I could hardly believe it when news came in that the Senate just passed the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Bill (the VAPP Bill). It has taken over a decade to get here. As Saudatu Mahdi, the indefatigable Secretary General of Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA), recognised the role of key actors in the Senate for their efforts, particularly Senator Dahiru Tambuwal, she urged us in the civil society to continue to strategise as we celebrate. In her response, Amina Salihu reminisced, “I went into labour at the first CSO meeting on the then Violence Against Women Bill in Feb 2001, in Abuja. Miles away from home, Charmaine Pereira and Jibo Ibrahim saved my life. That child is now 14 years old! It’s been a long worthy journey…” Another child was born during that workshop organised by the Law Group in 2001 – the Legislative Advocacy Coalition Against Violence Against Women (LACVAW). This was a coalition which decided not only to formulate a model Bill on the various forms of violence experienced by women across Nigeria in public and private spaces, but which resolved that this Bill must be passed into law.
It was the widespread tolerance of violence against women, that prevails to this day, which fuelled the determination of the 56 groups and individuals forming LACVAW that such violence should no longer be acceptable. High levels of tolerance of violence give rise to impunity, and this is in times of peace, never mind conflict. We felt passionately that the state should be made to honour its responsibility to protect women from abuse and to provide redress where abuse had occurred. LACVAW represented the decision to act collectively in pursuit of these goals and until recently; the Secretariat was based in WRAPA.
The VAPP Bill includes offences such as wilfully placing a person in fear of physical injury; forceful ejection from the home; forced financial dependence or economic abuse; forced isolation or separation from family and friends; abandonment of spouse, children and other dependents without sustenance. The reality of many men’s abuse of power over women’s bodies, mobility, social relationships and lack of economic independence is framed here as forms of violence, reflecting feminist thinking about violence in African contexts in terms of hierarchical gender relationships in which senior men feel entitled to control women, particularly, their wives, whilst also recognising that senior women may participate in the abuse of subordinate women. Recognition of culturally sanctioned abuses is reflected in offences such as harmful widowhood practices and harmful traditional practices – female genital mutilation, forced marriage and so on.
Offences previously thought of as specific to women can also apply to men. The definition of rape no longer confines it to the forceful penetration of a woman’s vagina by a man’s penis but recognises, following feminist thought and praxis in this field, that any opening of the body, female or male, may be forcefully penetrated by parts of another male or female person’s body, or by the use of objects. The change of name and focus of the Bill, from Violence Against Women to Violence Against Persons, not only includes this expanded definition of rape but also covers forms of violence capable of affecting all members of society, such as political violence e.g. around elections; and violence by state actors. The Bill is the first of its kind in Africa.
Without a coalition, we would never have come this far. The effort that it has taken to sensitise the male-dominated legislature about the levels of gender based violence in the country and what this means in bodily terms for the persons involved, is unlikely to have been exerted by organisations working solely on their own. I remember the 28th of May 2002, the day I presented the Bill to the Deputy Speaker, in my capacity as Chair of LACVAW’s Working Group. At the time, we were working towards the House of Representatives passing the Bill by the end of that administration i.e. the 29th of May 2003. None of us imagined that it would take us almost ten years before the now-VAPP Bill would be passed by the House, on the 14th of March 2013.
That the VAPP Bill has been passed by the Senate today is largely due to LACVAW’s strong partnership with the Gender Technical Unit (GTU) in the National Assembly. The latter’s close tracking of the legislative process allows both partners to put pressure, in a timely manner and with support from development partners, on the appropriate legislative quarters. We cannot rest, however, since the VAPP Bill has not yet been passed into law. The Bill passed by the Senate differs in a number of ways from that passed by the House. These differences have to be reconciled by a conference committee comprised of members of the relevant committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Only after the report of the conference committee has been adopted by both chambers of the National Assembly and a clean copy sent to the Legal Department for authentication can the Clerk of the National Assembly send the Bill to the President for signing.
The President’s Assent to the Bill is essential for it to be passed into law. After the presidential election, widely acclaimed as credible, Nigeria made history on the 1st of April 2015 when the President conceded defeat and congratulated the winner, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. In the final days of this administration, all eyes will be on the President again, this time awaiting his signing into law of a ground breaking piece of legislation. We hope that he will give us reason to be proud once more.
Charmaine Pereira is Chair, Legislative Advocacy Coalition on Violence Against Women (LACVAW) Working Group.