By Itoro Eze-Anaba

Efforts to carry out law reforms in the area of domestic violence and violence against women generally have been fruitless, especially at the national level. It is on record that the two oldest bills pending at the National Assembly are the bill on Violence Against Women and the Freedom of Information bill.  All efforts to provide a better legal framework to protect women from violence, especially within the home have failed.

Maybe our officials do not see the need for such laws. Actually, maybe there is no need for such laws. At least, that was the position of the Federal Government in its report to the United Nations Human Rights Council under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) as early as this year.

In the report put together by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Federal Ministry for Justice, the Federal Government “noted that Nigerian law has copious provisions to safeguard the rights of women against abuse and all forms of maltreatment. Assault and battery have been made subject of both civil and criminal laws, with the criminal aspects attracting very stiff and severe penalties. There is, therefore, no need for a special law on violence against women”

Since there is no law on domestic violence, at best a victim who seeks protection under the law will rely on the provisions of the Criminal Code on common assault.  Section 363 of the Criminal Code provides punishment for assault which, being a misdemeanor carries a term of imprisonment of 2 years.  In section 360, assault on a man is a more serious offence, being a felony and carries a higher punishment of 3 years. Victims of domestic violence are reluctant to use these laws as the justice system is not victim friendly.

The legal system does not take into consideration the specific needs of a domestic violence victim neither does it offer sufficient protection. Maybe among such copious provisions referred to by the Federal Government which safeguards the rights of women against abuse and all forms of maltreatment is Section 55 of the Penal Code which empowers a man to chastise his wife.

The section provides “ Nothing is an offence which does not amount to infliction of grievous hurt upon any person which is done ….. by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife, such husband and wife being subject to any native law and custom under which such correction is lawful.”

In defining grievous hurt, Section 241 of the Penal Code designates the following as grievous hurt: Emasculation; permanent deprivation of sight of an eye, of the hearing of an ear, or of the power of speech; deprivation of any member of joint; destruction or permanent impairing of the power of any member or joint; permanent dislocation of the head or face; fracture or dislocation of bone or tooth; any hurt which endangers life or which causes the sufferer to be during the space of twenty days in severe bodily pains or unable to follow his ordinary pursuits.

As long as a woman is not permanently deprived of an eye, ear or power of speech, as long as a woman does not suffer severe bodily pains for 20 days, then it is allowed under this law. The man goes scot free simply because the bodily pain lasted for 19 days. Maybe this is what the Attorney General was referring to, when he reported that there is no need for a special law on violence against women.

Violence against women, especially domestic violence which can be defined as physical, verbal or emotional abuse by one member of a family to another is reported to be more dangerous to the society.

The damage that violence within the family causes has deeper and more indelible damage to the structure of the society itself, and also destroys the individual victims. It is generally agreed that when there is “war” in the streets, you run to the house for safety but when there is “war” in the house, where do you run to? Violence within the home by a husband or father or brother who should be showing love, affection and compassion, leaves psychological scars on other members of the family, which may prove difficult to ever erase.

For many Nigerian women, domestic violence remains an increasing heavy burden to the Nigerian women, especially the poor and vulnerable population. This is even more so when we realize that domestic violence has wide intersection between other problems facing women in the Nigerian society, such as her economic, social and political disempowerment. Other problems relating to education, personal development, health, reproductive and inheritance rights all have a bearing on violence against women.

As we celebrate Nigeria’s election to the Security Council, let us give a thought to millions of women and girls who are suffering in silence, behind closed doors because they do not have a choice, because the government has refused to give them the choice.

Let us give them a choice by passing the bill on violence against women. Let us fulfill our international commitment and promises by domesticating CEDAW, the Women’s Convention and provide a better legal framework for the protection of women and girls against gender based violence.

* Itoro Eze-Anaba is the Managing Partner, Partnership for Justice, Lagos.


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