Protecting women and providing them an effective avenue for justice will have to start with doing away with the archaic customs and traditions that infringe on their rights; educating and orienting women on their fundamental rights will be a good starting point.
Sexual violence is any attempt or act to obtain a sexual act by violence or without the consent of the second party. It comes in different contexts and forms, which include child marriages, sexual abuse of children, forced abortion, denial of the right to use contraception or to protect against sexually transmitted diseases, systematic rape during armed conflict, rape within marriage, rape by strangers, sexual harassment, forced prostitution and trafficking amongst others.
Women in developing countries experience sexual violence at a disturbing rate and are less likely to report it or seek help, and the narrative is not different for Nigeria. Despite the high prevalence of the act in the country in comparison to major crimes, it is underreported.
A contributing factor to this silence on sexual violence on women in the country is due to our culture. Violence against women is often embedded in social customs that allow it to be perpetrated with impunity, and such violence and inequality arise from an intricate array of closely knit factors, which include traditions, gender norms and social acceptance of violence as a means of conflict resolution. The Nigerian culture makes it difficult for a woman to say no to this form of violence, especially married women. Men learn to be aggressive and dominant through their processes of socialisation. Culture deprives women of equal power to negotiate safe sex in intimate unions, but upholds and entrenches a man’s authority in the home. The custom of paying ‘bride price’, whereby men essentially ‘purchase’ their wives, underscore men’s entitlement to dictate the terms of sex. Thus, the prevalence of rape and other sexual violence have often been associated with social norms around the use of violence as a means of achieving objectives. Rape and sexual violence are common in societies where the ideology of male superiority is strong and emphasises dominance, physical strength and male honour.
The fear of being stigmatised is also part of what cripples justice and security against sexual violence. The fear of isolation by the society imposes a culture of silence, thereby preventing the victims from reporting. There is an assumed dishonour associated with rape or sexual violence that encourages such silence as no one wants to be seen as a victim of sexual assault. For example, an empirical research carried out by Aborisade in 2014 across tertiary institutions in Nigeria found that 60.87 percent of the respondents were advised by their friends and families not to report their violation in order to hide their ‘shame’.
…there is the unsatisfactory synergy between the police and prosecutors, the weaknesses of testimonies, the lack of an efficient interrelationship between medical care providers and the legal system, and careless trial procedures that may exacerbate a victim’s ordeal.
Educational factors have additionally slowed down the eradication of the male superiority syndrome which, as earlier said, is deeply entrenched in most cultures across the country. Parents elect to educate their male children while ignoring the female, especially in the northern part of Nigeria. The high rate of female illiteracy impedes the elimination of gender based violence, as uneducated women, especially in the rural areas, are neither conscious of their rights, nor do they understand ways of demanding them. Research has shown that these women have conceded that the acts of violence perpetrated by their partners are customary and accepted of by their culture. Women in Nigeria, in consequence of the patriarchal nature of the country’s sociological orientation, are confronted by many institutionalised barriers, which have seriously impeded the full realisation and protection of their rights.
As a nation, Nigeria still relies on outdated laws enacted decades ago, in spite of the global shift towards eradicating violence against women, which ended up in many states establishing gender-based violence defined laws. Remarkably, victims of sexual violence are made to turn to the provisions on assault and battery, which is not only discriminatory but also grossly inadequate. Although the Nigerian government is signatory to many of the international instruments on women’s right, most of these laws directed at ensuring gender equality are not adopted by the government.
Finally, there is the unsatisfactory synergy between the police and prosecutors, the weaknesses of testimonies, the lack of an efficient interrelationship between medical care providers and the legal system, and careless trial procedures that may exacerbate a victim’s ordeal. Structural and resource constraint in law enforcement, forensic analysis and the court are also some of the obstacles that impeded women from getting access to justice.
In conclusion, there are many factors, as highlighted above, driven by social cultural contexts, which impede the access to security and justice against sexual violence. Without the government addressing the existing culture and customs, which legitimises and trivialises violence against women in most communities, the cycle of violence will continue. Protecting women and providing them an effective avenue for justice will have to start with doing away with the archaic customs and traditions that infringe on their rights; educating and orienting women on their fundamental rights will be a good starting point. At the same time, there is also a need for human rights sensitisation of law enforcement officers, who unfortunately are part of the cultural problem, having grown up with the perception of women not having rights. Being enlightened on human rights implications of gender discrimination will make them more sensitive and responsive to gender based violence. For women to have confidence in the judiciary, this institution needs to be proactive in handling cases of rape and sexual violence.
Abdullahi Mubarak writes on behalf of the Stand to End Rape (STER) Initiative.
Photo credit: H. Caux, UNHCR.