Violence against women and girls: Can Nigeria ever tame this monster?
, Nigeria News Agency
In Nigeria, a common counsel to girls about to marry is the need to keep her family’s secrets secret. She is told to avoid bringing in a third party into her marital quarrels so that her home’s dirty linens would not be exposed to the outside world.
Stripped of all diplomatic niceties, it simply means that the young girl is now alone and on her own. It means she should silently accept and tolerate whatever comes her way, including abuse and violence, as just part of what she must live with as a married woman.
To affirm that stance, parents, in most cases, chase away daughters fleeing from abusive homes. The poor woman is dragged back to the husband’s home and forced to live with whatever is thrown at her.
Condemned into this sordid arrangement by an unfeeling society, most a hapless and helpless woman surrenders to fate, certain of nothing except misery and a bleak, blank and black future.
Dr Danladi Bako, former NTA Director and information commissioner in Sokoto State, who spoke recently on this age-old counsel and the culture of forcing women to stoically endure violence and abuses just to remain in a husband’s house, said that it was at the root of the worsening violence against women and girls.
“That crude culture is a major impediment to tackling gender-based violence in the country,” Bako said at a media dialogue organised by Spotlight Initiative, a global partnership between European Union and UN focused on ending the violence.
Bako’s views were captured in a paper titled: “Changing the Narrative of the Rights of Women and Girls – Creating a New Social Order in Nigeria”.
“Women go through a rough time in their homes, but cultural, religious and traditional factors have made it difficult for her to rise and shout.
“From day one, the woman is told to accept her fate and learn to tolerate and live with it because she is not the only one in that shoe.
“She is told by even her mother that what she may find in her marital home is the fate of every woman,’’ Bako, a development communication specialist, said.
He regretted that even educated women were not voicing out their plight, saying that such silence was worsening the situation and frustrating the search for solutions.
Bako particularly condemned cultures that exploit and demean women, especially the girl-child, who is always denied education, thrown into early marriage and forced into the streets to hawk.
“From my findings, half of the girls that hawk are victims of rape. Girls that hawk groundnuts make an average gain of N200 daily, but they could get N5,000 just by `entering’ the room of a `customer’. This is where the real trouble starts because N5,000 is too tempting for a girl from a poverty-stricken family,’’ he said.
He called for the right political will to tame the menace, and lamented that groups and individuals trying to enlighten women to stand up for their rights in his native Sokoto are often accused of mobilising women to revolt against cultural norms.
Bako called for total commitment to the goal of ending the injustices against women, and regretted that not much had changed in spite of the creation of women affairs ministries and women development commissions
at the federal and state levels.
In her contribution, Hajia Hadiza Aminu, Coordinator, Spotlight Initiative, blamed the rising violence against women and girls on the lack of education, and called for more educational opportunities to
make women self-reliant.
“Most women remain in abusive homes because they are afraid of the economic consequences of being thrown out. Once they are educated and engaged in activities that will fetch them their daily bread, they will be economically independent and will not be afraid to walk away.
“Once a woman is sure of where her next meal could come from, outside her marital home, no one can force her to remain where she is not comfortable, appreciated or loved,’’ she said.
She condemned the discrimination meted out to the girl-child by a society that values male children more, and challenged the media to fight against that injustice.
“There are many media houses in Nigeria. There are television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines and online publications. These media houses must give more air time and pages to gender violence issues. Currently, all the attention is on politics !
“We must build a society that sees and treats everyone as equal. We must all support every child, male or female, to attain his or her dreams so that we can have a society with opportunities and hope for everyone.’’
Aminu decried the harassment and torture girls go through to secure admission, attend schools, get jobs and even grow in their careers, alleging that men are always asking girls for sexual gratification in exchange for grades, jobs, promotions and basic rights routinely enjoyed by the boys.
Dr Ibe Ifeakandu, Head of Department, Public Law, Nigeria Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, who spoke on `safeguarding the dignity of women and girls’, was particularly concerned about early marriage.
“Marriage is a contract for consenting adults. A child that is 10 years old cannot enter into a contract because the law does not allow her to do so. Such a child is too young to understand and appreciate the consequences of doing so.
“What it simply means is that it is against the Nigerian constitution to force such a child into a union that she does not understand because the girl is not developed enough to understand the psychological and physiological implications of being a married woman.
“There is even some double standard here. Men force their 10-year-old girls to marry, but will not allow their 10-year-old boys to marry. The girl is given out, but the son is protected. In most cases, a man gets mad if he suspects that an elderly woman is enticing his young son, but he encourages old men to entice his little daughter.
“They will tell you that a girl should get married immediately she reaches puberty, but will not accept that their little boys should do same on attaining that stage. This is unacceptable and we cannot continue this way,’’ Ifeakandu said.
Ifeakandu also spoke on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a very harmful practice that involves the removal of the clitoris in the vagina of young girls.
“FGM is a very humiliating practice. Its aim is to reduce the enjoyment of sex. That, certainly, is not fair to the woman because it violates her natural right to enjoy sex.
“When we do this, we are programming the woman to live miserable lives. That is unconstitutional.’’
For James Ibor, Human Rights Activist, the situation would only improve if women are allowed to decide what they want, including the right to have children.
“Sometimes, a woman may decide not to have children based on medical advice, but the man will not see things her way. He will not respect her views. Women should be allowed to have a say in what happens to them and the media must fight for them,’’ he said.
Ibor also spoke on sex-related abortion, and described that as “chilling’’.
“Some families abort babies when the child is confirmed to be a female just because the man wants a male child. It is a huge disrespect and disregard for the female child who has equal, if not better, capacities than the male,’’ he fumed.
Ibor called for more synergy among grassroots Community Society Organisations (CSOs), NGOs and the media, for effective advocacy toward ending the menace.
“The media must work a little harder. We must mobilise traditional rulers, community heads and religious leaders, to buy into our campaign against girl-child abuse.
“We must involve everyone around – the men at their drinking joints, the boys at their football-watching centres, and the women at the plating spots – just everyone, so that the message will reach everyone and everywhere.
“As an initiative seeking to end this menace, Spotlight Initiative must form a core group of journalists dedicated to sustaining social change toward ending violence against women and girls,’’ he said.
But some of the participants at the media dialogue, while acknowledging the role of the media, called for more attention to the Judiciary, noting that judges had often placed tough hurdles on the path of victims seeking to prove cases of rape and other forms of sexual-related misdeeds.
They called for special courts to handle sexually-related offences to speed up the trials and provide such judges more experiences required to handle such delicate cases.
They also emphasised the need for more attention to the rural areas where such abuses are more common, but grossly under-reported, adding that all stakeholders must be proactive rather than retroactive.
Others also cautioned journalists against stigmatising the victims and making them feel guilty by raising “unnecessary questions” that seem to justify an abuse, instead of taking urgent measures to help them
from further trauma.
But, as Nigeria seeks an end to the violence against women and girls, a woman activist, Cecilia Biodun, believes a solution is only possible if women began to protect each other from violence and abuses.
“Go and check everywhere. Behind every woman’ misery is another woman. The FGM we all cry about is carried out by women. It is the women that shave the heads of widows. It is also women that force widows to drink the water used in bathing the corpse of their late husbands.
“In various homes, women get beaten because of their husband’s mistresses. Others go hungry because girl friends have cornered the monies of their husbands. It is also the mother in-law that makes life unbearable for young wives in every house.
“In the offices and even during elections, women prefer to envy, instead of supporting, each other. They look for every reason to bring down fellow women. We cannot make progress by running down each other,’’ Biodun declared.
With violence and other forms of harmful practices against women reported to be of epidemic proportions, and with World Demographic and Health Surveys ranking Nigeria 118 out of 134 countries on gender equality index, analysts say that quality education is the only way out.
They say that education is a total package that will empower the girl and woman to make informed decisions and choices which could include pulling out of abusive environments.
The Emir of Kano, Alhaji Sanusi Lamido, put it more succinctly.
“You cannot stop a rich man who wants to marry a 12-year-old girl, or a wretched man who wants to marry a fourth wife. All you need to do is to educate the girl to say no. That ends it.’’
Many analysts agree that the monarch is right on point.