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Violence is a public health emergency — Dr Nwadinobi

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By Ebele Orakpo

Dr Eleanor Nwadinobi is a medical doctor/gender and human rights consultant. She is the President of Windows Development Organisation, WiDO. In this chat with Vanguard, she speaks on the knotty issue of violence against women, especially the girl-child. Excerpts:

Every Woman’s Treaty

I am happy to say that I am on the steering committee of the Violence Against Women Treaty. This is a treaty to end all forms of violence against women and girls that have been drafted as a peoples’ treaty. We are looking at the full spectrum of violence against women and girls. It is totally unacceptable that one in three women walking the earth today has suffered one type of violence or the other. That means if there were three of us in a room, one would say ‘yes, I have suffered a type of violence’ and the spectrum ranges from harassment, physical violence, sexual violence, harmful widowhood practices, female genital mutilation, to verbal violence. The spectrum is so broad. So the Every Woman’s Treaty, as it is called, is a legally binding document that looks first of all at ensuring that there is training for all those who would respond to violence, whether they are doctors, lawyers, nurses, police, traditional leaders etc., it looks at legal reform which provides that conducive environment for survivors to get justice and for perpetrators to be brought to book.

Support for survivor

Then we need to ensure that there is support for the survivor so if somebody had been sexually violated, immediately, there is some sort of support for her and then we want to make sure that there is violence prevention education. Another thing is to ensure that there is dedicated ring-fenced, targeted funding for violence against women and girls; so this treaty is legally dedicated to catalysing funding for this legally binding document. So as a member of the steering committee, this is what is being worked on now. We are very happy that we have a convention on the elimination of discrimination against women. This would be mutually reinforcing because the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW, is speaking the language of discrimination but we are looking at something that deals specifically with violence.

CEDAW in and of itself has even come up with a general recommendation but a recommendation remains a recommendation. So the world right now is looking forward to this treaty.

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Violence, a public health emergency

Do you know that violence is a public health emergency? Something like smoking, several years ago, people would get into an aeroplane and light up a cigarette, and at that time, they said it was their right to smoke. Smoking was now seen as a public health emergency as it was affecting the next person. So the narrative moved from ‘it is my right to smoke’ to ‘it is my right to breathe clean air’ and the WHO then took it upon itself to spread the word about smoking being a health emergency and now, you must write on the cigarette pack that the surgeon-general has said that smoking is dangerous to health and you can only smoke in a designated area. You can be smoking somewhere and somebody can come and tell you to stop because countries have signed the Tobacco Treaty. We want countries to sign that ‘enough is enough, don’t violate our girls.’

We had 1,700 experts in different fields (women’s rights advocates) from around the world that came together to write the Peoples’ Treaty and it was launched on the 5th of March, 2019; we have over 4,000 signatures already, to say ‘we want to bring an end to violence against women and girls, WHO treat it as a public health emergency so that we could now get countries to make a proposal for a treaty. I am glad to be representing Africa on this steering committee.

In a case where the girl-child is denied education, can that be described as violence against the girl-child?

Yes, denial of education is a type of discrimination but the violence that is related to preventing girls from going to school is the fact that when they suffer that discrimination, invariably, these are the girls who, sadly because they lack education, are vulnerable to violence. They are also not in school which means they may be hawking on the streets and therefore, more vulnerable; they may be vulnerable to early marriage and that is the violence so girls not being in school is a discrimination against the girl that has implications for her and makes her more vulnerable to violence.

I heard Enugu State has passed a law against harmful widowhood practices, could you shed more light on that?

The first good news on harmful widowhood practices is that we have what is called a Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, the VAPP Act. An integral part of the VAPP Act is that there is punishment for harmful traditional practices. One of the harmful traditional practices in the VAPP Act signed in May 2015 by then President Goodluck Jonathan is harmful widowhood practices.

However, there is a glitch or a lacuna in Nigerian law where the VAPP Act that was passed by the National Assembly is only applicable to the Federal Capital Territory. That was what happened to the Child’s Rights Act, there is a constitutional provision about the applicability of laws passed by the National Assembly. We need to change that and do it quite quickly.

It happened with the Child’s Rights Act, it now happening with the VAPP Act. With the Child’s Rights Act, I think about 23 states out of 36, have signed the Child’s Rights Act.  In the Child’s Rights Act, this issue about going to school is in it but unfortunately, when you plot your graph or look at the trend, you will sadly find out that it is the states in the north that have not signed the Child’s Rights Act because issue of early marriage is there and they are marrying the girls so with the VAPP Act, that says we are prohibiting harmful widowhood, is applicable here but the good thing is states are now domesticating. For example, Edo State has passed an Act and just recently, Enugu State has passed the VAPP Act. Enugu State was the first state to pass the prohibition of harmful widowhood practices act and now, in the whole of the South-East, they have passed the VAPP Act. I am the President of the Windows Development Organisation and that’s the work we’ve been doing since 1994. It took 14 years to get the VAPP Act passed.

When we go for a constitutional amendment, we need to review that so that once the NASS signs an Act, it becomes applicable in all the states. It is surmountable. Look at the Child’s Rights Act since 2013, one by one, the states are signing so it’s political will. We will get there.

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