I have been thinking a lot about sexual abuse in Nigeria, having recently reread Olisakwe’s Ogadinma (in which a teenager gets raped by a man she’s gone to for help, and Onyemelukwe’s The Son of the House (in which a little girl is molested by a teacher). In both instances, the victims are cowered into silence. Both victims have loving parents, yet they find it difficult to let them know what is going on.
Growing up, there were things we knew instinctively not to talk about, so while the inability of these characters to tell their parents of the abuse saddened me, it did not surprise me.
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I was nine when an older relative groped me. He had cornered me in the kitchen where I went to get water. I ran out of the kitchen, and for the rest of his visit, I steered clear of him. I was in JSS when a physician I called Uncle and whose wife was a good friend of my mother touched me inappropriately. He had told me he wanted to be my ‘special friend.’ The next time I went to his surgery, I asked my brother to sit in with me. I was a freshman in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) when a third-year student I had considered a friend attempted to rape me. He threatened to bring out a gun. My escape from him is one of the biggest miracles of my life.
I knew that all three men were wrong. I never doubted my parents’ love, but there was a heaviness on my tongue that would not shift enough for the words to come out in my parents’ presence. I told my mother about the physician only after I had my first child and my mother was visiting. He and his wife had called to talk to my mother and congratulate me. And once I told her about him, I told her about others.
What I would have liked was to have spoken out back then, to have trusted that my parents’ love was strong enough to fight for me. It still haunts me that had the third-year student succeeded in assaulting me, I would not have told my parents. Also, that I would not have expected any recourse to justice beyond the beating he would have gotten from my brother (because I certainly would have told him), and that I would have, despite knowing that I shouldn’t, taken the shame that belonged to the rapist because many would have blamed me for going to his room, smiling at him and being friendly with him.
A 2019 NOI polls on Nigerian rape survey revealed that 47 per cent of respondents blame rape on ‘indecent dressing,’ 36 per cent on drunkenness (on the part of the offenders), 34 per cent on drunkenness (on the part of the victims) and 34 per cent on promiscuity. Where is the blame for the person who decides to take by force what has not been given?
Sexual assault seems to have been so normalised that many do not even see it as a crime. I remember coming across a WhatsApp video sometime last year, where a woman who worked for the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) disconnected a man’s power cable over non-payment. In full view of the public, with phones whipped out, he stripped and threatened to rape her. Imagine someone threatening to steal on a busy street in broad daylight. Someone would have decorated him with a necklace of fire.
Once, a few years ago, I did informal research on Twitter and asked how many women who grew up in Nigeria were victims or attempted victims of sexual assault. The response was staggering. There were women abused when they were kids by uncles and domestic helps and teachers and friends’ brothers and relatives. And many of the reactions were similar to mine, to Olisakwe’s eponymous Ogadinma and to the little girl in Onyemelukwe’s novel. They were cowered into silence. I googled ‘sexual abuse’ in Nigeria while writing this piece and stumbled on a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) article published in June 2020, with horrific stories. One woman spoke of being raped by a doctor while she was recovering from surgery. She didn’t report because she didn’t even realise one could report a rape case.
Victims in our society are doubly traumatised, first by the crime, then by being silenced. Offenders continue to misbehave with impunity. While I was at the UNN, there were students who were notorious for being rapists and who wore their notoriety with pride. Yet those whose bodies were violated were expected to shrink themselves from shame.
In cases where victims gather up the courage to break out of the silence and report to the police, they do not always get the support they deserve.
Last year, the sister of Uwa Omosuwa, the 22-year-old student who was raped and murdered in a church, told journalists that the police made nasty remarks and asked for bribes before investigating the case. According to the BBC, she said, “They asked my father if he was the first person whose daughter would be raped.”
Sadly, his daughter was probably one of the many to be raped in that year alone. Yet, according to a National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) report, there were 32 convictions of rape between 2019 and 2020.
There are 99.3million women and girls in Nigeria, and without even having access to reported incidents of rape in that time frame, 32 convictions is a joke.
Sexual assault survivors suffer physical and psychological trauma. Sometimes the trauma is lifelong. Yet, the attitude towards sexual abuse in our country: the normalisation of it, the stigmatisation of victims ( which is why victims remain silent) and the failure to prosecute makes it difficult for survivors to heal. Beyond condemning sexual assault, we must take it upon ourselves to actively work towards a system that dismantles the culture of victim blaming and focuses on punishing the perpetrators.