By Josephine Agbonkhese
Buky Williams, Executive Director, Education as Vaccine, highlights the need to end the culture of impunity, victim-shaming and ensure stiffer penalties, insisting that only then will rapists learn.
Why is rape on the increase?
It’s not really like there is an increase; more rape cases are only being recorded. People are becoming more comfortable talking about being raped and if you talk to a lot of researchers, they will tell you there has also been an increase in violence as well. I however think that the culture of impunity has contributed to the continuous occurrence of rape.
What does the law say about rape? Is it that penalties are not strong enough to deter offenders?
We have several laws. We have the Criminal Code and then in some states, we have several laws that focus on violence. In Ekiti State, you have the Gender-Based Violence Laws; in Lagos, you have the Domestic Violence Law; in the FCT, you have Violence Against Persons Prohibition which cannot become national law unless it’s domesticated across the country. Currently, it has only been domesticated in about ten states. In the North, you have the Penal Code; only some states have reviewed it. With the Penal Code, you could get two years, four years or whatever.
The punishment in there is not strong enough. That is not even the issue. The issue is that in order to get a conviction, you have to be able to prove that there was a rape; which means when you’re raped, you need to get to the hospital on time for medical evidence.
That evidence needs to be investigated properly for a case to get a conviction. Often, that process could take two, four, seven years or more. So, you can imagine. At times, some people just get tired. Many times, the family of the perpetrator will go beg with money. So, it’s not just about the law but about the ecosystem and the culture around this issue. A lot of things have to change.
But what can be done to reduce this process…
There just needs to be a very clear understanding that rape is wrong. It is not a family issue. It is not something that you can beg, pay an amount and bury. People should stop agreeing to perpetrators paying a price for treatment and the case buried to protect the victim’s image.
We’ve seen situations where women reported cases of rape and those cases got closed. In one of those instances, the mother had to leave that neighbourhood because she wanted justice for her daughter but couldn’t get an arrest made.
We have a lot of work to do at the community level and at the household level. Rape is wrong. It’s not okay to accept any plea from perpetrators because they will do it again.
Another is the security agencies who are going to be doing the investigation. People report to different agencies, depending on where they live. All of those agencies have very important roles to play. So, if they get the case, they need to make sure that they take the case seriously. They take it as a crime that it is, collect the evidence, and do not contaminate it. But then, you have issues where if you go to the police, you will be required to pay a processing fee, pay for printing paper, pay for fuel for them to go pick up the perpetrator and visit the crime scene, etc.
A lot of families cannot afford that. So, if a civil society organisation does not get involved, often, they eventually go off the case because they cannot afford it. We need to fund the police to be able to investigate. Strengthening of every unit involved is also important so that they are able to respond and are not asking for processing fee.
You could see that a state like Lagos has pretty strong family support unit, better coordination mechanism of the domestic violence response team and really strong civil society organisations like those who run Mirabel Centre. Mirabel, for instance, is able to ensure that the medical evidence is captured, counseling is provided, and also that justice is done without any bias.
Is there a database of rape cases in Nigeria?
There is no national database. However, according to a background check carried out by someone who looked through media reports, only 65 rape cases have been prosecuted between 1917 and 2019 (102 years). Imagine how many cases have gone to court and only this number of convictions?
Too often, the burden of the evidence law is an obstacle because, if without a medical evidence, the case is not going to go through even if the person has a strong case like maybe reporting within 72 hours.
So, all of these need to be taken into consideration and that’s what a lot of us in the civil society are rooting for. We need better coordination, strengthening of the different arms, making sure our medical units are able to properly respond, and that the legal system is strong enough to ensure access to justice. This includes making sure we give psycho-social support, rehabilitate and strengthen victims, both at the national and state levels. These will help improve database. According to the Lagos State Government’s database though, in 2019 alone, over 90 cases were convicted.
Talking about the evidence law being a major drawback in prosecution, what must be done to ensure no rape case is swept under the carpet?
One of the things we are pushing for with our project is the establishment of one-stop centres such as the Mirabel Centre. In Kaduna and a lot of other places, they are usually called Sexual Assault Referral Centres. This will enable anyone who has been violated finds a place to report to, easily. In such places, they can get medical support, counseling services, referrals to people and also the police, etc. Once medical evidence is collected, the case becomes admissible in court. In such centres also, survivors are provided with necessary medications.
The bottom-line is that we need more sexual assault referrals because if somebody gets raped and we know we have these centres around us, it will be very easy to take action within 72 hours of the incidence. Hospitals too should be strengthened to be able to respond. This is important because survivors who go to hospitals end up being traumatised by the workers there, in the process of receiving medical services.
Let us talk about the blame put on victims which happens to be a common phenomenon…
Where the society has a lot of work to do is to say that nothing justifies rape. As long as there is no consent, then no rape case should be ignored. Until we get to that point, a lot of survivors will not feel comfortable coming forward for fear of being victimised. Until we make it safe for people to be able to come forward and say “I was raped, I need help”, and ensure they indeed get help, and not be blamed, things cannot get better. We must learn to put the blame on the rapist and not the victim.
Lastly, what must individuals do to avoid being victims?
I always say that is a difficult question. Often, a lot of people who have been violated did not do anything. Look at Uwa in Benin, may her soul rest in peace. She went to a church to read and churches are supposed to be one of the safest spaces in Nigeria. There is very little we can do to protect ourselves from people who decide to rape.
So, until society makes it uncomfortable for such people and put the blame squarely on them, we are going to continue to suffer this. Girls have the right to choose what they do with their body and when they say ‘no’, that should be taken for a ‘no’. Until we make our churches, mosques, houses, workplaces, schools and society in general, safe spaces, and until people are made to understand that individuals have a right to their bodies, things cannot change.