Buki Onyishi, Country Director of Women for Women International - Nigeria, speaks out on the pandemic that is plaguing her country: sexual violence
In Nigeria, we have been in lockdown the past few months but our country has been plagued by another pandemic for years that targets women: rape. In the last five months, over 700 cases of rape were reported across the country. The rise in sexual violence prompted the government to declare a state of emergency.
South of me in Abuja and Lagos, my fellow women have taken to the streets to protest this pandemic and the gender-based violence women endure. But alongside news of their campaigns to end sexual violence, I see other horrifying articles that remind me how much further we have to go. Women and girls of all ages – some as young as two years old – are not safe. Even family members cannot be trusted.
The protestors’ rallying cries to raise the voice of women everywhere to break the shield of silence that protects rapists and prevents progress.
A Culture of Silence
The problem is that in Nigeria, the wrong people carry the shame of rape. Even though they are the victims, women end up stigmatized, ridiculed, and blamed for rape, sometimes by their own families. And if families support the victim, they only go so far for fear of being stigmatized themselves.
There is no justice for women. Rather than put themselves out there, victims’ families agree to settle cases out of court. Why bother when so many law enforcement officers take rape accusations lightly and blame survivors?
Community leaders encourage victims and their families to compromise with rapists to keep the peace. Survivors and their families feel pressure to settle the case at home or the community level rather than through the legal system. Perpetrators get away with a slap on the wrist and maybe a small fine.
But for women, there is no peace. What I’ve seen in my many years of working with women is that instead, they live with the pain. Some end up forced to marry their rapists to maintain “peace.” The psychological and emotional pain becomes a lifelong journey where the status quo promises no support and no justice.
Knowing how women suffer, how can we stay silent?
From Social Media to the Streets
Because of social media, the public can no longer ignore these rape cases. Access to social media has amplified the voices of victims as advocates show that rape goes beyond the individual impact, as people speak up on behalf of loved ones. When sexual violence goes unaddressed, entire communities suffer.
In many of the cases we are seeing in our news, perpetrators aren’t single offenders but sometimes serial rapists. As they become emboldened, some rapists decide to secure victims’ silence by murdering them after, as in the case for Vera Uwaila Omosuwa — the 22 year-old student of the #JusticeForUwa hashtag that helped ignite the latest outcry.
When assailants aren’t held accountable, all women in a community are unsafe. While movements like #MeToo did not catch on here, hashtags like #EnoughisEnough and #WeAreTired have helped women express their exhaustion with carrying the burden of sexual violence and connect with more women and women’s organizations to support and stand up for each other.
Turning Words Into Action
In many of these situations, women are silenced because no one will listen to them. But in my time at Women for Women International, I have seen that change and justice can happen when women support one another.
In our community, we had a mother urging her daughter to let go of her rape case, because the rapist’s family wanted to keep it quiet. They wanted to settle out of court. Why disturb the peace?
But other women in our program heard about this case and said that it was not just a single individual’s issue but a women’s issue. Because they were shown a different perspective on rape and gender-based violence, they had the confidence to stand by this survivor. They broke the culture of silence, took her case to the police, and demanded justice. The man was caught and punished.
This is what happens when we change mindsets to make sexual violence a community issue. Everyone – not just women – must understand that when we allow victims to be punished and not rapists, entire communities suffer.
Women’s rights organizations are also taking the lead in conversations about our outdated laws on sexual violence.
One place we can start is by making rape a criminal offense and teaching people about it. Some states have adopted the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) bill and the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, but we must make it the law of the land. These laws expand the definitions of rape to include sexual advances and molestation without women’s consent and promise more severe sentences – including life imprisonment – for some of these crimes.
Because change doesn’t always happen as fast as it should, we must also ensure that survivors of sexual violence have support. We must invest in shelters, so that when a woman is raped and faces stigma, she has somewhere to go where she will be safe and has her needs met – in terms of health, emotionally, and psychologically. This is part of creating a larger culture that values women’s well-being.
And we must continue discussions to change the narrative on who deserves a voice and who deserves peace. If we are going to make lasting, meaningful change, we will need more support and more advocacy. I call on each of us and the international community to lend your voice to the women of Nigeria and break the silence.
*This blog was first published on Thomson Reuters Foundation on June 24, 2020.