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Violence against women: A “family matter” that thrives on culture of silence

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By Anibe Idajili 

“I was married off to Ahmed at 17. I eventually made the decision to end my marriage to him after ten years,” said Jamila Haruna*, 27-year-old mother of five, who suffered for 10 years before finally deciding to leave her abusive husband.

Jamila is from the Ugwan Yanma area of Kontagora in Niger State. “I wasn’t just leaving because of the beatings; his 22-year-old brother had defiled our 5-year-old daughter and it was covered up,” she said as tears welled in her eyes.

“I was very furious when it happened and wanted to call the police, but my husband snatched the keys and locked the doors. He refused to talk to me about it because he believed I was out to ruin his family’s reputation. He claimed our young daughter would soon forget about being defiled.”

Jamila, one of the 35 per cent of women in the world who have ever experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate relationship, is still physically scarred from the assaults she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband. According to World Health Organization figures, 37 per cent of intimate relationship violence occurs in Africa.

Violence against women and girls is often fueled by certain harmful practices found in various cultures and religions. These include female infanticide, intimate partner violence, female genital mutilation, sexual assault, and trafficking for sexual exploitation. Such harmful traditional practices are encouraged by these social norms. In Nigeria, 1 in 3 girls will have experienced at least one form of sexual violence by the time they are 25 years old, and 44 per cent of women between the ages of 20 and 49 were married before turning 18. Women and girls who defy social norms may experience peer pressure, condemnation, and marginalization.

According to the studies, the rates of psychological/emotional violence, sexual violence, and physical violence committed by intimate partners in Nigeria range from 31 to 61 per cent, 20 to 31 per cent, and 7 to 31 per cent, respectively. Additionally, data provided shows that in northern Nigeria, 42 per cent of women experience abuse from intimate partners. The statistics are particularly grim in Niger State, where over 100 crimes against women went unreported in 2021 and as of March of the same year, only 1 of 62 cases had been prosecuted.

Obstacles to justice

Globally, only 1 in 10 women who have experienced violence turns to the police for help. However, even those who do frequently abandon the legal system after receiving subpar service from the police or other judicial actors. Apparently, the first step in ensuring women have access to justice is to believe the survivors and take action.

“My friend also advised against filing a police report. She said that they wouldn’t take me seriously and could suggest that we resolve the conflict within the family,” Jamila stated.

In practice, social, economic, evidential, and procedural barriers allow offenders to get away with crimes. Women, like Jamila, confront a variety of difficulties in accessing justice.

According to Benjamin Zakari, Chief Magistrate of the Magistrate Court, Nasko, Niger State, “I concur that there is a widespread reluctance by judicial officials in this part of the country to pursue gender offenses and an excessive deference to traditional or informal justice systems.”

“However, there are challenges in acquiring evidence,” says Zakari. “In the majority of cases, the accused also absconds. And according to section 218 of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act, a person cannot be found guilty of rape or defilement without evidence.”

“This poses a serious problem for both the victim and the court. Additionally, even when victims have received compensation or reparation measures, these are frequently not enforced, leaving victims with few options for redress,” he expounded.

Zakari’s assertion is supported by a police officer at Kontagora’s B-Division Police Station who asked to remain anonymous. He nevertheless attributed it to victims not being aware of their rights in situations where their family, prosecutor, or police have failed to pursue their complaint.

He claims that “local NGOs are increasing awareness in the community and informing individuals that they must show up to a medical facility within 72 hours of a crime. Unfortunately, some victims who are bold enough to pursue justice have been pressured into giving up their quest for justice to protect the family name.”

“What can the police do if a complainant requests that a gender crime report be withdrawn and that she wants the matter resolved within the family?”

Medical aid for survivors

With the increase in the activities of armed bandits in rural communities, gender-based violence has spiked in Niger State. The insurgence has forced women to stay at home with their abusers who are no longer able to farm or run businesses, heightening tension and violence.

In response, the Kontagora General Hospital has established a programme at camps for internally displaced persons where victims and survivors of gender crimes can receive medical assistance.

“Interestingly, most of the rape victims we have attended to were brought in by their fathers. Most often, the mothers want the abuse hidden from people. They believe their daughters never find husbands if word gets out that they were ever raped”.

Dr. Fatima Gimba

Dr Fatima Gimba, a Senior Medical Officer at the Kontagora General Hospital, says that through the project, abuse victims and survivors from villages that have experienced bandit attacks undergo medical evaluations, laboratory tests, and therapy.

“We know that refugee women and girls are living through tough times. Since 2020, we have provided medical and psychosocial support to more than 50 of them who have suffered abuse,” explained Dr Gimba.

In general, consent forms are supplied to HIV+ women and girls who are thought to have been abused before police reports are made. All other abuse cases are reported to law enforcement agencies without victims’ consent.

“Interestingly, most of the rape victims we have attended to were brought in by their fathers. Most often, the mothers want the abuse hidden from people. They believe their daughters never find husbands if word gets out that they were ever raped,” Dr Gimba says.

“For instance, a 5-year-old girl who had been sodomized by her uncle, who was over 40, was brought in by her father two months ago. She had severe wounds surrounding her genitalia. We took care of her right away and called the police. After a few days, I called the assigned police officer to find out how the investigation was progressing. I was informed that the family had resolved it in-house.”

At the Ubandoma and Central Primary Health Centres in Kontagora, it was surprising to find no records of patients who had experienced gender-based violence. Mrs Laratu Yusuf and Mrs Mairo Abdullahi, the nurses in charge at each centre, stated that no abuse victim had ever sought medical assistance with them.

“We can only do our best. And thankfully, with support from the wife of the Niger State Governor, Dr Amina Abubakar Bello, the Kontagora General Hospital is currently building a Gender-Based Violence Centre where women and girls who have suffered domestic or sexual violence can access free medical and psychosocial services,” disclosed Dr Gimba.

It is no family matter

Gender-based violence should not be a family affair. It is a criminal offense and a violation of human rights that affects people all over the world and cuts beyond the boundaries of social, economic, and geography. Intimate partner and sexual violence have high social and economic consequences and reverberations across society.

Halima Musa, an advocate of gender equality in Minna, shares this view but also thinks there is a connection between violence against women and religion (both Islam and Christianity).

“Take a look at Africa. See how religion permeates the continent and how it has fueled the tendency to remain silent when women and girls are abused. Based on my observations, patriarchal domination is what drives violence against women, and countries with less religious influence tend to have lower rates of violence against women,” says Halima.

However, according to Mallam Nasir Mansur, a Muslim cleric in Kontagora’s Dadinkowa neighbourhood, “Islam does not support disrespecting someone, whether it be physically, emotionally, or financially. It also opposes the absence of penalties for crimes committed.”

From the last sermon of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), according to Mallam Mansur, he said “‘O People, it is true that you have certain rights with regard to your women but they also have rights over you. Remember that you have taken them as your wives only under a trust from Allah and with His permission.”

Gender-based violence, in the opinion of Living Faith Kontagora’s pastor Philip Faleye, has no place in Christianity and has to be reported to the relevant authorities.

“It is fueled by multiple factors, including cultural beliefs of male dominance and limited legal protection for victims. The Scripture makes it quite plain that God abhors all acts of violence against people. In Ephesians 5:25, the Bible instructs husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. Any attitude or behaviour that causes anyone to undervalue, humiliate, or hurt somebody emotionally or physically is completely forbidden by God.”

State interventions worthy of emulation

Expectations have been raised that the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, which was passed into law in 2015, will significantly reduce violence against women and girls. Niger State is one of the 34 states whose legislative houses have approved the Act. Although the fight against gender-based violence in Nigeria has not yet been completely successful, governments like Lagos have been assisting relevant committees and agencies entrusted with resolving gender-based concerns.

If the Niger State Government has the political will, according to Halima Musa, it is possible to achieve the same level of success Lagos State has recorded in addressing violence against women and girls.

“To achieve the desired change in eliminating or reducing gender-based violence, Niger State must continuously strive to get better and modify its strategy for tackling violence against women and girls,” Halima asserts.

The way forward

“I always counsel abused women to seek help. It might seem difficult at first for women with children or no source of income. But we must cherish ourselves and our children enough to leave as survivors,” Jamila Haruna warns.

Hamila Musa agrees that social and cultural standards and a fear of the unknown make it challenging for abuse victims to speak out.

“For women and girls suffering any form of abuse in the Kontagora axis, they can turn to local nonprofits like Physicians for Social Justice (PSJ) and Youths in Justice Health and Sustainable Social Inclusion (YIJHSSI) for assistance. Additionally, to empower women and lessen the exposure of girls to violence, community-based actions by the government and other stakeholders are also required.

On his part, Benjamin Zakari recommends that women and girls be aware that under Nigeria’s Criminal Code Act, rape carries a life sentence while an attempted rape carries a 14-year sentence.

“This needs to be stressed so that everyone is aware of the repercussions of doing such action.”

In a conflict-affected State like Niger, according to Ken Nnaji, a Programme Manager at Physicians for Social Justice, “violence against women and girls can be a weapon of war. I firmly believe that key stakeholders, including NGOs, traditional leaders, religious figures, and women’s organisations should keep advocating for laws and other interventions to stop GBV in all of its forms, including domestic abuse and destructive traditional practices.”

As more women and girls in Niger State continue to be hurt, suffer psychological problems, and lose their lives in vain without any form of justice, we need to not only involve civil society but also the State government, who are the duty bearers. The Government is ultimately responsible for establishing an appropriate social referral system within the framework of current systems. Gender advocates and other stakeholders must continue to demand increased cooperation between government institutions and civil society organizations to identify and prosecute sex offenders and advance the implementation of the VAPP Act across all communities in Niger State.

This story was supported by African Women in Media, as part of the Reporting Violence Against Women and Girls Initiative