Funmilayo Odude, Legal Practitioner, Damod Law Practice

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Ending sexual violence is beyond social media uproar 15 Aug 2019

Biodun Fatoyinbo, Senior Pastor of Commonwealth of Zion Assembly, alleged to have committed multiple rapes

Nigeria’s patriarchal society is currently experiencing the resistance to violence and abuse against women, which first emerged in some Western nations a few years ago and has since reached many other countries. The #MeToo movement is one of the positive effects of social media. The hashtag on social media has helped to entrench women’s rights across several countries.
The current wave of protests against sexual harassment in Nigeria started with the news of rape allegations levelled against Biodun Fatoyinbo, Senior Pastor of Commonwealth of Zion Assembly (COZA). The protests led him to temporarily step down from his position at the church. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) have also asked him to confront the accusations levelled against him.

Another upshot of the Nigerian Me Too movement is the arrest and arraignment of Senator Elisha Abbo, after a video surfaced of him assaulting a woman in an adult store in Abuja. The social media is now being used to demand an end to decades of sexual abuse, exploitation, intimidation and harassment of women in Nigeria.

The actions for which people are demanding justice against the pastor and the senator are daily occurrences in the country. The statistics on sexual violence in Nigeria varies, depending on the organisation reporting the crime. It is sobering, nonetheless. The Women at Risk International Foundation (WARIF) reports that one in four females has experienced sexual violence in childhood – approxi-mately 70 percent of these women reported more than one incident of violence.

Stories of rape and defilement of minors are part of the daily news cycle. These assaults are as much security challenges as kidnappings and attacks by armed herdsmen.

Towards the end of 2018, Nigerians raised an outcry after the story of 13-year-old Elizabeth Ochanya Ogbanje broke. She died in October 2018 from vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF) disease, following alleged repeated sexual assaults by a man and his son in Makurdi, Benue State. Her story was in the news after Richard Akindele, a lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, was arraigned for demanding sex from a student in exchange for marks. After a brief furor, the movement to end sexual harassment fizzled out until the Fatoyinbo and Senator Abbo incidents came up.

It is important for Nigeria as a society to see these latest developments as the moment to address once and for all the prevailing rape culture in our country. This is a culture that affects not just the female gender but also the nation as a whole. While the country is generally unsafe, young girls and women face a separate form of insecurity.

How do we go beyond visceral reactions on social media and occasional protests when certain individuals are publicly accused of sexual violence? How do we go beyond bringing certain men to justice (they undoubtedly must come under the full weight of the law) to creating strong institutions that protect our young girls and women and prosecute anyone who violates them?

We need to have a more coordinated advocacy. Despite the benefits of social media, there are also drawbacks. While it is a very effective tool for exposure and communication, it can also muddle the issues with the myriad of voices and opinions, informed and uninformed. An advocacy that includes public enlightenment is critical to effecting behavioural and cultural changes. But this cannot be achieved online alone. It must be coordinated, consistent and targeted to have the desired impact.

This is an activity that has to be driven by Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in collaboration with policymakers. It is an advocacy that has to be both formal and informal in nature. The formal aspect of it would involve using formal education tools, legislation and government-sponsored programmes. In this regard, the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) is worthy of mention and emulation by other states.

The informal aspect of the advocacy would entail working with faith-based organisations, traditional and cultural institutions and professional bodies to enlighten the public on the need to end sexual violence. This is important considering that a large population of our country is still illiterate and even many who are educated are under the influence of these institutions.

These institutions have to be engaged insofar as our religious and traditional institutions are custodians of some of the patriarchal norms and values that have to be challenged in dealing with some of the root causes of sexual violence. And for the engagement to be effective, it is important for the message to be clear and concise to avoid the baseless allegation of importing ‘western values and cultures.’

Therefore, what should be the focus of our advocacy at this time? The first is a review of our institutional frameworks. The systems for reporting and prosecution of sexual violence cases have to be more effective. The punishment for sexual violence also has to fit the crime, but also effective in terms of deterrence.

We also need to advocate primary prevention to end sexual violence. This requires tackling issues such as gender inequality, lack of education of the girl child, poverty and unconscious bias. A major achievement of the #MeToo movement is that societies are slowly ending the culture of women’s silence. This has entailed stripping away the shame and stigmatisation often faced by victims of sexual violence.

We must work towards creating a society where victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence are comfortable to report cases of abuses as soon as they occur, just as they would report incidents of theft. This is important for two reasons. First, our society must begin to punish offenders of these heinous acts. This can only be done if they are successfully prosecuted with proof beyond reasonable doubt (the standard of proof required in criminal cases), which is easier to gather when cases are reported promptly.

The second reason is that in attempting to end the culture of silence and stigmatisation surrounding sexual violence cases, we must not create a system where false accusations that are capable of permanently tarnishing a person’s image become rampant. As it stands, an accusation is almost synonymous with guilt in public opinion.

As a way of enlightenment, one of the formal frameworks available to victims of sexual violence is the Mirabel Centre. It is a sexual assault referral centre established and managed by the nonprofit, Partnership for Justice. It is the first of its kind in West Africa and is located in Ikeja General Hospital in Lagos State. It provides medical examination, tests and treatment for victims. The centre also provides counselling and helps victims to report incidents of sexual abuse to the police. It coordinates these activities with other relevant government agencies where needed.

A similar centre can be replicated in health centres across the local government areas (LGAs) in Nigeria. This would necessarily require training of both medical and non-medical personnel to deal with sexual violence trauma cases.

As a way of strengthening the criminal justice system, the Nigeria Police Force needs to undergo extensive re-training. As the first point of contact a victim has with the system, the unprofessional manner in which the police handle reports of sexual violence is a major contributing factor to the prevalence of sexual violence in Nigeria. Sexual violence crime, like all crimes, is not just against a victim. It is also a crime against the state. The police must, thus, be prevented from facilitating settlement of such cases in ways that make the accused to evade prosecution, as it is wont to do.

Our current legislations on sexual violence need to be reviewed. The Lagos State Criminal Law of 2015, which proscribed life imprisonment for rape and sexual assault and jettisoned the need for proof of penile penetration, should be emulated in other states. The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act 2015, criminalises other acts of abuse such as forced financial dependence or economic abuse; forced isolation or separation from family and friends; emotional, verbal and psychological abuse; harmful widowhood practices; stalking and intimidation; spousal battery; harmful traditional practices; and attack with harmful substances. These various forms of abuse should also be considered by other states in their legislative reforms.  

Apart from having the appropriate legislation, we must prioritise the education of the girl-child for the country to make meaningful progress. Educating a girl-child will enable her to grow into a woman who can make responsible decisions, including family planning and other sexual decisions. Education will also enable her to compete favourably with her male counterparts in the workplace, thereby eliminating the fallacy of male superiority, which fosters patriarchy.

The advocacy to end sexual violence against women in Nigeria has to be deliberate, coordinated and consistent to achieve the desired change.