and give the girls and in the next five to ten years when they are married and cannot have a child, they start going round in circles, it then it would dawn onus the need to have taken the right action when it mattered", she pointed out.
Comparing Nigeria's precarious situation with Ghana, Mabogunje noted, "Abortion is allowed if a woman is raped or became pregnant through incest. It was in 1998 that the country removed the restrictions in their Laws and now, Ghana's maternal mortality is better than Nigeria's", she added.
To Mabogunje, "If I can save the lives of 11 women out of 100 dying from unsafe abortion in Nigeria, why don't we embrace this same law and remove restrictions and allow women who are raped or become pregnant through incest to take a choice of what they want to do with their lives instead of allowing them to procure concoctions to remove the pregnancies. I want the Nigerian government to give the women choice by removing the restrictions.
"It's time the media make more noise to give the correct information on the issues surrounding unsafe abortion to enable everyone have access and right to make the best choice they possible can after understanding the various issues surrounding unsafe abortion. When there is knowledge, when there is information, one is motivated to change and is able to make informed decision that would make a great difference", Mabogunje averred.