In my home country of Nigeria, there’s always been an eerie silence surrounding gender-based violence (GBV). GBV can be described as any act of violence that is directed at a person or a group of people based on their gender. It is deeply rooted in patriarchy and gender inequality and can be in the form of rape, physical assault, female genital mutilation (FGM), or emotional abuse.
This silence in Nigeria exists at every level of society because of our socio-religious customs, patriarchal justice systems, and tribal cultures. The silence encourages the normalization of GBV and subjugation of women in our society.
One can argue that the way the institution of marriage in Nigeria is set up has also contributed to the normalization of GBV. Often times, when a woman gets physically assaulted by her husband, she is told by the police to solve the issue with her family because it is a “private” matter. Similarly, when the woman goes to the church for help, religious leaders offer “thoughts and prayers” and send her back home to her abuser because marriage vows state “for better and for worse.” Sometimes, the woman’s family members and in-laws even see the violence as a corrective measure and they believe that since her husband paid her “bride price” that he has every right to “discipline” her. The idea of a husband talking to his wife like an adult seems to be off the table because society believes that the man is the head of the household.
In cases of rape, we often see the victims being asked demeaning questions by the authorities, such as: “What were you doing there? What did you wear? Why did you wear it?” Victims sometimes hear statements such as: “She probably asked for it.” This shows once again that the Nigerian justice system is deeply rooted in patriarchal thought patterns and victim-blaming. A system like this is bound to fail survivors of gender-based violence.
Spousal or marital rape is unknown to the Nigerian justice system. The legal system and society both sometimes believe that when a woman gets married, that she gives consent to all future sexual activities with her husband. This is a faulty belief system that often puts women at risk of marital rape. Nigerian cultures and traditions further supports this belief by stating that if a husband pays his wife’s bride price, he has every right over your body and can have sex with her whenever he pleases.
In Nigeria, Section 1 and 2 of the Penal Code states that any “sexual intercourse between a man and his wife is not rape if she has attained puberty.” This means that men who marry underage girls cannot be accused of rape since the girls have attained puberty. Child marriage is also rampant in Nigeria especially in the northern states. It is the year 2021, and some Nigerian states have refused to sign the Child Rights Act because it prohibits child marriage and defines a child as someone under the age of 18.
Nigerian media also perpetuates the abuse in their thirst to use headlines as click-bait. When local media use headlines such as: “53-year-old man sleeps with 13-year-old girl” or “primary school teacher caught having intercourse with student.” The media almost always falls short of using the word “rape.” We must call out gender-based violence when we see it, yet Nigerian media continues to downplay the gravity of these crimes.
In order to work towards ending GBV, Nigerian society as a whole – including the media, law enforcement, and religious institutions – must speak up. We must collectively stop treating rape and gender violence as crimes, not “private” or “domestic” matters. Educating people, both young and old, and sensitizing them about gender-based violence would be a step in the right direction. Educating children at a very young age about bodily autonomy will also help stop the menace that is gender-based violence.
Social workers who are put in positions to help victims of GBV should be properly evaluated upon recruitment and must go through extensive training. There must be no room for rape apologists in our communities. Social workers must also be trained to help victims by creating a safe space for them to talk about their trauma.
The same also goes for law. Proper evaluation upon recruitment is also very important because it helps determine if the candidate is fit both mentally and emotionally to handle their duties with the right amount of sensitivity needed. Social workers and law enforcement must operate with sensitivity and empathy towards victims. The socio-religious idea of “purity culture” must also end. Purity culture teaches people that women are responsible for men’s sexual urges. Under this same umbrella, if a woman is not a virgin, she cannot say that she was raped because she has already been sexually active. Women who are not virgins are often treated as “damaged goods” based on this cultural phenomenon. This must end. We need to approach gender-based violence with the seriousness that it deserves
As a society, we must unlearn harmful beliefs surrounding gender-based violence. We must also work to create safe spaces where victims of sexual assault can feel comfortable sharing their experiences, knowing that they will be heard and offered the help they need.
-An earlier version of this article appeared on Davida’s blog.