It has been almost seventeen months to the day President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan signed into law the Violence against Persons (Prohibition) (VAPP) Act. That was May 25, 2015, and his last few days in office. After over 14 years of civil society activism – the formation of the Legislative Advocacy Coalition against Violence against Women (LACVAW) in 2001; and the Act’s many iterations, from the Bill on Violence Against Women in May 2002, which was rejected in 2003, to the Bill on Violence Against Persons in 2008 – it is heartening not only to see its existence in Nigeria, but also to witness the crucial role collective action has played in ensuring this significant and positive step in the country’s legislation for addressing violence and women and girls.
Why? Well, Nigeria has a ‘shockingly high’ level of violence against women, as noted by the 2013 Nigerian Demographic Health Survey (DHS) – ‘28 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence at least once since the age of 15’, while ‘seven per cent of women have experienced sexual violence at least once in their lifetime’. There is also the reality that the different forms of violence against women and girls are often ignored, disregarded and accepted in the country – regardless of class, geographical location, age and so on. Not to mention the large underreporting – 45 per cent of women who experienced violence never sought help or told anyone about it according to the DHS. This is due largely to societal pressure, but also as a result of the severe consequences of doing so: women and girls often become labelled and stigmatised, and the livelihoods of many women who report domestic violence are often jeopardised because their sources of income, most especially in the rural areas of Nigeria, are largely connected to their husband. As well as the prevalent view that the police are reluctant to take it seriously, that allegations are rarely investigated and sentences for persons convicted are often minor. This situation is compounded by a number of discriminatory practices against women in existing laws and policies within the country, such as a lack of legal recognition of marital rape.
All of the above indicate, if only briefly, why the VAPP Act is a welcome addition to national laws and policies centred on violence against women and girls in Nigeria, as it aims to ‘eliminate violence in private and public life … provide maximum protection and effective remedies for victims of violence and punishment of offenders’. Indeed, the Act has been lauded both nationally and internationally – particularly for its stance on female genital mutilation (FGM).
Yet, while the VAPP Act is certainly pushing the country in the right direction in terms of addressing the ‘shockingly high levels’ of violence women and girls experience, I cannot help but wonder if it will make a significant difference in the everyday lives of women and girls to ensure the realising of their rights, particularly as Nigeria has a track record of implementing, but not necessarily enforcing the laws and policies it adopts.
Why I am optimistic, but cautious
The VAPP Act has all the right words – spousal battery, forceful ejection from home, forced financial dependence or economic abuse, harmful widowhood practices, female genital mutilation are seen as offences under this Act. Moreover, survivors of violence are entitled to comprehensive medical, psychological, social and legal assistance by accredited service providers and government agencies, with their identities protected during court cases. This in itself is a positive step in addressing the different forms of violence against women and girls that are often ignored and accepted in the country.
Yet, in writing this piece, I couldn’t help but think about all that I had read and/or watched in the last eight months regarding violence against women and girls in Nigeria. Lotanna Odunze-Igwe’s (known by the Twitter handle @sugabelly) essay – Surviving Mustapha Audu, and his rape brigade – outlining in explicit detail the many years of emotional, physical and sexual abuse she experienced by the Audu brothers – the sons of a former Nigerian Governor – and their friends; the prominent Nigerian poet, Chijioke Amu-Nnadi, who was accused by 19 young women of sexual molestation; the Nigerian singer, Tiwa Savage’s televised interview where she also discussed how she had been emotionally abused by her estranged husband who used elements of controlling behaviour in the process.
There is also the numerous headlines in Nigerian newspapers and online in the last two months alone: ‘Let’s say no! No to domestic violence’, ‘Wave of domestic violence’, ‘The menace of domestic violence’ ‘FIDA urges men to stop domestic violence’, ‘Police arraigns man in court for beating up wife’, ‘Domestic violence: when silence is not golden’, ‘Surging domestic violence rate against women in Nigeria’, and ‘The “Ignore It” mentality of domestic violence in Nigerian celebrity circles’.
I also reflected on my own research on the everyday violence experienced by female live-in domestic workers in Lagos: experiences of being grabbed or having their breasts and buttocks touched; persistent demands for sex, buying food, money or clothing in return for sex and propositioning in return for higher wages or more favourable working conditions; cases of rape and repeated rape.
I wondered how this Act would make a difference when the domestic workers in my study’s experiences were largely unreported due to the stigma of reporting and unequal power relations that exist in domestic work that opens up the prospect of dismissal. When @sugabelly finally had the courage to tell her story, and the blog post received over 600 comments with different levels of support and condemnation – there were many similar (positive and negative) reactions on different social media platforms across the country. When a human rights lawyer stated that there have only been 18 rape convictions in Nigeria’s legal history. The VAPP Act is also currently only applicable within Abuja – and would need to be passed in 23 of the 36 Nigerian States in order to become a national law.
All this signifies to me that to be truly effective the VAPP Act would require significant action and implementation from the government, as well as continued pressure from civil society actors and social movements across the country to ensure it not only gets adopted beyond Abuja, but that it translates into having real meaning in the lives of the many different women and girls who experience violence (in its various forms) on a daily basis in the country.