Massive protests against gender-based violence in Nigeria force government to take measures

The cabinet has called on all state governments to implement Violence against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPPA), 2015, a key demand of protesters. The parliament’s upper house also pushed legislation for protection of victims from stigma.

June 13, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
A series of mass protests have been organized in cities across Nigeria demanding that the government take immediate measures to curb sexual gender based violence.

On Wednesday, June 10, different bodies of the Nigerian State initiated measures to combat the increasing cases of rapes and other forms of brutality against women during the lockdown. These actions came in response to the massive protest movement which started a week ago and spread across different cities of the country.

The movement – led by a coalition of civil society and rights organizations – rose in the wake of increasing Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) since the beginning of the lockdown. The perpetrators in these cases have included family members, neighbors, landlords, the police and other security forces.

Experts have pointed out that conditions of confinement due to lockdown have caused a spike in gender-based violence, primarily against women, across the world.

Among the measures initiated on Wednesday was legislation to protect the victims from stigmatization. Senator Sani Musa of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) sponsored this legislation in the Upper House of the Parliament.

It was titled, “A Bill for an Act to Prohibit the Stigmatisation of Victims of Rape and Insurgency in order to encourage victims of rape to testify in court and victims of insurgency to be reintegrated into the community of his or her choice.” The separate mention of insurgency is in reference to the higher and more systematic prevalence of sexual violence in the conflict affected regions in the country’s north.

Originally introduced on December 10, 2019, the bill was put through its third reading in the Senate on Wednesday. Its objective, Musa argued, was to address the shortcomings in the existing laws which fail to provide adequate protection to the victims against social stigma, often resulting in under-reporting and inaction by the authorities.

After finding broad support for the bill in the senate, it has now been referred to the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Matters, who are expected to consider it and report back within four weeks.

Supporting the bill, Senator Sandy Onor of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) from the Cross-Rivers State, mentioned that the ongoing protests in the country had made addressing the violence against women a top priority.

A series of cases of sexual violence and femicide under lockdown motivated hundreds to take to the streets in Nigeria to demand the government take measures to stop sexual and gender based violence.

On the same day, the Director General of National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Julie Okah-Donli, told during a press conference that she will approach the Minister of Justice to seek establishment of special courts to try rape-accused. She further warned that those justifying rapes may also be arrested as suspects, the Premium Times reported.

In an important parallel development on Wednesday, after the intervention of the Minister of Women Affairs, Pauline Tallen, the cabinet decided to call on all state governments to adopt and operationalize the Violence against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPPA), 2015.

Among the numerous acts that deal with rape in Nigeria, including the Criminal Code and the Penal Code, VAPPA provides a relatively broad and comprehensive definition of rape and consent. It is also the only one acknowledging marital rape. Punishments for a number of other kinds of offenses falling under the SGBV are also dealt with in this act.

However, this act has been adopted only by a mere nine of the 36 states in the country, and is currently operational only in Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.

Implementation of VAPPA across the country has been a demand consistently raised by the protest movement, which began in the immediate aftermath of the brutal rape and killing of an 18 year old student, Barakat Bello, in Oyo State on June 1. The same day, 11 men were arrested for the rape of a 12 year old in Jigawa state.

These two cases were reported while a public outcry was already raging in the country after the death of a 22 year old student, Vera UwailaOmozuwa, on May 27, after being raped and bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher in the premises of a church in Benin city of Edo State.

A coalition of civil society and rights organizations lead the protest movement

By June 4, a campaign against the increasing cases of SGBV was launched by a broad coalition, including TechHerNG, Girl Child Africa, Connected Development, Enough is Enough Nigeria, Stand To End Rape, SilverChipFox, Yiaga Africa, Dorothy Njemanze Foundation, and Education as Vaccine.

Among their key demands are the country-wide implementation of VAPPA, “establishment of Sexual Assault Referral Centres in every state backed with a coordinated, sustainably-funded support system”.

In a high number of cases where the perpetrators of SGBV are close family members, the police ask the victims seeking help to resolve it within the family instead. The coalition therefore specifically demands “criminalization and prompt state-led prosecution of SGBV cases within (families), regardless of requests or interference by the victim’s family or interested parties.”

On June 5, protesters led by this coalition converged on the Police Headquarters in the commercial hub of Lagos and the capital city of Abuja, addressing their demands to police, Nigerian Governors’ Forum and the Federal Executive Council.

Action Aid Nigeria also joined the protest at the Police HQ in Abuja. Addressing the gathering, its Country Director, Ene Obi said: “The situation has degenerated to the point that security operatives who are meant to protect are also threatening to rape and kill women and girls in.. conflict (affected regions). We urge the Presidency to declare a state of emergency on Gender-Based Violence.”

While the police sought to assure them that strict action would be taken against the perpetrators, the protest, nevertheless, continued to seek concrete actions.

On June 8, protesters in Lagos marched to the state assembly, reiterating the demand for the declaration of a state of emergency. In a similar protest on June 9, protesters marched to the state assembly in Bayelsa state, demanding that VAPPA be implemented across the country.

“We are here this morning to present our case before the House of Assembly.. (T)here has been an upsurge in GBV in the country, and Bayelsa is not an exception. It got to its peak during the lockdown when over 58 cases were reported in Bayelsa (alone),” said a women rights activist, Maria Olodi, who was one of the convenors of this protest.

“The lockdown itself has become the trigger” for gender-based violence

“The lockdown itself has become the trigger,” Dr. Abiola Akiode-Afolabi, founding director of Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), had told The Guardian Nigeria earlier.

“From what we have been seeing in terms of statistics of the COVID-19 spread across the world, the lockdown has become a major challenge in the sense that women who ordinarily go to work in the morning and come back in the evening are now being locked down with an abuser they’ve been living with and have been trying as much as possible to avoid.. In Nigeria, the Domestic Violence Referral Centre in Lagos reported about a 35 percent increase.”

Well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, already in 2017, according to a study jointly commissioned by the Women’s Affairs Ministry and the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), 28% of all the women between the age of 25 to 29 in Nigeria had faced some form of physical abuse since they had turned 15.

The study also found that “44% of divorced, separated or widowed women reported experiencing violence since age 15, while 25% of married women or those living with their spouses have experienced violence.”

The imposition of the lockdown has only worsened this already existing crisis. Acknowledging the urgency to act, Women Affairs Minister Tallen said on June 10 that “before COVID-19, we have always had pandemic of rape cases and gender based violence. But with the lockdown due to COVID-19, women and children are locked down with their abusers and the number has escalated three times. There is no state that is an exception.”

This sharp increase in SGBV is not, however, an exclusively Nigerian phenomenon. This has also been recorded in countries across the world and so far government’s have been unable to come up with appropriate responses.

In a statement as far back as on April 6, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women had said, “In Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, government authorities, women’s rights activists and civil society partners have flagged increasing reports of domestic violence during the crisis, and heightened demand for emergency shelter.”

“Confinement” due to lockdown, she’d added, “is increasing isolation for women with violent partners, separating them from the people and resources that can best help them. It’s a perfect storm for controlling, violent behaviour behind closed doors.”

Numerous international agencies have pointed to the need to have a frontline staff, trained to handle, detect and raise awareness about SGBV cases in the context of the pandemic.