We Must Act Now Against Rising Sexual Violence

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Abi Badru, a leading member of SWL speaking at the Abuja demonstration against police brutality and femicide on 12 June

In the past few weeks, there have been several shocking attacks on women in different parts of the country. At least three young female students have been sexually molested and thereafter murdered in cold blood. This is very worrisome and shows the worsening of an already horrible trend of sexual violence against women in the country.

On 29 May, Uwaila Vera Omozuwa, a 22-year old, 100 level student of microbiology at the University of Benin left home to study in a church building, to avoid distractions from her siblings at home. She was raped and brutally beaten up by a group of hoodlums. Found in a pool of her blood the following morning, she was rushed to the hospital where she died.

Barely a week after, 18-year old Barakat Bello, a National Diploma student of Science Laboratory Technology at the Federal College of Animal Health and Production Ibadan Oyo state, was also gang raped and then stabbed to death by some bastards who came to rob at her family home.

And yet again, on 14 June, Grace Oshiagwu, a 21-year-old National Diploma student of Business Administration at the Oke Ogun Polytechnic Saki, Oyo state was raped and killed in the same local government area (Akinyele LGA) in Ibadan where Barakat was killed barely a week earlier.

We must also not forget that earlier in March 18-year old Jennifer was gang raped by five boys, who were supposed to be her friends, in Kaduna. While the police immediately apprehended two of them, they were dragging their feet, until the issue was brought to national attention by a female, and clearly more genuine, friend of the seriously traumatised Jennifer. Indeed, police officers did much more than drag their feet, they took to extorting money from Jennifer’s family!

The police have of course shown us, time and again, that contrary to their slogan, the police are not our friend. With guns and bullets bought with taxpayers’ money, they have added to the death toll of promising young women. Just a day before the accursed hooligans killed Uwaila in Benin, the police killed Tina Ezekwe, a 16-year old high school final year pupil at the Oworonshoki area in Lagos.

There has been massive outcry against this new wave of femicide (“killing of a woman or girl and on account of her gender”). More than 200 people marched on the police headquarters at Abuja on 5 June, with placards demanding #JusticeForUwa, #JusticeForJennifer, #JusticeForTina. These hashtags have also been trending on the Naija sphere of the internet. The national assembly has also deliberated on this social malaise and in the second week of June, the state governors resolved to declare state of emergency on rape and violence in the country.

We welcome these but must say it is not enough. There has been a sharp increase in reported cases of sexual and domestic violence since the country was swept into the whirlwind of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of calls to sexual and domestic violence hotlines have tripled in the past few months. The Inspector General of Police, Mr Mohammed Adamu also confirmed that incidents of rape and gender-based violence have risen in recent times, when he informed that about 717 rape incidents were reported across the country between January and May.

But even before now, it was obvious that Nigeria had a “rape problem”. The 2014 National Survey on Violence Against Children in Nigeria established that one in four women had experienced sexual violence as young girls. And in three quarter of the cases, this was repeatedly (and often by members or “friends” of their families.

Rape has also become so widespread in the Internally Displaced Persons camps. “Girls as young as 9 and 10 years where being raped, at times by the very security personnel charged with protecting them.” How terrible this situation is was brought home to Nigerians when a 10-year old girl who had been raped in an IDP camp delivered a baby, last year. Governments then, not unlike what is being done again, expressed shock and verbally committed to stamping out sexual violence.

In the first week of June, the senate president, Ahmad Lawan loudly said: “we stand together shoulder to shoulder on this, and I think we need to make the penalties for rape stiffer to be sufficient deterrent for those who are involved in this, or who even desire to be involved”.

At about the same time, Henry Okon Archibong, a member of parliament told his colleagues in the House of Representatives that rapes were on the increase because “the families have failed, the religious bodies have failed, the school system has failed right from the primary school system.” But while he claimed to support any punitive measure “for people that go around raping people” he ended up chastising women for inviting rape because “the way our girls and women dress these days is so terrible”! Another lawmaker, Ahmed Jaha expressed a similar view. While he later apologised after massive outcry against such a nonsensical position, it is clear that the chauvinist view he initially expressed is clearly his thoughts on the matter and not “a mistake”.

Unfortunately, this and related views are commonplace, with most men (and a few women) shaming rape survivors. They are either considered as haven “invited” it with how they dress, for example (which is nonsense, apart from that being no excuse no matter what a woman wears, we have seen women in full buqa raped) or dismissing reports of rape as being afterthoughts, in some cases because it took years for the victim to find the courage to speak out (as was the case when Busola Dakolo spoke out about how she was repeatedly raped by Biodun Fatoyinbo, the “Gucci pastor” when she was a teenager).

We must be clear about what sexual violence against women, including rape is. It is about power. It is the most brazen demonstration of oppression and domination. Struggle for women’s liberation and all struggle against oppression must thus unequivocally stand against rape and all forms of sexual violence.

The law plays a role in allowing sexual violence to flourish. We might need tougher sanctions against perpetrators of rape and sexual harassment. But we need a more far-reaching view on legal reforms and practice of law enforcement. Most police stations are not equipped for handling rape cases and many policemen are wont to be dismissive of these. In fact, they are at times complicit as this writer witnessed first-hand as a student in the 1980s when the situation was arguably not yet as bad as it is now.

Of utmost importance, however, is for us to address the structural roots of women’s oppression from which the poisonous flower of sexual violence including rape flourishes. These, for sure, includes ingrained historical and cultural elements. But at the heart of it all is how the social-economic dynamics of capitalism structures the marginalisation of women. They are sucked into the production process as workers (more often than not in lower ranks and with less pay for the same work as with men), and as well the reproduction process (i.e. making babies – future workers- and household chores which are unpaid and thus save the bosses costs).

The struggle against sexual violence and indeed against women oppression, must be put within the context of the need to overthrow the capitalist system which engenders it. But it is not enough to assume, as some activists do, that we should not take on women’s oppression as an important issue and all what we have to do is fight capitalism. This position fails to see the woods for the trees even whilst it claims to look at the big picture.

The socialist revolution is not a silver bullet that simply does away with women’s oppression (and all other forms of oppression such as racism for example). As Engels pointed out, using the example of the legal system, whilst elements of the superstructure of society (such as oppressive relations like those that create room for sexual violence) might have roots in the substructure of society (i.e. the economic relations of production), they assume their own life and dynamics which we must equally address, without losing sight of the root cause of class exploitation.

In our different organisations, we must fight against sexism in any and every form it rears its head. And we must stand up against sexual violence, including rape and femicide in society, including our workplaces and communities. That is why SWL activists played a leading role in organising a protest which brought together radical civil society groups in Abuja to protest sexual violence and police brutality on 12 June.

We must keep fighting against sexual violence and femicide (which is often related to sexual violence) until there is a dominant public opinion against this horrendous monster. The trade unions have to actively take a position against this monster, including by deepening mobilisation for Nigeria to ratify the ILO Convention 190 against (gender-based) violence in the workplace (and our communities) as well as being at the forefront of campaigns against sexual violence and femicide. And each and everyone of us must take a clear stand in loudly and unequivocally saying, through our words and deeds; #NoToSexualViolence #NoToRape.

by Baba AYE

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