The Attorney General wasn’t there when I married my wife. I don’t know why he’s concerned about how I’m treating her. I’m offended that he compares the misunderstanding to my wife, to Osinachi’s cause. Does he call me a murderer? I don’t know how a few harmless slaps can amount to murder.’
– Petition by wifebeater (name not given) against Ekiti State Attorney General
Up and coming wifebeaters in the dock
This complaint is an example of the many rejections my office receives every day in the course of our interventions on gender-based violence (GBV) issues. This is in Ekiti State where we have by far the strictest laws and policies against all forms of gender based violence. Where the fear of appearing before the governor’s wife’s “court” is the dawn of wisdom for aspiring wife-beaters. This is the state of Ekiti, where men prostrate themselves and ask their wives not to report their violent behavior to the governor’s wife’s office. No woman beater appears before this court and comes out exactly the same. However, like other states in the federation, the state of Ekiti continues to grapple with horrific cases of gender-based violence.
Poverty and GBV
There has been much talk about poverty being one of the main causes of violence against women in Nigeria. Poverty is multifaceted and complex, making it difficult to even truly define the term, let alone how it overtly impacts our communities and gender-based violence. It gets even more complicated when you consider the diversity of a country like Nigeria. I have seen firsthand how poverty profoundly affects women’s ability to move out of violent, abusive and unsafe life situations. Many of the women fleeing violent situations who come to my office for help are faced with impossible choices. For example, escaping the situation at home could mean choosing homelessness, hunger and insecure living conditions for yourself and your children.
GBV or perversion?
I must add that I was shocked at the rawness and cruelty of some of the cases my office deals with. What does poverty have to do with the bank manager who insists his wife allows anal sex and breaks all her ribs when she refuses? What about the lecturer who, in the middle of a three-year marriage, suddenly realizes he can’t get an erection without help and decides the solution to his problem is to bring men into his marital home to rape his wife while he watching? an offer to get it. When she objects, he beats her black and blue. How about the professor who, whenever there is a misunderstanding, asks his wife to kneel naked and beat her with his belt. Oh! How can I forget the thing about the popular man in town who insists his seven-month pregnant wife perform oral sex on him, and when she refuses, in a moment of anger, turns her stomach into a punching bag.
Women’s lives don’t matter
In a previous article on this site entitled “Nigeria is at war with its women” I argued that the main reason we seem to have this senseless violence against women and girls is simply our inability or unwillingness as a country is to do so their status is an important agenda item in our development plan. As a case in point, I referred to the rejection of several bills to empower women in the National Assembly. I said that the result of this deprioritization of women is an official affirmation of cultural norms that consider it acceptable for men to subject women to acts of violence. In very stark terms, the government and the governed are united in waving the flag “The lives of our women don’t matter”. After the death of Osinachi Nwachukwu we need look no further than the body of public opinion. As expected, there were many comments. Some insightful but unfortunately most were thoughtless. By far the most thoughtless were those who put the cause of death right on the victim’s doorstep.
Prevalence of revictimization
The revictimization of victims of gender-based violence is, I believe, one of the main reasons we seem to be making slow progress in formulating a coherent response to gender-based violence. We almost always seem to be questioning the victim. In the case of sexual violence/assault, we want to know what the victim was wearing, why was it in the place where the violence took place? Some even go so far as to question whether the victim was a virgin at the time she was raped. These requests fizzle when juxtaposed with the rape of three-month-old babies or 80-year-old grandparents. Oddly enough, when we can’t find a reasonable argument, we rush back to primeval times and blame ritualists.
When it comes to domestic violence, women are still found guilty of attracting violence against themselves through their behavior. It has to be the woman. Why didn’t she pack her things and run away? What did she say to the man who caused such madness? It is important to emphasize and never tire of saying that the root cause of any form of gender-based violence is the perpetrator himself. It is very important to remember that a person who is a victim of gender-based violence is never responsible for the actions of the perpetrator.
how did we get here
A question that has dominated many discussion groups since the Osinachi story broke is: How did we get here? I don’t think we just got here. From my point of view we have always been here. What has changed and is constantly evolving are the numerous advertising platforms that now exist that allow information to be exchanged at national level. Of course, there is no single factor that can explain gender-based violence in our communities.
Sitting in my office in Ado Ekiti, I see myriad factors contributing to this. In fact, the interaction of these factors is at the root of the problem. In addition to poverty in its various forms, there are other factors. Yes, our cultural practices. In all of our communities, patriarchal and sexist views legitimize violence against women. None of our communities are immune to this. North, West, East and South and in between we are all the same. United by our strong belief in gender stereotypes and prejudice. Our religions have also provided assistance in affirming male authority, both in the public and private spheres. Our religions preach women’s entitlement and ownership. This in turn reinforces a culture of universal acceptance of violence.
fear of the police
Aside from declining cultural norms, another factor is our weak criminal justice system. From the commission of the crime to its referral through the criminal justice system, the burden of proof is wrongly placed on the victim. In Ekiti State, we reversed this by first publishing a service charter for crime victims. It sets out in detail how victims of crime should be treated and what advice, support and practical information they can get. We then enacted the Crime Victims Act, which lists the legal rights afforded to crime victims. These include the right to restitution, the right not to be excluded from criminal proceedings and the right to a fair hearing. It must be recognized that progressive anti-GBV laws are now in place in most states in Nigeria. Even countries that are considered conservative seem to have recently recognized the urgency of protecting women, even if they have merely revised their laws, which previously made women particularly vulnerable to domestic violence. While most forms of gender-based violence are criminalized in many of our States, the practice of law enforcement greatly favors the perpetrators. Many women have a rational fear of contacting the police because of a past failure to protect women who report abuse and violations. This partly explains the persistently low level of reporting and investigation. Without exception, most of these crimes go unreported.
women in politics
Women’s under-representation in power and politics means they have fewer opportunities to shape the debate and influence policy changes or take action to combat gender-based violence and support equality. If enough women were present in the National Assembly when these gender laws were debated, it is almost certain that the bills did not receive second-rate scrutiny. Even in many State Houses of Assembly, the issue of gender-based violence is often not considered important.
The reaction of the federal government to the alleged murder of Osinachi is remarkable. At least the Honorable Minister for Women’s Affairs’ visit to the Inspector General of Police means that something is being done. However, more needs to be done for most of the victims, whose plight will never be the subject of national discussions. It has been more than a year since the Nigerian Governors Forum declared a state of emergency against all forms of gender-based violence. It’s time to evaluate the progress. The Honorable Minister for Women’s Affairs is in an appropriate position to conduct a nationwide assessment of the effectiveness of the various interventions by the state government. We need to know if we are making progress as a basis for further action on this matter.