In Nigeria, Religious Abuse Perpetuates Violence Against Women and Girls

Children at Janbulo Islamiyya Primary School, Nigeria. (Photo: Global Partnership for Education)

It is estimated that one in three women experience either physical or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It also states that “globally up to 38 percent of murders of women are committed by intimate partners” and in most cases, violence against women is committed by a partner in their home.

In my home country of Nigeria, violence disproportionately affects women. I say this because Nigerian culture has a misogynistic side to it, which is deeply-rooted in patriarchal religious beliefs. In situations where a story of violence against women makes it to mainstream media, there’s the obvious outcry from the masses – but not too far behind, you also see thousands of people – educated or not – looking for loopholes in the story and reasons to justify why a man hit a woman.

For a country like Nigeria, we’re known for our uncanny curiosity. Sadly, we tend to show a faux respect for people’s privacy when it comes to cases of domestic violence. This behavior is fueled mostly by Nigerian customs and religious beliefs that inadvertently perpetuate domestic violence.

In a “religious” country such as Nigeria, Christianity and Islam are the two main faiths. Both religions, which are rooted in patriarchy, often allow for violence against women. Women are taught to be submissive and to lower their voices. In situations where married women reach out to the church for help with cases of intimate partner violence, they are often sent to marriage counselling sponsored by the church where they are told to forgive. Faith leaders and others tell women that they must endure because the lord God is allegedly “a merciful and forgiving God who endured suffering for our sake.”

A Nigerian pastor in his sermon once said that “today it is no longer news that pastors are beating up their wives and divorce has crept into the church. Divorce of convenience is what we see in the church today. It is becoming a vogue in church which must stop.” Constantly teaching that “God hates divorce” without addressing violence is dangerous. In this pastor’s case, dismissing domestic violence as if it were merely a minor inconvenience, coupled with the stigma that hovers around the topic of divorce, women experiencing intimate partner violence often choose to suffer in silence.

For many Nigerian women, divorce or even separation is not an option because of the financial dependence they have on their husbands. With the thought of impending poverty looming over their heads, they have no option but to stay in toxic marriages.

In a bid to ensure that the family remains a unit, our cultures, customs, and traditions overburden women.  In situations where a woman decides to leave her partner because of domestic violence, you hear statements like “what about the kids?” or “why are you tearing apart your home?” Most people do not even consider that raising a child in a violent home can be detrimental for the child’s mental, emotional, and even physical health.

The custom of bride price in Nigeria also perpetuates domestic violence. Reference is always made to the fact that since a husband paid a bride price, he has every right to “discipline” the woman when she errs. A woman is treated as a man’s property. This means he can also have sex with her whenever he pleases, which can lead to marital rape. Cases of marital rape in Nigeria cannot be reported as there is no law explicitly criminalizing marital rape. Marital rape in Nigeria is basically a foreign concept as our traditions pay no heed to it. There is the false belief that by getting married, a woman has given automatic consent to all future sexual activities with her husband.

For there to be a vast decrease in the cases of domestic violence in Nigeria, proper steps need to be taken by the Nigerian government. Women and girls must learn about their basic human rights, financial rights, and economic emancipation. There is a need to build better pathways towards financial independence for Nigerian women. If these pathways are built, women will no longer feel ostracized or pressured by society and family members to stay in abusive relationships.

Due to the influence religion has on the Nigerian society, religious leaders need to speak up loudly against domestic violence and encourage women to speak up in moments of distress. Religion must create more safe spaces for women.

Firstly, the government must adopt a law that criminalizes marital rape in Nigeria. The Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act of 2015 (VAPP) needs to be adopted and enforced by all states in Nigeria. Ensuring that the VAPP Act in Nigeria is adopted by all the states of the federation, will in turn reduce the number of cases of gender based violence in Nigeria as the perpetrators of these crimes will no longer get away with these acts of violence.

Finally, education of citizens both in rural and urban areas on the menace that is gender-based violence is also necessary. The larger part of Nigerian society needs to speak up against gender-based violence and unlearn the tradition of keeping silent for the “sake of the family.”

Davida Egbung

The Author

Davida Egbung is a Nigerian-based feminist blogger, content creator, and hopeless romantic. Davida is a passionate youth activist who advocates for gender equality in Nigeria. She is also a recent college graduate with a Bachelor's Degree in International Relations and Diplomacy.