Nigeria must apply stiffer sanctions against sex offenders but also "look at the deep, systematic dysfunction of cultures and social norms" that allow sexual violence, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has said.
Mr Osinbajo spoke on Monday as Nigeria launched its first national Sex Offender Register.
The register is documentation of reported, tried or convicted cases of sexual violations and gender-based violence, to name and shame those prosecuted for the abuse in order to deter potential offenders.
The Sexual Offender Register is a project under the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). It is funded by the Rule Of Law and Anti-Corruption (RoLAC) under the European Union and implemented by the British Council in Nigeria, in collaboration with security agencies and civil society organisations across the country.
The launch coincided with the global celebration of the International Day for Eradication of Violence against Women billed for November 25 every year. The celebration flags off a 16-day campaign calling for an end to gender-based violence.
This year's theme, 'Generation Equality Stands Against Rape', calls for urgent action against rape and accountability for gender equality.
In an earlier interview, Priscilia Ankut, the Programme Manager of RoLAC told PREMIUM TIMES that the register will name and shame sex offenders in Nigeria by tracking and prosecuting them.
"The type of information of a convicted person that would be captured in the register include Bio-data, Biometric features, Addresses, BVN, DNA," she said.
The register, which was unveiled by Mr Osinbajo in Abuja, contains names of sex offenders in the country since the establishment of the Violence Against Person Prohibition Act (VAPP) in 2015. It will be available online for public consumption and to help state actors to conduct background checks on offenders' new identifications.
Its publication is also intended to help non-state actors to better the campaign against sexual violations in the country.
Speaking at the event, Mr Osinbajo, who was represented by the Solicitor-General of the Federation, Taiwo Apata, said sex offence has always been a globally endemic problem that is often underreported due to society's stigmatisation or total silence of victims.
In 2017, the United Nations reported that one in four women are sexually abused before they turn 18 in Nigeria, the majority of whom are not prosecuted in the country.
"Although times and contexts may differ, women and girls all over the world experience rape, sexual violence and abuse, in times of war but only a small percentage of these incidences get reported.
"Why? Because when women come forward, they're still called liars and troublemakers and demeaned and backlisted," Mr Osinbajo said.
He attributed lack of accurate data on rape cases and assaults to the recurrent perpetuation of the offence occasioned by the impunity perpetrators enjoy as a result of the stigmatisation and silence of the victims.
To fix the problem, he said, countries must look beyond just legislation but also at the deep, systematic dysfunction of cultures and social norms that have not prevented and do not prevent sexual violence.
He cited the case of sex-for-grades in some universities in West Africa, including Nigeria as revealed in a documentary by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) some months back.
Mr Osinbajo said the documentary amplified further conversations around sexual harassment as it prompted the Senate to introduce the "Prevention and Prohibition of Sexual Harassment in Tertiary Educational Institutions" bill.
"The bill specifically states in section 6 that it shall not be a defence to any offence under the bill that a student consented to any offence thereby addressing one of the key challenges in prevention and eradication of rape and sexual harassment.
"I understand the bill is at the committee stage and currently before the tertiary education and TETFUND committee," he said.
Mr Osinbajo said the time calls for stiffer actions against sex offenders.
He said, however, that while it is important for offenders to be identified and punished, it is more important to prevent the abuse from happening in the first place by "proactively identifying risk factors and intervening decisively to deal with them before abuse happens.
"This is why a comprehensible multisectoral service is fundamental and accessible to all survivors of rape and sexual violence.
"Response must be survivor-centred, timely and efficient to end the prevailing culture of impunity and foster a culture of justice and support.
"With the assistance of strategic partners like the European Union and British Council, the Presidency in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs,has been supporting the establishment of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV-RTs) across the country to ensure effective coordination of responses to cases of sexual and gender-based violence," he said.
Mr Osinbajo said the response teams include all relevant line ministries and agencies - the federal ministries of Health, Justice, Education and the police - working closely with states and local governments, as well as community-based networks and civil society organisations, to address various aspects of the problem.
They will be working under uniform referral guidelines as a technical guide for all service providers, and a toll-free emergency number and shortcode will be available to the FCT- Sexual and Gender-based Violence Response Team with the support of Airtel.
"The toll-free emergency number will ensure prompt access to justice for victims and the shortcode will enable victim or eyewitnesses of all forms of abuse, reach out to relevant body and receive prompt information about what to do and how to access appropriate assistance," he said.
He, however, called for collective and individual efforts on ending impunity by "challenging demeaning references to women; opposing a culture of blaming victims; teaching boys a sense of masculinity that respects women and accepts no type of gender-based violence."
"The truth is, the end to this problem begins with us as such we must never become accustomed to condoning any form of abuse or turn a blind eye to exploitation. We must all pay attention," he concluded.
Earlier, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Sadiyya Farouq, lauded the initiative as it will be accessible to ordinary citizens.
"The register will serve as a strategy to stop those engaged in violence against women," she said.
She identified lack of existing coping mechanism and protection system as what continually plunged women and children into being violated sexually in the country.
Mrs Farouq, who lamented the rise in sexual abuse cases in the insecurity-ravished Northeastern Nigeria as a result of Boko Haram insurgency, said the scourge needed to be attended to as a matter of urgency.
With the new initiative, she expressed optimism that naming and shaming pertuators who are often familiar with the displaced women and children in the IDP camps would do much to end the impunity.
On her part, the keynote speaker and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Leymah Roberta of Liberia, said sexual violence is a global menace but only permeated Africa because societal force continued to encourage the menace as "perpetrators-old, young,unemployed men- still roam freely in our communities as if nothing ever happened.
"It has become a normalised thing in almost all countries; women and girls continue to be hunting ground for bored, unemployed, retired and old men who cause harm to these people by violating them sexually.
"Today marks a historic day in the feminist calendar of the Federal Republic of Nigeria- the launch of the Sexual Offender Register.
"This day, I hope and pray, marks the end of the impunity in the fight against rape and gender-based sexual abuse. No longer will girls and women be violated in the name of financial assistance," she said.
She said Liberia also battled the impunity as it declared a state of emergency on sexual violence in an attempt to curb the scourge of the impunity, earlier in January.
Ms Roberta noted that impunity will be brought to an end if the launch of the register is backed up with actions from relevant stakeholders.
She said having a strong political will from all sectors of the government will galvanise the success of the sexual offender register.
"Intergovernmental cooperation is key to sustaining a political will that in turn help yield favour result in line with the intention of establishing the register,"she said.
Alongside the register is the service provider register that will give room for reporting new offenders through an electronic-based system.
Initially, a group of 150 NGOs will monitor police and media reports across Nigeria and update it on a monthly basis.
Meanwhile, the Minister of Women Affairs, Paullin Tallen, while giving the vote of thanks, called on states which are yet to domesticate the Violence Against Person Prohibition Act (VAPP) 2015.
Section 1(4) of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP)Act 2015 provides for the creation of a register for convicted sexual offenders which shall be accessible to the public.
In Nigeria, only two states have launched the Sexual Offender Register - they are Lagos and Ekiti while states that have domesticated the VAPP Act( 2015) include Ekiti, Kaduna, Oyo, Benue, Ebonyi, Anambra and Lagos.
She also urged all stakeholders to key into the initiative, make a collective effort in bringing to book sex offenders and stand against violence against women.
Violence against women on the rise- NBS
In a report published on its website in June this year, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said violence against women had been on the increase from 2015-2017, according data received from the Nigerian Police Force and the Ministry of Justice.
In the report, rape cases topped a list of violence against women and had been on a rise in Nigeria since 2015.
"The percentage of rape incidence for girls was 63.04 per cent in 2015, which increased to 72.13 per cent in 2016 but decreased to 69.33 per cent in 2017.
"Over 90 per cent of suspects arrested for drug-related offences in 2015, 2016 and 2017 (92.7, 93.5 and 93.8 per cent) were men while women made up 7.3, 6.5 and 6.2 per cent of the arrests for the same years," the report said.