Lagos State: Pioneering the Fight Against Domestic and Sexual Offences, By Kehinde Adegbite
Beyond making laws and prescribing punishments for those caught and found guilty, it’s important for all states, as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, to follow the path that Lagos State has blazed. Lagos too mustn’t relent. Eternal vigilance, as the popular saying goes, is the price of freedom. Deploying innovative methods to fight DSOs is much more necessary in this era of gender equality…
Some still don’t get it that resorting to violence of any sort shouldn’t be an option at all in any relationship and under any circumstance. It’s no less unlawful and criminal that violence is taking place between persons having domestic relationships – husbands and wives, parents and children or masters and house maids. For the sake of this conversation, let’s take domestic and sexual offence/violence (DSO/V) to mean any use of force, verbal abuse or emotional traumatisation against another person in a domestic relationship. When violence occurs outside persons with domestic ties and is committed against a victim’s sexuality, we call it sexual violence and it may also be called gender-based violence (GBV). Like domestic violence, sexual or gender-based violence is an offence. This is the case when it occurs among persons who are total strangers or acquaintances. Rape and murder are some of the most serious and heinous examples of sexual violence that can take place.
Media reports confront us again and again with cases of spouses beating themselves or one beating another to the point of death. Some parents also don’t know that as much as corporal punishment is not a crime in Nigeria, it mustn’t exceed what’s considered the bounds of reasonability and humane penalty. How would a reasonable person think that s/he can use hot pressing iron to inflict injuries on a child who steals (no matter the offence, anyway) without any legal consequence? A father doesn’t own his daughter to the point of having forceful (or even if claimed to be consensual) sexual intercourse with her, without being charged with an offence of rape or defilement. Instances of DSV are many and I make no attempt to exhaust the list here.
DSOs take place in all countries of the world but responsible and proactive governments are doing a lot more than putting legislative instruments in place to combat the menace. Experience has taught us that legislative instruments alone are less effective in controlling certain social ills and crimes, especially in relation to DSOs, where victims scarcely speak out, much less seek redress and pursue the prosecution of perpetrators to a logical end. The cumbersome criminal justice system wears out whatever remains of victims’ resolve easily. The pervasive socio-cultural atmosphere of seeing DSV as a family or community affairs doesn’t also help the situation. In the end, perpetrators escape the arms of law and come back to repeat the crime. All these conspired to make the eradication of the menace from the society a tall dream.
Luckily, Lagos State Government realised how complex the situation is and pioneered the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) as far back as 2014. Three years after, DSVRT has been adjudged to have worked and contributed significantly to the reduction of DSV in the state. A 143-paged recently released resource tool, titled “Overcoming Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: The Lagos State Experience”, sponsored by the government and authored by experts in the field, validates this assertion.
How does DSVRT work? Can it be replicated by other states in Nigeria?
Lagos is taking the laudable initiative to another level. The Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team Trust Fund will soon come into force. This will assist victims in need of financial support and empowerment because, as experience has shown, poverty and idleness predispose people to all forms of exploitation.
A welcome message on the home page of DSVRT’s website pointedly summaries what it is and how it works – “DSVRT is a collection of professional service providers and officials that respond as a group and in a timely fashion to the various needs of domestic and sexual violence survivors by providing legal, medical, emergency assistance, counselling and psychological and psycho social support. It is to encourage and create unprecedented level of collaboration among professionals working to end sexual and Gender Based Violence.” DSVRT is a complete package, which is thoughtfully and strategically designed to provide the requisite support and assistance to victims of DSOs and also ensure that perpetrators don’t escape legal sanctions. On DSVRT’s website, a victim or any member of the public gets the phone numbers of all necessary agencies and bodies – the police, hospitals, counsellors, and psychologists – including non-governmental organisations, which provide one support or another. This is a classical demonstration of access to justice, easing citizens’ opportunity, especially the indigent, to hold wrong-doers to account, far better than Lagosians have ever experienced. It’s as if those who designed DSVRT had understudied and merely replicated the Ciudad Mujer Centre in El Salvador, a Latin American country. Under the Ciudad Mujer model, a victim of DSV can access sexual health clinics, legal services, violence counselling, entrepreneur training, and childcare provision in one spot. I visited the facility last year, 2016 and the head of the place made me aware that its introduction had reduced the occurrence of DSV in their country substantially.
At the federal level, there exist the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, 2015 and the Child’s Rights Act. Almost all the Nigerian states have one form of legislation or another against DSV but none has gone as far as Lagos with its DSVRT and this is the next level that all other states have to move to, if they are serious in combating DSV.
As affluent as Lagos is when compared with other states, it is still not doing it alone. It partners with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to deliver the multi-faceted services packaged into the DSVRT’s kit to the people. For instance, a victim is advised to present herself or himself for free medical care at Mirabel Centre, a privately-owned sexual assault referral facility, depending on the physical condition of such victim. At times, it may make more sense to report first at a police station before seeking medical help. There are designated police stations in Lagos with police officers specially trained on the handling of cases of DSV. Some of the stations are Adeniji Adele, Isokoko and Ilupeju. This therefore eradicates the fear of further victimisation in the hands of law enforcement agents that some persons may nurse. These officers are more sensitive to the feelings and plight of victims. Victims need empathy from the rest of us, not condemnation. If there’s anybody to be condemned or judged, it’s a perpetrator, not the victim.
After three years of DSVRT, Lagos is taking the laudable initiative to another level. The Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team Trust Fund will soon come into force. This will assist victims in need of financial support and empowerment because, as experience has shown, poverty and idleness predispose people to all forms of exploitation.
Beyond making laws and prescribing punishments for those caught and found guilty, it’s important for all states, as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, to follow the path that Lagos State has blazed. Lagos too mustn’t relent. Eternal vigilance, as the popular saying goes, is the price of freedom. Deploying innovative methods to fight DSOs is much more necessary in this era of gender equality, which is Goal Five of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Eradication of all forms of violence, discrimination and harmful traditional practices against any person on account of that person’s sex remains the core target of this SDG Goal.
Kehinde Adegbite is an Ibadan-based legal practitioner and a member of the Civil Society Observatory Group on the Implementation of the Administration of Criminal Justice in Nigeria.