By Chioma Obinna
Before age 25, most girl-children among the over one million babies born in Nigeria annually must have been violated either sexually or physically, if nothing urgent is done to end violence against women and girls.
Sadly, the situation is escalating in many communities across the country following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic which has disrupted every aspect of life.
According to statistics from UNICEF and 2020 Gender in Nigeria report, 36 per cent of Nigerian women have experienced physical, sexual and emotional violence at the hand of their spouses while one in four girls experienced sexual violence.
The pandemic has forced women to stay very closely with their supposed attackers.
Sunday Vanguard writes that women are fierce but afraid, but breaking the culture of silence will save their lives and reduce violence against them.
20-year-old Evelyn Ejima, a mother of two, had just retired for the night in her home, in Otumara community area of Lagos State but little did she know that her husband, 44, would turn her into a punching bag over sex.
According to Evelyn who married at the age of 16, she and her husband had been together in the house following the COVID-19 restrictions imposed in the country, but fate played a cruel joke on her as the peace both enjoyed throughout the day turned sour at night. Evelyn was rushed to hospital with a broken head.
“I have endured a lot of beating but due to the circumstances surrounding my marriage to him, I refused to speak up. I can no longer endure it but I am afraid to report him because he can kill me,” she said.
Her husband claimed it was the duty of the wife to always satisfy her spouse sexually at all times and under any circumstances.
Like Evelyn, Bola Lawal also had a fair share of wife battering. She was kicked out of her house after a violent attack by her husband, Ahmed, and his friends.
Bola, a mother of three, is the breadwinner of the family. She pays the school fees of her children and house rent among others.
“This has been happening from the first week we got married. I want to quit the marriage but my friends and family members have been encouraging me to stay”, the victim lamented.
“On several occasions, I have been locked outside. I slept outside for two days. All I need is peace.
“What is frightening me the most is that he has a machete under our bed. He has seized my phone.”
Bola told Sunday Vanguard that her husband usually accused her of infidelity. “Anybody he sees me with is my boyfriend but I don’t have boyfriend.”
Today, this victim is living with a broken shoulder, no thanks to the husband’s constant beating and the fact that Bola delayed on speaking out.
Like Evelyn and Bola, the culture of silence has continued to trigger the situation while many of these women and girls lose their lives in the process.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), violence against women, particularly, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence is a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights.
It estimates that globally at least one in three of women worldwide have been subjected to either physical or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
WHO also notes that violence can negatively affect women’s physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health.
However, in Nigeria, the most common acts of violence against women are wife battering, sexual harassment, physical violence, harmful traditional practices, emotional and psychological violence and socio-economic violence among others.
According to Lola Ayanda of ActionAid Nigeria, COVID-19 has caused a significant surge in domestic violence around the world and, since the pandemic began in March, ActionAid Nigeria has seen an alarming increase in reported cases of rape and killing of women and girls.
Lola, in a report, said between March and June, they have documented 299 cases of violence against women and girls across seven states and 51 were sexual violence cases involving minors between ages three and 16.
She said women are fierce but afraid, adding that the pandemic has exposed a silent epidemic of violence and inequality.
Evelyn and Bola are among the over 17 million Nigerian women aged 15-49 who have experienced sexual violence, according to 2020 Gender in Nigeria report.
The report also revealed that sexual violence prevalence ranges from five per cent in the North-West and South-West to 16 per cent in the North-East. Gombe State has the highest recorded cases of women who have experienced sexual violence with 45 per cent while the prevalence is lower in Kebbi State with less than one per cent across all ages.
In the six geopolitical zones, the report showed that North-West tops the chart with 15.6 per cent incidences, followed by South-South with 12.6 per cent, South-East 12.1 per cent, North-Central 9.7 per cent, South West 5.6 per cent and North West 5 per cent.
Also, the report showed that 28 per cent of Nigerian women aged 25-29 have experienced some form of physical violence since age 15.
The study also reported that 15 per cent of women experienced physical violence within 12 months, while 25 percent of married women or those living with their spouses have experienced violence.
Also, data from the Child Protection Information Management Systems (CPIMS), from the Child Protection Unit of the Ministry of Youth and Social Development, Lagos State, revealed that about 2,154 child abuse cases were reported in the state in 2020, and sexual defilement tops the record with 1, 005 cases.
Another report of the Lagos government-run Domestic and Gender Violence Response Team revealed that there was 60 per cent increase in domestic violence, 30 per cent rise in sexual violence, and 10 per cent increase in physical child abuse.
However, experts say drivers of Violence Against Women And Girls, VAWG, include social norms, early child marriage, weak enforcement of the law, reluctance of response services to getting involved in family affairs, domestic violence in the home and a culture of silence.
According to the Chief of Operations, UNICEF Lagos, Muhammad Okorie, before 25 years, a girl must have been violated either sexually or physically.
He said though violence against women was a global issue, the trend was threatening women’s achievement of their full potential, hence the need to end the monster.
Also speaking to Sunday Vanguard, the Coordinator Spotlight Initiative, UNICEF, Lagos, Foluke Omoworare, who noted that one in four girls have experienced sexual violence in Nigeria, regretted that, in 2021, many of the cases of violence against women and girls were unreported due to COVID-19 but sexual defilement still tops the record with 213 cases so far reported.
Omoworare also disclosed that women and girls with disabilities are twice vulnerable to experience violence of any form.
The Secretary of the Spotlight Initiative Surveillance, Community Development Committee, Lagos, Mrs Prudence Abass, told Sunday Vanguard that although the pandemic made it difficult for violated women to report cases of violence, many women are still not speaking out while interference from families and community leaders made it more difficult for the few reported cases to get justice.
Abass, who expressed worry that survivors have no safe homes as there are no structural social service systems in Nigeria lamented that most times the perpetrators of violence continue to repeat the acts.
She claimed they saw a significant increase in gender-based violence in the Ebutte-metta area of Lagos, saying top among the list was wife battering.
“We have cases of gender-based violence during the COVID-19 and even now but the problem is that affected women tend to cover up for their spouses”, Abass said.
“Unfortunately, in many of the cases we recorded, their husbands lost their jobs and frustration set in.
“In some cases, the women are the breadwinners of the family but they beat them almost on daily basis. The community members see it as a family affair.
“In some cases, the police will be begging you to withdraw the case. This is why most women don’t get justice. “There was a case that we withdrew and signed an undertaking with the perpetrator that he was not going to beat his wife but to our greatest surprise, he repeated it three times, again.
“In one particular case, the Chairman of the local government had to pay N80, 000 for the woman’s medical test.”
Abass further called for the provision of safe homes where these women can be sent for at least one month before they go back to their houses.
“Women should begin to speak out to get help and justice they deserved. Many of them believe that it was natural for men to beat their wives”, she stated. “This belief should begin to change. We would have secured many judgments but survivors engage in manoeuvring and covering up of cases until they are at the point of death.”
Abass stressed the need to create more awareness on why women should speak out and report cases of violence against them and girls.
However, to eliminate violence against women and girls, an Assistant Director, Lagos State Ministry of Youth and Social Development, Mrs Olasunmbo Daniel said the ministry works collaboratively and effectively with partners in a different capacity to ensure violence is reduced to the barest minimum in society.
On his part, the Director, National Orientation Agency, Lagos, Mr Waheed Ishola, said, “60 per cent of cases of child abuse are never made public and a vast number of child abusers go unpunished”.
Ishola said some community-perceived reasons for the prevalence of abuse of women and girls are “poverty, indecent dressing among adolescent girls, missing parental care, the quest for money, fame and political position by women among others.
Emerging data shows an increase in calls to domestic violence helplines in many countries since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women continue to occur on streets, in public spaces and online and survivors have limited information and awareness about available services and limited access to support services.
In some countries, resources and efforts have been diverted from violence against women response to immediate COVID-19 relief.
However, experts say violence against women is preventable and the health sector has an important role to play to provide comprehensive health care to women subjected to violence, and as an entry point for referring women to other support services, they may need.