Sexual assault and the culture of silence in Nigeria

ABUJA, Nigeria — Last November, a local television station called AIT broadcast a story about a pregnant woman killed by her husband. Mathew Ankyoor, 37, brutally beat his wife, Doosur—a mother of three children—because she refused to do his laundry and complained of being sick. She was eight months pregnant. Doosur and the baby did not survive. In December, another young man chased his girlfriend in the southern Nigerian village of Buguma, in Rivers state, following a dispute before severely beating her inside the home of a neighbor where she had sought refuge. Earlier in May in Lagos state, four male secondary school students sexually assaulted some of their female peers on the last day of school at Falomo, Ikoyi, an incident some described as an end-of-exams “tradition.”1Kunle Falayi, Mass rape: Four students arrested for assaulting Lagos schoolgirls in broad daylight. http://punchng.com/mass-rape-four-students-arrested-for-assaulting-lagos-schoolgirls-in-broad-daylight/. Accessed: 12/22/2017

Those were among the most prominent cases of violence against women last year. Although domestic violence takes place everywhere, anecdotal evidence in Nigeria tells of a culture in which such assaults are shockingly common, with a huge number of them unreported. At a friend’s wedding recently, I heard about a secondary school girl impregnated by her father. Women and girls are regularly warned against traveling along particular roads because of a high risk of kidnapping and rape. Such stories are just snippets from what is a pandemic of physical and sexual violence that is destroying the lives of countless women and girls in this country.

That’s because many Nigerians see violence as a normal part of daily life, especially in the confines of the family and local communities. This behavior is reinforcing a code of silence that must be broken if women and girls are to live free of fear and attack. Although the federal government has made a start by enacting a new law outlawing domestic violence, there are few signs new regulations are having much effect outside the capital.

 

In Buguma village, a woman’s belongings outside her home, thrown out following a dispute with her boyfriend

 

Defining violence

The United Nations defines violence against women and girls as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”2UN Women. Defining Violence against Women and Girls. http://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/295-defining-violence-against-women-and-girls.html?next=296. Accessed: 12/22/2017 Nearly three in 10 women have experienced physical violence by age 15, according to a 2013 government survey, which also said that a quarter of married women have suffered spousal abuse “whether physical, emotional, or sexual.”3Nigeria: 2013 Demographic and Health Survey Key Findings. https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/SR213/SR213.pdf But those figures do not adequately reflect the magnitude of the abuse taking place because many women and girls fail to report attacks from fear of repercussions or stigma and because of routine failures by the justice system.

The government has recently begun to act. In May 2015, then-President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, which seeks to “eliminate violence in private and public life, prohibit all forms of violence against persons, and provides maximum protection and effective remedies for victims and punishment of offenders.”4Nigeria: Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, 2015 (VAPP) [Nigeria], 25 May 2015, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/556d5eb14.html. Accessed 12/22/2017 It was the first time the federal government acknowledged domestic and sexual violence as issues of national concern.

But much more needs to be done. Chinedu Anarado, a former British Council official who wrote a recent report about domestic violence in Nigeria, says VAPP “is only the beginning.” Enforcement of and even just knowledge about the law remains limited outside the capital. In a country where 35 percent of women and 25 percent of men “agree that a husband is justified in beating his wife if she burns the food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children, or refuses to have sex with him,”3 Anarado says, society’s attitudes and behavior must change.

 

Wanda Adu

 

Wanda’s story

Wanda Adu is a 34-year-old single mother of a four-year-old son from Benue state, in the mid-belt region of Nigeria. Her long ordeal with sexual violence began when she was only six years old. The third of seven children (four brothers and two sisters), she grew up with her parents. At six years old, Wanda’s female nanny—a distant relative—would ask her to perform oral sex on her whenever Wanda’s parents were out. That happened for five years while the nanny lived with the family. “I didn’t like it, but I had to do it because she would threaten me,” Wanda told me. Because her parents were very strict and devout Christians, she felt she could not open up to them about the abuses. “When I was six years old, [the nanny] poured hot boiling water on me. I still have the scars from the burns,” Wanda said, raising her dress to show me the scars on her stomach and side. “I didn’t go to school for one year—between ages six and seven—because of the burns,” she continued. The nanny would tell her that if she mentioned the abuse to anyone, “I’ll kill you.”

“I didn’t want to vanish, so I had to be quiet about it,” Wanda said. There was more to come. While she was in fourth grade at the age of nine, a male school typist molested her. “He called me into his office and asked me to raise my uniform,” Wanda said. “I asked him why and he said he wanted to check if I had pubic hair. I hesitated, but he put his hand [inside my underwear].” After Wanda confided in a female teacher whom she trusted, the man was called in for questioning by the school headmistress and fired following his confession.

As a mature 13 year-old, Wanda was also harassed by her teachers in secondary school. “They would say things to me that made me feel very insecure, and I was very shy. I felt I was abnormal because I matured very early.” During her final year in secondary school, a teacher asked her to kiss him, but she ran out of his office. Later in university, Wanda escaped two rape attempts, one at gunpoint and another by a gang of boys during her first year. She says she also failed a course because she refused to engage in sexual intercourse with her professor (whose son was her classmate). “I had an A in the course, but somehow after the exam, my name was missing from the examination attendance list,” she told me.

 

 

Worse came during her third year of university. After undergoing an appendectomy, Wanda was raped by her doctor who pretended to be following up on her recovery.

“I was deceived,” said Wanda. The doctor was a family friend; his eldest brother was her father’s friend. Days after her surgery, Wanda was due for a routine check up at a local government hospital and the doctor offered to pick her up from school. “I felt it was because of the relationship between his eldest brother and my dad that he gave me preferential treatment. So that made me feel comfortable,” she said. “I didn’t know we were going to his house. I thought we were going to the clinic. I thought he would sort me out quickly—avoiding government hospital procedural delays and overcrowding. I was happy that he was going to make the check-up easy for me.” When he pulled up at his house, however, Wanda wondered why they were there. He told her “just come in” and, trusting him, she followed. There was no one else at home.

The doctor asked Wanda to sit down. “He went straight to the [entrance] door, locked it and took out the key,” she said. “That made me very scared.” The situation reminded Wanda of the earlier rape attempt by boys in school who had locked her in a room. “I asked him why he had locked the door and taken out the keys. He said I should relax and not make a noise. He said he wanted to give me a gift. I asked what kind of gift and he told me not to worry.” Wanda struggled with the doctor for more than 40 minutes. “He didn’t even take off my clothes; I was wearing a dress so he only needed to lift it and struggle until he had his way with me,” she recollected with tears in her eyes.

 

I asked him why he had locked the door and taken out the keys. He said I should relax and not make a noise.

 

Wanda remembers seeing bloodstains on the floor. “I was nervous and afraid,” she said with anger. “I didn’t want to believe it happened. I was in denial and thought maybe my period had just come.” After he had raped her, the doctor left her alone in the house. “I was confused. My dress had bloodstains. How would I get back to campus? I was ashamed. I sat outside until it got dark and then I went back to campus.”

Wanda did not attend lectures for two weeks after the rape. “I couldn’t say anything and I couldn’t open up to anyone, even my parents,” she said. “I was afraid. My dad was so strict and would have asked me where and how it happened. If I told him it happened at the doctor’s house, he would have asked me why I went there. He would not believe that I was deceived. He would blame me for allowing it to happen. But I went to his house with no intention of romance or anything. I had only gone for a check-up.”

Corrupt authorities

Law enforcers are often worse than no help at all. Chinedu Anarado, the former British Council staff member, says a lackadaisical attitude by police has caused many Nigerians to become numb to the issue. “Spousal rape is often overlooked or tolerated and yet to be codified as a criminal offense in Nigeria,” he writes. Often, the police will tell victims of domestic sexual or other physical abuse that “this is family matter; go and settle it in the house.”

Women and girls living below the poverty line or with fewer resources are at even greater risk of violence and abuse. “Any case you take to the police, you must bring out money,” Wanda told me. The poor have virtually no rights in the legal system. Many offenders go without charge because the victim’s family lacks funds to prosecute. More than that, attitudes of many in the judicial system provide little hope for seeking justice. Women reporting rapes are typically asked “What were you wearing?” or told “Your skirt is too short. How do you expect not to be raped?” Or admonished—“Why did you take that road?” A 2016 report on domestic violence conducted by the Lagos state government revealed that “of the 20 percent of domestic violence survivors who had sought the assistance of government agencies to get redress, 18 percent withdrew their cases from court.” When victims withdraw their cases, they render the VAPP law ineffective. Those factors, in addition to prolonged evidence-gathering by law enforcement officials, deter many Nigerians from seeking justice.

 

Wanda leads women through an exercise in positive self-affirmation

 

Overcoming trauma

Wanda needed guidance and counseling, but there was no one to offer it. Even her roommate mocked her for having been a virgin in her third year of university. “Do you think all these girls walking around campus are all virgins?” Wanda recalled her saying. “They’re not. That guy helped you!” Her disdain crushed Wanda’s spirit, especially because she had been abstaining for the sake of another man to whom she was attracted. “I felt I had betrayed a trust someone had with me. How was I going to face the man I had promised I would wait for him?”

Wanda now felt that anyone who would marry her would be doing a favor. That led to a marriage in which she was psychologically abused. Her husband would repeatedly cheat on her, returning home to tell her about his activities. He told her she could take up with a boyfriend if she wanted. “I didn’t know what was right or what was wrong,” Wanda said. “All I knew was that I was not good enough.” She had a baby boy, but lived apart from her husband; she in Calabar in southern Nigeria while he lived 500 miles north in Abuja. “I think [the distance] was why the marriage lasted as long as a year and three months,” she told me. They lived together only four months before she walked out.

Wanda left because of the physical abuse her husband began, ending when he choked her for so long she urinated on herself without realizing it. “The best decision I ever took in my life was to walk away from that marriage,” she said, “because I could never have been a better person staying in an abusive relationship.”

After two years of counseling, Wanda was able to overcome her trauma, talk about it openly and realize how what had happened in her life had affected her. “All of the abuse experiences had built a house in my heart,” she told me. She founded the Wanda Adu Foundation in 2016, an NGO based in Abuja dedicated to giving abused women and girls a voice. She works with battered women aged 18-47, teaching them to know their rights. “Most women do not know that the [legal system] protects them from abuse and violation,” she said. “Our country is not helping. I don’t know any counseling office except for churches. We need to see more organizations that focus on quality counseling. Most times when people are abused, they don’t know whom to go to.”

 

Wanda facilitates a discussion about domestic abuse and sexual violence

 

Sexual abuse of minors

One evening last November, Wanda rushed a three-year-old girl to an emergency clinic after her uncle had raped her. The attack took place when the girl was at home with her siblings in Masaka, a town on the outskirts of Abuja. A 46-year-old unmarried male relative carried the girl to a nearby bush close to a stream by her home. The girl was later reported missing until neighbors heard her crying in the bush late at night. She was found in a pool of blood and immediately taken to the nearest medical center, where she was examined and given treatment to help prevent HIV infection. The uncle could not deny his act. But the family chose to address the issue internally, to prevent further embarrassment and hardship by prosecuting the uncle. Many families choose to save the family name at the expense of victims’ rights in the same way. That’s why many sexual predators continue to go unpunished, spreading sexual abuse.

Nigeria can make progress beyond words on paper toward eliminating violence against women and girls only by breaking the debilitating culture of silence and reforming social structures that permit and enable the violence against women and girls plaguing the country.

About the Author

A Nigerian-American who earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in the United States, Onyinye is returning to her native Nigeria to examine the urgent issue of girls health, education, early marriage and, most of all, girls empowerment. Onyinye holds a Masters of Public Health degree from University of Washington-Seattle, as well as graduate-level certificates in the Global Health of Women, Adolescents and Children, and in Sexual and Reproductive Health Research. Describing the impetus for her project, Onyinye points out that, “Niger is presently ranked as the country with the highest percentage of child brides in the world with 76% of girls married before age 18. Nigeria holds the number 14 position with 43% of girls married before age 18. As a trained global health practitioner and advocate for adolescent sexual and reproductive health, I understand the power in a girl’s voice and the dangers associated with silencing that voice. During my ICWA Fellowship I intend to work with young people and their communities to understand the factors that propel child marriage and hinder girls education. My aim is to identify culturally-sensitive ways to address these critical problems.” In addition to her academic credentials, she brings field experience in project design and implementation, monitoring and evaluation, maternal and child nutrition and adolescent sexual and reproductive health; Onyinye has worked in both urban and rural/remote locations in Africa and in the US. An emerging young leader, Onyinye has been recognized by the Clinton Global Foundation as a Commitment Maker, was awarded a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship as well as a Global Opportunities Health Fellowship. Onyinye’s ICWA Fellowship began in August 2016 and will continue until August 2018.