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What hope for SGBV victims as renewed initiatives are on the way?

That sexual and gender-based violence has assumed a frightening proportion is an understatement, and should be stopped forthwith. Women are not punching bags; they are…

That sexual and gender-based violence has assumed a frightening proportion is an understatement, and should be stopped forthwith. Women are not punching bags; they are mothers! Children, on their own, are bundles of joy to any family or household, so they should not be subjected to any form of trauma or maltreatment.

Rather, they deserve maximum protection. It is therefore distressing to read or hear of any form of violence unleashed against them, especially as they are defenceless.

However, the good news is that there are a flurry of activities involving national and international organizations tackling the issue. These renewed efforts have attracted Nigeria’s First Lady, Senator (Mrs.) Oluremi Tinubu, with her Hope Renewed Initiative to confront and conquer this demon. She declared in a recent Town Hall meeting held at the Lagos Central Senatorial District that: “My advice is that women, who are fortunate to rise to a position of power, influence or wealth must invest such in the commonwealth of women. Rather than join the ‘men’s club’ they must reach out and pull other women along. From the girl child to that young struggling graduate, that lady professional in between jobs, that woman who has to juggle domestic and professional duties and the woman out there who badly needs just one opportunity to prove that she is capable, truly needs our help. In little or big doses, it does not matter, just do it because out there, women can and will succeed on merit if given the chance”.

Prince Lateef Fagbemi SAN, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice (HAGF), is also not left out. He gave a flicker of hope by setting up a flurry of activities in that direction. The two like minds met recently and there is no doubt that areas of support and collaboration will take the front burner.

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What is particular is that the menace has assumed a monstrous proportion and should be stopped forthwith. Nothing will satisfy social and political observers more than seeing the implementation of the set of brilliant ideas that is expected to eradicate crime within the shortest possible time. Anything that will signal the end of the road for perpetrators and redress for identified victims is welcomed.

This is like a reawakening of our collective consciousness and a wake-up call for everyone not only to align with this renewed initiative, but to contribute in any way possible to make the programme a resounding success.

At this point, it is important to expatiate on the meaning of SGBV to grasp the true picture of what we are trying to explain. SGBV is the acronym for Sexual and Gender Based Violence against women, children and in some cases, men. It is violence committed against a person because of his or her sex or gender. It is forcing another person to do something against his or her will, through violence, coercion, threats, deception, cultural expectation or economic means.

Although majority of the victims and survivors are women, girls and boys, men have been known to be also affected. All forms of sexual and gender-based violence including domestic violence, forced marriages, child marriage, physical violence, rape, molestation, genital mutilation, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, teenage pregnancy, incest, forced abortion and stalking, violate fundamental human rights. In addition, intentional bodily injury, slapping, punching, choking, kicking, shoving, inappropriately using drugs or physical restraints, denying medical care, forcing alcohol and or drug use, including forced prostitution are not left out. Some of the identified causes have been traced to poverty, breakdown of services, conflicts and wars, displacement, stress at home, especially the days of tension induced by financial pressures.

Some men have been known to raise their voices and sometimes flip over in times of acute financial difficulties; inability to meet up with intended expenses, increased debts and even unexpected dismissal from employment. In such cases, tempers boil over and may result to exchange of blows with spouses at home. There are stories of husbands and wives exchanging blows in broad daylight and even dragging themselves to public domain. Such is the magnitude of fury that can grip uncontrolled rage in most households!

Truly, when faced with no escape route at home with demanding situations, men could become assailants and do the unthinkable. But then, these are isolated cases; according to the International Labour Organization, the orientation of a culture or the shared belief within a sub-culture helps define the limits of tolerable behaviour. Social norms about the proper roles of each gender – the man perceived as aggressive, powerful, unemotional, acceptance as dominant; while women are perceived as passive, nurturing, submissive, emotionally weak and powerless. This socialization has resulted to an unequal power relationship. Most cultures do not tolerate women responding when men, perceived as the bread winners, are talking; they consider that as affront and unfortunately may degenerate into exchange of fiery blows!

Recently, videos have circulated of some men beating their wives to pulp and some rape incidences involving under-age. You even hear of what is called “gang-rape” which often results to murder. Add that to the increasing cases of child forced marriages with distressing footages of some of the victims trying to escape, then you will understand why the initiative of the First Lady and the SGBV Unit of the Federal Ministry of Justice should be grabbed with multiple hands, legs and what have you!

In case you do not know, this is a global pandemic that affects women in their lifetime. The numbers are staggering; while 35 per cent of women are known to have experienced either physical or sexual intimate partner violence or the reverse, the most serious cases involving murders of women are also committed by intimate partners. One characteristic of gender-based violence is that it knows no social or economic boundaries and affects women and girls from all socio-economic background. The issue needs to be addressed in both developing and developed countries. The consequences can be devastating to the victims.

They include partial or permanent disability; poor nutrition, exacerbation of chronic illness, chronic pain. Anger, anxiety, fear, shame, self-hate, self-blame, post-traumatic stress disorder such as nightmares, distressing thoughts. In some cases, it results to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Anita Guerrero from Nicaragua says “It is frightening to think that you may not get home alive one day as a result of sexual violence.” The Oxfam Worldwide has launched the ‘Enough campaign to end violence against women and girls by bringing people of all genders, ages and background together to transform the normal; it aims to challenge and change the harmful social norm that justify abuse to ones that promote gender equality and non-violence saying “let’s stop thinking it is normal; everyday, everywhere, all over the world, women and girls face violence; this can be changed; enough to violence against women and girls”. This is exactly what the First Lady, through her Renewed Hope Initiative has set out to do.

On October 6, 2023, the First Lady put rhetorics aside and launched this programme to support women, children and youths in the country. The programme is targeted at vulnerable groups and aimed to bring them closer to governance. The First Lady disclosed during the launching that the aim was to bring succour and relief to families when fully operational across the 36 states of the federation and FCT, meaning that better times are here for women!

It is expected that when fully operational, the Hope Renewed Initiative will, amongst others, undertake full scale recovery and rehabilitation programmes such as campaign to raise awareness, promote women’s empowerment, challenge gender stereotypes, educate men and women on non-violence and equality topics as well as carry out rehabilitation programmes for perpetrators and victims. They will go a step further by encouraging legislation and enforcement of substances, and the mandatory adoption of safe and healthy habits. The Hope Renewed Initiative can also leverage on community-based multi-pronged approach and sustained engagement with multiple stakeholders including Civil Society Organizations and NGOs.

They can address the underlying risk factor for violence which includes social norms regarding the roles and acceptability of violence. Through investment, research, learning and collaboration with relevant stakeholders around the world, the initiative will certainly go a long way towards reducing sexual and gender-based violence. And why not? Nigeria is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNHR) and the Charter of African Human Rights (AHRC) both of which aim to protect individuals against violence and other actions that interfere with fundamental freedom and human dignity. The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria recognizes entrenched human rights as fundamental in Chapter four. It is categorically stated in chapter two of the constitution that the Nigerian State’s social order is founded on the ideals of freedom, equality and justice and that discrimination on the grounds of sex, religion and ethnic ties amongst others is prohibited.

Potential social responses to gender-based violence are most effective when there is common understanding of the nature and causes of the crime, and is addressed from all angles through the participation of multiple sectors in the country. Luckily, the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Response Unit of the Federal Ministry of Justice is extremely reliable at this juncture. The HAGF undertook the task of coordinating government actions, laws and policies in response to SGBV cases in Nigeria through the establishment of the SGBV Response Unit in May 2021, headed by Barrister Yewande Gbola Awopetu. This unit has the following mandate: to review and harmonize laws and policies on SGBV; provide access to justice for SGBV victims, survivors, through counselling, mediation, facilitation of settlement agreement and provision of all required legal services for victims. It is also to undertake capacity building and training for all legal officers handling SGBV cases. Establishment of prosecution hubs, collation and processing of SGBV data records, reporting, monitoring and evaluation purposes.

Together with the Hope Renewed scheme, they can mount a sustainable fight against the malaise by organizing capacity building for judges and relevant stakeholders. Once they can effectively promote the rule of law, access to justice, and enhance the criminal pathway to addressing violence against women and girls, then their efforts are deemed as successful. This is arguably not the time for sentiments and lip services; anyone caught in the act must be punished. In fact, it is horrifying that of 24,720 cases reported, only 306 have been prosecuted; others appear to have been forgotten or swept under carpet. Even now, of the 975 fatal rape cases made known to the public, there is little or no justice for the victims. So, one of the first tasks of the Renewed Hope Initiative and the SGBV Unit of the Ministry of Justice is to create mobile courts hurriedly across the country for speedy prosecution of anyone caught in gender-based violence. Both government organs must coordinate their efforts to improve conditions of service for judiciary officers and the Nigerian police; address shortage of manpower in the Judicial and Empowerment Agencies.

As an extra boost, women should be given special consideration during recruitment into the force to improve gender balance and then in line with international standards, they should be equipped with modern gadgets and should be well trained; more women empowerment programmes should be put in place and adequately funded, encourage collaboration with civil societies, non-governmental organizations, as well as members of the public to report cases instantly once they occur. They should also encourage workshops, seminars in both urban and rural areas, carry out sensitization campaign and widen the same in all 36 states of the federation.

They should not neglect the need for more studies in this area to discover more about the root causes of this malaise. At this point, the Hope Renewed Initiative and the SGBV Unit of the Ministry of Justice are encouraged to work and collaborate with established liberation institutions like the Women At Risk International Foundation(WARIF), the IGP Gender Desk of the Nigeria Police, encourage the speedy designation Special Courts for trial of SGBV cases and development and signing of the Practice Direction and Guideline on trial of SGBV cases and auxiliary procedure’ under the Violence Against Persons(Prohibition) Act. They should also give consideration to the innovative use of social media as transformation tool to change behaviour.

Having examined thus far, the question now is: should the nation applaud the Hope Renewed Initiative and the SGBV Unit of the Federal Ministry of Justice? At least for taking the initiative, the answer seems to be yes; they have to be encouraged to focus and not lose concentration so that the poor victims out there and many others are given a sense of belonging. SGBV victims, especially women and girls, deserve all the assistance government can offer them. That is the step in the right direction.

Sule, a Public Affairs Analyst, wrote from Abuja

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