Curtailing Sexual Violence in North-Eastern Nigeria

Timothy Ali Yohanna

In northeastern Nigeria, women are traditionally expected to be docile and obedient to men, whatever the circumstance. Their personal opinions and views are often discounted. The nine-year-long conflict by Boko Haram in the Lake-Chad region that claimed over 20,000 lives has worsened their vulnerability and exposes them to harmful practices. They often face sexual abuse and are subjected to several forms of exploitation. This includes rape and sexual assault at the hands of security forces, government officials and community leaders. A culture of impunity for the perpetrator of violence due to absence of legal representation continues to undermine the actions to address the situation. In an effort to end the violence against women, on Monday, 9th March, 2020 an ad-hoc committee on Sexual abuse and review of sex related laws of Borno State House of Assembly organised a public hearing on a bill to amend certain provisions in the penal code law of Borno State 1994 (Amendment Bill 2020) to push reparatory measures. The perpetrators get away with the abuse they committed and the victims are left with lasting stigma and trauma due to fear of reporting the incidence. Interviews with women affected by sexual violence recently in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe shaped an understanding of the impact of impunity, and the extent of women’s inferior status to men in the area. It's very clear from all the interviews that, government response to the situation is lacking, Even if the case gets into the hands of securities forces with documented evidence for prosecution, they would frustrate and undermine the process without proper investigations. The courts sometimes delay the processes as well. For instance, a relative of 11 years old girl who was rape in Potiskum complained of unnecessary delay in investigations and prosecution of perpetrators of sexual violence. In similar situations in Maiduguri, a young man raped a girl but the father told a relative of the victim to take him to "Pharaoh" because of his influence in the community. Despite reporting the issue, the police detained the victims' relatives and released the perpetrator. After much pressure by civil society organisations on the matter, the case was twisted on different count charges instead of rape. In 2016, Human Rights Watch accused Nigerian government officials and the security forces of sexual exploitation of women and girls in Internally Displaced Persons camps that have mushroomed as a result of the Boko Haram conflict. Additionally, according to an NOI survey conducted in September 2016, they stated that humanitarian conditions in the camps are so bad that some women and girls are forced to exchange sex for food with camp officials, security agents and vigilante groups but government paid deaf ears to the findings and refused to take any reasonable action to forestall deterrence. In exposing the abuse and exploitation, Human Rights Watch was able to pressure the government and civil society partners to intervene. One concrete result was that President Muhammadu Buhari quickly ordered the Inspector General of Police and the governors of the affected states to investigate the allegations. The Nigerian government also took the important step of deploying 100 policewomen to IDP camps to try and ensure the protection of women and girls but yet the situation continue to get worse in both IDPs camps and in the host communities. Recently, Amnesty International, accused the Nigerian Soldiers and Civilian JTF of raping starving women in the Internally Displaced Camps. Instead of investigating the allegations, the government dismissed the report as baseless without given any concrete reason for condemning the accusations. This position by government would undermine the effort of human right actorts and increases the risk of sigma, discrimination and fear of reporting sexual violence among the displaced communities. Little change in response would bring the desired change and encourage the victims to seek for justice. Driven from their homes, often without their husbands and male relatives, women and girls are easy targets. With only limited opportunities to earn money in the camps and its environs, they are dependent on humanitarian supports. The lack of accountability and transparency allows men to exploit their power and advantage over women and girls. The tradition that devalue women in voicing out their opinion remain prevalent. Moreover, the prevalence of conflict in the area has undone existing cultural mechanisms that offered women some protection in form of not mingling with men without due reasons. While the government can be applauded for accepting the findings of the Human Rights Watch report and acting quickly, Government should pay attention to objective allegations and transparently investigate sexual related violence before making any comment. This would go a long way in curtailing exacerbation of sexual and gender-based violence as strict measures is absolutely necessary. And while the authorities profess zero-tolerance for sexual violence and exploitation, the fact that it continues means far more needs to be done to put a stop to it.