Between half and two thirds of Nigerian women are subject to domestic violence in their homes. Domestic violence affects all social groups and can consist of physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Although men can also be affected by domestic violence, women suffer disproportionately.
This trend occurs across much of the world, but Nigeria’s discriminatory laws and dismissive police compound its particularly high rates of domestic violence. Most potently, its prevalent culture of silence and stigma for the victims of domestic violence hinders public acknowledgement of the problem. There exists an urgent need to challenge the social prejudices and institutional structures in order to protect its women, not just from danger, but also from ridicule, fear and isolation.
Stephane Mikala, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Africa program, said:
“On a daily basis, Nigerian women are beaten, raped and even murdered by members of their family for supposed transgressions, which can range from not having meals ready on time to visiting family members without their husband’s permission,” adding that “husbands, partners and fathers are responsible for most of the violence”.
Although more widespread in South Asia, acid attacks on women which cause extreme pain, disfigurement and can be fatal, have also been on the rise in Nigeria, and have failed to be taken seriously as an offence by the Nigerian authorities.
What is happening and why?
A combination of factors contributes to the high rates of domestic violence in Nigeria. In general, domestic violence is seen as a ‘private’ matter to be dealt with by the family, typically a domain of male authority. Nigerian women are expected to behave with subservience to their husbands, and domestic violence is often accepted as a part of marriage. According to Amnesty International, many believe that a woman is “expected to endure whatever she meets in her matrimonial home”, and to provide “sex and obedience” to her husband, who has the right to violate and batter her if she fails to meet her marital duties. For some victims, domestic violence is seen as a sign of love. Domestic violence in Nigeria is often viewed as a necessary corrective tool for women, at best a part and parcel of married life.
Two key factors help to perpetuate domestic violence. The first is the inability of many women to escape violence and domination due to their disadvantaged economic status. Many women and girls depend on the financial resources of their husband, father or families. This forces them to put up with domination for fear of the withdrawal of this financial support. In Nigeria, female adultliteracy is below the national average at 54.6% and the number of women below the poverty line is 65% compared to that of men at 35%. Yet even for educated women, domestic violence poses a serious threat to their safety and wellbeing. According to a recent study by the Global Press Institute, 65% of educated women have been beaten by their husband or boyfriend.
A second crucial factor is a culture of silence that stigmatises the victims of domestic violence rather than the perpetrators. Funmi Tejuoso of the Lagos State House of Assembly claims that women were told to “go home and be a good wife” when they brought complaints to the police, making women fear the label of being a “bad wife”. This reinforces the need for raising awareness about women’s political rights and to educate women that they are not to blame for the physical, sexual or psychological abuse to which they are subjected.
Lack of institutional support
Many Nigerians have little faith in the integrity or capacity of the police to redress crimes of domestic abuse. This can be attributed to corruption and under-resourcing of the police as well as perceived pervasive institutional sexism. Itoro Eze-Anaba of the Legal Defence and Assistance Project (LEDAP) said, “The police and courts often dismiss domestic violence as a family matter and refuse to investigate or press charges”. Like much of the world, women in Nigeria facehumiliating rules regarding evidence in court when it concerns violence against them.
This results in a very low level of reporting. In 2005, only 18.1% of 10,000 women who said they had been raped went to the police. Furthermore, women who have been raped were unable to obtain medical examinations and did not know how to report rape or obtain help.
Dr Mairo Mandara, Chairperson of the Right to Information Initiative Nigeria (R2K), and Director of the charity Girl Child Concerns, spoke to Think Africa Press regarding the futility of making police complaints:
“Domestic violence is pretty common in Nigeria and rape is on the increase…Unfortunately, the police and support systems for these cases are very poor. Unless the victim is lucky to be supported by Civil Society groups, seeking redress is almost a waste of time.”
Discriminatory national laws pose a serious threat to women’s safety in Nigeria. The penal code in Northern states allows the correction of child, pupil, servant or wife as long as it does not amount to grievous harm (Section 55). Furthermore, marital rape is excluded from the definition of rape under state-level Sharia penal code in Northern states and under the criminal code in Southern states. Specifically, section 295 of the criminal code recognises “the resort to some degree of violence for correctional purposes”.
Nigeria is failing to implement its current obligations under international law. In early 2007, Nigeria’s National Assembly rejected the domestication of the international law of CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women), despite havingratified it in the 1980s without reservation.
However, some legal reform has got underway. In 2007, the Lagos State House of Assembly passed a law “to provide protection against domestic violence”. However, Funmi Falana, Chairwoman of Women Empowerment and Legal Aid (WELA) said that since being passed, “the law has rarely been tested by victims of domestic violence”. The Domestic Violence Protection Bill 2006 has only passed its first reading at the National Assembly, and out of the 36 states in Nigeria, only four have enacted the Domestic Violence Law.
There are certain alternative authorities to the courts that are often consulted when settling a case of domestic violence. However, discrimination against women may continue in the consulting of community elders, and women’s version of events may be dismissed out of hand. Rape cases in particular are often settled financially out of court.
This results in a serious lack of data on the levels of rape in Nigeria. Not only does a culture of silence and distrust prevent women from coming forward, but government policy prevents records of gender-based violence such as rape going public. The reasons for this may be manifold but it is notable that violence against women is perpetrated not just inside homes but directly by the police and security forces. An Amnesty International report documents sexual violence including rape by members of the police against women in their homes, in the street and in detention. Currently, the Public Officers Protection Act prevents prosecution of state actors charged for rape.
Clearly, the provision of gender sensitivity training to Nigeria’s police and security forces, judges, and other officials in the criminal justice system and lawyers would go a long way. However, long-term behavioural changes will not be incurred through top-down approaches. The public must be educated about women’s rights, women and men must have access to safe houses where they can escape domestic violence, and thorough documentation of cases of domestic violence must be gathered, and the statistics made publicly available. Only then will the culture of impunity be confronted.
Murmurs of improvement
There are murmurs of improvement on some of these issues. After years of wrangling, the Freedom of Information Bill, which guarantees the rights of access to information held by public institutions, was passed by Goodluck Jonathan in June 2010. In terms of public awareness, WELA held a seminar in 2012 on domestic violence aimed at encouraging civil rights organisations to utilise the new law on domestic violence.
Funmi Falana of WELA highlighted that the current Lagos law on domestic violence had failed to deter perpetrators because it was still being viewed as a private matter, and called for advocacy, counselling, and political activism in order to rid Nigerian society of ”all inequities and discrimination against women”.
Nigeria’s successful film industry also has the potential to defy the patriarchal culture that currently accepts violence against women. A recent music video from Nigerian artist Waje about a woman who refuses to let her husband’s abuse get to her is one example of the ways in which popular culture can be mobilised to raise awareness of human rights violations such as domestic violence.
Men and women in Nigeria have no small task ahead of them in challenging the sexism that keeps women at a disadvantage in society, starting with their low levels of literacy, education and economic dependence on men. Furthermore, civil activism must hold the government to account and push for a transformation of the legal and institutional structure that, at present, puts women’s lives at risk. It is unacceptable that members of the Nigerian government, police, military and the legal profession are able to treat women’s safety and security as a private concern that deserves little recognition at best, and ridicule at worst.
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