Experience of coerced sex reduces a woman’s ability to see her sexuality as something over which she has control,” says the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its First World Report on Violence and Health.
This tacitly summarises the focus and discussions of a training programme on women’s health and rights that was recently organised for journalists by IPAS Nigeria, a non-governmental organisation.
The training was held in Abuja with “Women’s Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights and the VAPP Bill’’ as its theme.
VAPP Bill is Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Bill, 2011.
VAPP Bill is the amalgamation of nine different bills brought before the 5th and 6th National Assembly now awaiting passage.
The bill seeks to eliminate or reduce to the barest minimum, the occurrence of gender-based violence in the Nigerian society, especially in homes, public spaces or even in conflict situations.
Analysts, however, observe that sexual violence occurs in times of peace and armed conflict and it is considered to be one of the most traumatic, pervasive and common human rights abuses.
They believe that sexual violence is a serious public health concern which has serious short-term or long-term impact on the victims’ physical and mental health, while heightening the risks of sexual and reproductive health problems.
Sexual violence includes rape, sodomy and sex abuse, while violence against women comes in different forms such as battery, rape, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, human trafficking and harmful widowhood rites.
Sexual violence often occurs when a person engages in a sexual act with another person by force; that is without the consent of the other party.
The Gender in Nigeria Report of 2012 says: “One in three of all women and girls aged 15-24 years has been a victim of sexual violence.
“Women who are not married are more likely to have been attacked than married women.
“Up to one-third of Nigerian women report that they have been subjected to some forms of violence.
“One in five women has experienced physical violence.”
According to the report, a study in Kano State from 2002 to 2006 reveals that 306 rape cases were recorded in the state.
An illustration of sexual violence which was presented at the journalists’ training involved a minor, a 16-year-old house help who was raped and impregnated by her employer’s husband.
The maid’s employer reportedly noticed the maid’s strange behaviour and took her to the hospital where it was discovered that she was pregnant for her husband.
In the ensuing dilemma, the hypothetical options available to the maid are having the baby and staying within the family; terminating the pregnancy or having the baby and putting him or her up for adoption.
Another scenario presented was the invasion of a family by a gang of eight armed robbers in a sleepy community on a rainy Saturday night.
During the attack, the robbers raped the mother in the presence of her children and husband.
After two months of the traumatic experience, the woman was found to be pregnant.
The negative outcomes of the two scenarios are the result of systemic and deeply entrenched evils being perpetrated daily against girls and women, analysts say.
They note that this not only undermines the victims’ current lives but it also adversely affects their future and that of the entire community.
According to the Gender in Nigeria Report 2012, sexual violence is endemic in some public institutions with an entrenched culture of impunity which protects perpetrators of rape and other forms of violence.
The report notes that most crimes are under-reported, while only few cases are brought to court.
Observers note that sexual violence is more pronounced in many tertiary institutions, with young ladies falling prey to randy lecturers.
Ms Hauwa Shekarau, the IPAS Senior Advisor (Policy), said that the organisation’s media tracking showed that a minimum of 3,800 rape cases in the country were reported in the print media in the last three years.
“Perpetrators of rape cut across class, status and religious orientation; comprising pastors, imams, traditional rulers, teachers, policemen, soldiers and ordinary citizens,” she said.
Shekarau said that the prevalence of rape cut across ethnicity.
“`The percentage of rape by acquaintances is far higher than rape by strangers.
“Rape victims cut across ages, with the rape of minors and the elderly on a startling increase in Nigeria,’’ she added.
The IPAS official stressed that rape could have harmful and lasting physical, psychological and reproductive health consequences for the victims, their families and communities.
“The growing cases of violence against women, particularly rape of minors and elderly women, do not only call for concern but also for concerted efforts to eliminate it in the country,’’ she said.
Shekarau, however, frowned at a situation where some victims of sexual violence and their families kept mum, while others were stigmatised by some communities.
She argued that this development fuelled violence against women, adding that the situation was compounded by the poor prosecution of suspects.
Besides, Shekarau frowned at Section 55 of the Penal Code (applicable only in the northern part of the country) which allows a man to chastise his wife so long as it does not lead to grievous bodily harm.
She emphasised that the provision encouraged wife battery, another form of violence against women.
“The law allows a man to chastise his wife in order to correct her.
“Grievous bodily harm includes chopping off arms, legs and maiming; once these are absent, the law permits a man to chastise his wife,’’ she added.
Shekarau expressed reservations about the law which empowered a man to chastise his wife whereas corporal punishment had been outlawed in several countries.
The IPAS official underscored the need to mobilise the people to eschew sexual violence so as to promote women’s reproductive health for the betterment of the society.
Moreover, Shekarau noted that the Criminal Code supported the idea of aborting a pregnancy if it was carried out to save life.
Section 297 of the code states: “A person is not criminally responsible for performing, in good faith and with reasonable care and skill, a surgical operation upon an unborn child for the preservation of the mother’s life.”
Shekarau observed that abortion in Nigeria was quite restrictive, adding that it could be carried out to save a woman’s life.
“Consequently, women who do not fall under this category are left to their own devices.
“Those who are not economically viable often resort to quacks and herbalists; thus, making unsafe abortion a silent and persistent pandemic,’’ she said.
The IPAS advisor drummed support for access to abortion services by women and girls who were victims of sexual violence, rape and incest.
Shekarau advocated a review of restrictive abortion laws because of the human rights implications of unsafe abortion.
According to her, the lack of political will, on the part of government, to legalise abortion will continue to send some women to early graves.
She noted that Nigeria was a signatory to international and regional treaties which promoted women’s reproductive health and rights such as the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003).
Sharing similar sentiments, Mr Edosa Oviawe, IPAS Advisor on Policy and Advocacy, said that sexual violence could cause severe physical injuries and trauma-related psychological disorders which might affect the victims for a long time.
“The social effects of sexual violence can also be severe as the victims may experience `social death’ by being stigmatised within their communities following the assault,” he said.
Oviawe stressed that the more common consequences of sexual violence were those relating to reproductive health, mental health and social wellbeing.
According to him, more than 32,000 pregnancies result from rape every year, while migraines and other frequent headaches, gastrointestinal disorders (abdominal pain), back pain, facial pain and even death are some of the physical effects.
He argued that the victims of sexual violence usually faced immediate problems such as shock, fear, anxiety, withdrawal, guilt, self-blame, nervousness, distrust of others and chronic depression, as well as some psychological problems.
Oviawe lamented that attempted or completed suicides and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) such as emotional detachment, sleep disturbances and mental replay of the violence were some consequences of sexual violence.
He said that the reproductive health consequences included unwanted pregnancies which might result in unsafe abortion and death, as well as sexually transmitted infections including HIV and AIDS.
Oviawe, nonetheless, underscored the need carry out a holistic review of laws which were inimical to the promotion of women’s sexual rights and health.
He suggested that these laws should be replaced with the provisions of the proposed VAPP Bill.
Analysts solicit the domestication of international and regional instruments which promote women’s health, women empowerment, gender equality, while outlawing harmful traditional practices.