Sexual abuse is when a person uses control, force or pressure to make someone participate in unwanted sexual activity. The use of force or pressure implies lack of consent and if consent is obtained, it would be obtained based on manipulation or misrepresentation of the nature of the conduct. Sexual abuse may have physical, verbal, emotional impact on the victim(s).
Statistically, it is globally estimated that one in three women experience either physical or sexual intimate partner violence or non- partner sexual violence in their lifetime and approximately 15 million adolescents girls worldwide have experienced forced sex. The figures are mirrored in Nigeria, with 30% of girls and women aged between 15 and 49 reported to have experienced sexual abuse. A national survey shows one in four girls and one in ten boys in Nigeria reported experiencing sexual violence in childhood and about 70% reporting more than 1 incidence of sexual violence. The figures indicate that the girls are disproportionately disadvantaged when it comes to sexual abuse. However, we need to always consider the victim/victimizer differentials to take into cognizance the fact that males too could be victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by females and males alike.
Talking about the legal approach to sexual abuse, Ms. Omowunmi highlighted the existing legal framework that addresses issues of sexual abuse in Nigeria. She stated the Criminal code and penal code as the traditional laws that govern the criminal justice system and the two pieces of legislation criminalises every act of sexual abuse such as rape, sexual harassment (criminal law of Lagos state specifically) incest and molestation. She said the most revolutionary piece of legislation, is the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act of 2015. The act is an improvement of the criminal code act and penal code and an addition to its recognition of the age of majority and minority as defined by the child’s right act. It also embraces a more defined scope of what rape and sexual assault entails and recognizes that both male and female can be raped.
The VAPP Act also provides stiffer penalties for perpetrators and as well protects the rights of victims. It makes provision for a sex offender register too. The VAPP Act introduced innovations such as expanding the definition of rape to accommodate penetration of the mouth, anus, genitalia even with objects. Another legislation is Cybercrime Prevention and Prohibition Act that establishes the offense of child sexual abuse materials including the producing, procuring, offering, distributing, disseminating, and possession of child sexual abuse materials. It also includes grooming or soliciting a child for the purposes of engaging in sexual activities with a child. The child Rights Act also criminalizes child sexual abuse. However, As beautiful as the VAPP Act is, it is yet to be domesticated in 25 States in Nigeria. It is an enactment of the National Assembly, hence, state Governments are required to adopt it as their local law before it can be applicable.
Ms Omowumi while talking to the over 100 young people in attendance, further stressed on the social factors responsible for sexual abuse. It is important to understand that perpetrators, not victims are responsible for sexual violence happening.
Perpetrators have a strong sense of entitlement and use power and control to commit acts of sexual violence. Most perpetrators adhere to rigid “traditional” gender roles that focus on the inequality of women. This allows them to treat women and the targeted victim with no regard or respect.
Also, Gender-based stereotypes reinforce inequality between genders. For example, in a society where men are portrayed as being aggressive and women are seen as passive, a man who pressures a woman for sex is often perceived as behaving acceptably. Research indicates that alcohol and other drugs are often used by the perpetrator to incapacitate victims which are also contributing factors to the occurrence of sexual violence. Also, victim blaming behavior and beliefs create a culture where we disregard sexual violence by blaming a victim. While this is not a cause of sexual violence, it is a factor that contributes to a society where we do not hold perpetrators accountable for their behavior and therefore encourage and support further acts of sexual violence.
Victim blaming happens in many ways and can be defined as any assumption that a victim is responsible for the crime committed against them based on the way he or she behaves, dresses or lives. Such beliefs add to the prevalence of sexual violence.
Measures provided for young people to prevent sexual abuse include prevention, using their powerful voice to change the narrative regarding norms and traditions that further enable sexual abuse and the culture of silence by being informed, harnessing the media especially the social media to educate our peers and also provide safe spaces for other young people who are vulnerable, equipping ourselves with life building skills such as refusal skills, negotiation skills, assertive communication, being bystanders, ready to report perpetrators and also provide support to victims.
NGOs should keep doing intensive education and media awareness to increase adult’s awareness and knowledge of sexual abuse. Educating parents, care givers and service providers on what to do when an abuse has been perpetrated. Raising awareness on the unacceptability of sexual abuse, it is important for all adults and adolescents to be educated on the offense of sexual abuse and the positions of the law.
Also, individuals and community members should be sensitized on not tolerating sexual abuse and other forms of sexual violence. Individuals should be sensitized on existing laws, as well as penalties attached. Community engagement and sensitization is key for people to know that consent is verbal, voluntary, given when sober, and active, bearing in mind that consent can be withdrawn at any time. Any action short of this is considered to be rape and sexual assault.
We should keep evaluating and advocating for strengthened laws addressing sexual abuse such as the child’s rights act. 25 states so far have domesticated the child’s right. NGOs should push for the remaining states to domesticate this act including other act that protects the rights of victims. Also, enhancing data collection on GBV will help provide statistics from time to time.
There has been a spike in rape cases as data from 24 states shows that in March, the total number of GBV incidents reported were 346, while in the first part of April, incidents report spiked to 794, depicting a 56% increase in just two weeks of the lockdown. Therefore, as young people and organizations working within this space, to prepare better on sexual abuse issues in unforeseen circumstances like we have now, it is important we leverage our numerical strength to advocate for the domestication of the laws yet to be adopted in some states.
It is also important to put into check the growing consensus on the need to engage boys and men in stemming the tide of rape and other patterns of sexual abuse. Engaging boys and men as rapists or potential perpetrators can render the whole concept problematic. Hence, there is a need for constructive engagement.
Laws exist, attitudes and behaviors must be influenced to conform with certain standards or to comply with regulations. It is important to think about strategic ways to engage with these influencers to serve as change agents. Also, everyone should note that most perpetrators are close relatives, family members and those who have close interaction with the young people which makes it a bit difficult for the people to notice who is good from bad.
Dr. Yemi Atibioke asked a question on “What is the Science between Lockdown and spike in rape cases/sexual abuses. Should the period not be a time for sober reflection, physical distancing and close watch on children by their parents as fear of infection should naturally deter people from close sexual relationship?”.
Responding to this question, Ms. Omowunmi said because disasters exacerbate pre-existing gender inequities and power hierarchies, violence in the home may worsen as prolonged quarantine and economic stressors increase tension in the household. Women and girls are isolated from the people and resources that can help them, and they have few opportunities to distance themselves from their abusers. During epidemics, it’s harder for sexual and reproductive health workers to appropriately screen for sexual and gender-based violence and referral pathways to care are disrupted. Research shows that an increase in sexual and gender-based violence was observed during the 2013-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. During that outbreak, response efforts focused on containing the disease. She also said that this period comes with a huge burden of financial obligations and a lot of parents have encouraged their children to visit neighbors just to take some pressure off them. This has been counterproductive.
The Executive Director of Kids & Teens in person of Ms. Folashade Bamigboye asked a question on “Is indecent dressing a contributory factor?”. Ms. Omowunmi answered the question by saying Indecent dressing is not a factor. As a matter of fact, the word indecent dressing is not a narrative that should be advanced at all because there can be no uniform standard for what indecent is. I will rather go for appropriate dressing which implies something being fit for purpose. Still at that, it is not a contributing factor. However, we need to interrogate this line of conversation further essentially to desensitize a lot of young people pushing this narrative. I recently joined my team to administer questionnaire on sexual harassment in environments of learning and a lot of the respondents identified indecent dressing as a trigger of sexual harassment. Given this position by them, as young people we have responsibility to educate people about the fact that there are no correlations between these variables.
Ms. Folashade added that she hoped after this kind of session, people who have attended the session will not join others to blame victims and enable perpetrators of rape because there is no excuse for rape.
Ms Omowunmi Ogunrotimi is the Executive Director of Gender Mobile Initiative and principal partner at Beryl Legal practitioners. She is a gender development advocate with demonstrated history in social work. She has also been actively engaged in various initiatives with a strong emphasis on gender and young people’s sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR).