In June 2020, in the aftermath of highly publicised sexual assault cases, including that of a 12-year-old girl in Jigawa State who was gang-raped, President Buhari declared a nationwide state of emergency to tackle the epidemic of sexual violation that seems to hold us in its grip. Per a CNN report, all 36 state governors committed to declaring a state of emergency on rape and the Nigerian Governor’s Forum (NGF) called on all states to set up a sex offenders’ register and to sign on to two federal laws, which punish rape and violence against women and children. I do not know if those registers were set up and if so how effective they’ve been in curbing sexual violence crimes in their states. What I do know is that the culture of silence around rape continues and it does so for a reason.
Each time I write about sexual assault in Naija and the silence surrounding it, there’s bound to be someone (often a man) “advising” victims to speak up when they’ve been abused. Let me say it again: it is not that simple. You know why? Short answer is the rape culture in Nigeria. Victims of sexual assault are more often treated with hostility than not. They are shamed and blamed for the attack against them. Per UNICEF data, 1 in 4 Nigerian girls are sexually assaulted before the age of 18. However, more assaulters than not get away with it. Women who accuse men of sexual assault face stigmatisation and criticism. There are many who still believe that a rape victim ought to be ashamed of the rape, and who wield the assault as an insult to throw at them each time they “step out of line.” Just last week, an argument on Twitter about whether or not a white woman could, theoretically, be made a commissioner in Anambra State deteriorated to one where a Twitter user, Sugabelly who was vocal about her disagreement – and who has also been open about a sexual assault she suffered years back- was insulted for being a victim and blamed for the rape. It shouldn’t be said but here we are: no matter how angry you are with someone, no matter how violently you disagree with someone, you do not collect stories of their rape like stones in your pocket with which to pelt them at every opportunity. It is sick and it is inimical to the fight against sexual abuse. How many young victims, witnessing how she was clobbered with the crime against her, would decide to keep the assault on themselves quiet? How do you fight a crime by intimidating victims into silence?
While the attacks against Sugabelly were vicious and shocking, they are not atypical. According to a 2020 Amnesty International report, “Rape persists at crisis levels (in Nigeria) with most survivors denied justice, rapists avoiding prosecution and hundreds of cases of rape going unreported due to pervasive corruption, stigma and victim blaming.” Per a 2019 NOIPolls, “…rape (in Nigeria) is mostly blamed on indecent dressing (47%), excess intake of alcohol by both the offenders (36%) and victims (34%) as well as promiscuity/…” Apparently, also fewer than half of those polled thought offenders should be punished. Rape apologists abound, and not just on social media.
Institutions set up to protect victims and ensure justice for them often are the same ones responsible for frustrating victims. Our law enforcement – especially police officers- have been known to shame victims and sometimes even raping them too. A 2021 Amnesty International report documents the story of a 14-year-old girl, Onyinye, who was raped by her neighbour. When the girl and her mother went to the police station to report the crime, a female (!) police officer slapped the teenager, pulled her ear and scolded Onyinye’s mother for poor parenting.
In the rare instances, where cases get to court, only very few victims are eventually convicted. In 2017, Victoria Philip of Kaduna discovered that her four-year-old had been raped by a 36-year-old Mohammed. Ms. Philp had Mohammed arrested and the case taken to court. Almost five years later, the case is still in court and Mohammed has been out on bail since shortly after his arrest. Ms. Philip and her daughter were pilloried by neighbours and have been forced to move out.
While innocent victims are made pariahs of, sexual assault violators are emboldened to commit their crimes with impunity. They are backed by the knowledge that they’d be protected by a society that finds their victims more culpable for the violation than they, the perpetrators. There was a report last year of an undergrad who was raped by a family friend and driven to suicidal thoughts. She refused to report the assaulter because she was well aware of how steep the road to justice would be for her (close to impossible) and how easily she’d become the target of victim blamers.
Rape is an epidemic and one that according to Titilola Vivour-Adeniyi, Executive Secretary of the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) rose by 30 per cent in March 2020 (the month of total lockdown) in Lagos State. Arguably, it rose in other states across the nation too. The prevalence of it means that the children/sisters/mothers/grandmothers/aunts of these same people who mock others for getting raped might one day become victims too. That energy they are investing in victim blaming is better spent on fighting the crime itself.