Special Report: Grappling Trauma of Rape, A Survivor’s Account

    Sub: How long do women have to fight for their rights? Their rights to live freely as women and girls. their rights to live a life free of molestation, rape and unwanted pregnancies?

    By Osaruonamen Ibizugbe 

    Deborah Joseph* was 18-years-old when life as she knew it, ended. Ït was a painful experience,”she recalled as she narrated being raped by her then-boyfriend, a person she trusted and i- a space which she assumed was safe. 

    “He invited me to his house and I went. On getting there, he offered me a drink. I said I didn’t want anything but he insisted on buying me a drink which I then accepted. He went ahead to get me a soft drink.

    “I can’t say if the drink was laced or not; I remember that  he asked me if I had another boyfriend, I told him no and then he asked me if I’ve ever had sex, I answered again with no.

    “He went ahead to say he wants to have sex with me before I leave his house. I refused telling him that I have never ever had sex before, I was a virgin and new to sexual pleasures,”she added. 

    He felt slighted by her refusal and it was at this point his demeanor changed and he moved to overpower her, violating her and changing the course of her life, forever. 

    “And then all of a sudden, he pushed me against the bed, held me firm and covered my mouth, I struggled to scream but he overpowered me and forced himself on me,”she painfully narrated. 

    Deborah’s is one of many that expose the dangers and vulnerability young girls/women are subjected to especially in a system that does little or nothing in protecting the vulnerable.

    Among women aged 15-49, 31% have experienced physical violence and 9% have experienced sexual violence. That’s according to figures from the Nigeria Demographic and health survey 2018.

    Among every married woman who reported experiencing physical violence, 60.6 percent suffered it from their ‘Current Husband/Partner’ in 2013 and slightly decreased to 58.0 per cent in 2018.

    While a lot of women have to deal with the trauma of memories from the assault, Deborah’s life took another turn as she became pregnant. 

    New, unplanned realities

    Now 20 years old, Deborah sits quietly in her home at Garaku, a village in Kokona Local Government Area of Nasarawa State, Northcentral Nigeria, reminiscing on what her life could have been, had that day not happened. 

    Children are said to be blessings from God in this part of the world but when she thought of a blessing at age 19, this was not on her list just yet. Born in an environment with limited resources and opportunities, Deborah’s prayers were tilted towards praying for better access to education and a better life. 

    Now she has an additional unplanned mouth and a recurring reminder of a violation of her human rights. 

    Her dreams and aspirations of getting a higher education and building a future were thrown under the bus when she started getting symptoms of pregnancy. This took a while for her to realize as she was ignorant to reproductive workings in a woman. 

    The issue of rape is one that has over the years generated heated debate, reactions and strategic ideas geared towards clamping down on perpetrators of the act. 

    Violence Against Women and Crime Data from the Nigeria Police Force revealed that the number of females that experienced Rape/Sexual Abuse in 2017 was 18 out of 26 cases reported. In 2018 and 2019, 62 and 59 cases were reported respectively, of which the number of females were 60 and 56 persons.

    Sadly, the majority of rape victims are young girls. When pregnancies occur as a result, parents and family members sometimes force the young girl to marry the rapist for several reasons including their inability to care for the pregnant girls and fear of societal comments and stigmatization.

    In Deborah’s case, efforts were made by her family to get the abuser to marry her or take responsibility for her unwanted baby. Sadly none came to fruition as the boy’s family forbade him from having anything to do with her. They insisted their son was not old enough or ready to cater for a child.

    “When I found out I was pregnant, I was scared. I didn’t know how to tell my mother. One day, I got home from school, I noticed I wasn’t feeling well and my mum noticed as well. When she asked, I told her nothing was wrong.

    “Until when my uncle came and insisted I was taken to the hospital, that was when my pregnancy was discovered. My mum was mad at me, she asked me who was responsible and I told her,” Deborah said. 

    Jade Olise is a family lawyer who has over the years joined in the fight against Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). She believes there’s still a chance for Deborah to seek justice by reporting the incident to law enforcement agencies.

    “She can report to the authority, have him arrested and prosecuted. The matter of proving the case becomes where the tough part is but then it can be done.

    “No matter how long an offense has been committed, if the survivor is embodied enough to talk about her situation, maybe after dealing with the trauma that had happened with the incident the survivor can go ahead to pursue justice even though there might be some challenges,”she added.

    Barr. Jade however raised concerns on the survivor’s ability to prove that she was raped given the fact that the incident happened a long time ago.

    “The challenges of proving rape are huge, because it’s a serious crime that requires the presence of certain elements that must be present to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt.

    “People need to report issues and speak up rather than covering up. All of these add up to the delay in the justice system”.

    Statistics from the National Demographic Health Survey NDHS has it that more than half of women (55%) who have experienced physical or sexual violence have never sought help to stop the violence; only 32% have sought help, approximately the same percentage as in 2013 (31%).

    Despite increased activism, awareness, SGBV persists  

    According to World Bank global statistics, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) has been described as a global pandemic that affects 1 in 3 women in their lifetime.

    It surpasses national, cultural, racial and class boundaries and has sent many women to their early graves. 

    Sadly, issues surrounding sexual and gender based violence  have gained more attention over the past year as the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a surge of reports on sexual and gender based violence across Nigeria. 

    The fight against SGBV is still challenging as only a very low percentage of victims get the courage to speak up. This is so because cases of women and girls who speak out are after a while swept under the rug without delivering justice to the victims.

    We cannot but wonder what the government is doing in creating safe spaces for teenage girls to grow into women without experiencing one form of violence or the other. 

    On his part, Hamzat Lawal, CEO of Connected Development, and a He for She advocate wants policymakers, civil society organizations to rise to the occasion of protecting vulnerable women and girls by creating safe spaces that celebrate women.

    According to him, “It is really sad and unfortunate And it makes me wonder what is society turning into? I am really sorry. I am sorry because we all must be held accountable. We have failed Deborah. We have failed her six month old child”. 

    “Because if we have not failed her, society would have risen to the occasion and ensured that the person who perpetrated this is prosecuted and brought behind bars and she will see justice”.

    “I strongly believe that sexual and gender based violence will always remain in societies, however I also believe that we can work to reduce the incidence of these violent acts to the nearest minimum and that’s what Nigeria is not doing actively”. 

    Speaking from the point of advocacy, Chioma Agwuegbo, the CEO of  TechHer, one of the leading organizations championing SGBV fight in Nigeria, explained how it breaks her heart whenever she hears the story of any young women who has been violated.

    Agwuegbo complained of negligence on the part of Government whom she said isn’t  putting in the work to ensure that the bits of  advocacies put in by sexual violence responders reap the maximum yield.

    “I strongly believe that sexual and gender based violence will always remain in societies, however I also believe that we can work to reduce the incidence of these violent acts to the nearest minimum and that’s what Nigeria is not doing actively”.

    In November 2019, Nigeria launched its first national sexual offenders register, setting up a database of those convicted for sexual violence, a step towards ending SGBV.

    Sadly, experts say a lot of cases that have gotten judgment haven’t reflected in the sexual offenders register as it ought to while pictures of some perpetrators are excluded from the register.  

    How effective are the laws meant to protect women & girls?

    Among women age 15 49, the percentage that ever experienced sexual violence irrespective of person that committed the act was 7.4 per cent in 2013 and increased to 9.1 per cent in 2018.

    The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP act) which was passed into law in 2015 is one remarkable piece of legislation that seeks to protect the vulnerable women and girls  against any form of violence. 

    According to the Act, rape is when a person intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person  with any other part of his or her  body or anything  else without consent, or where such consent is obtained by force  or means  of threat  or intimidation 

    One of the very notable and commendable provisions of the VAPP  Act is its expansion of the meaning of rape and its prohibition thereof.

    However, Coordinator of the VAPP in the Federal Capital Territory Mrs Ene Ede shared her personal experience in advocating for SGBV survivors.

    “In all my life, it is the most frustrating work I have done all my life. It is traumatizing. Gives you mental trouble because you have seen the opportunity to prosecute, and opportunity to change behavior and it is not happening”.

    The VAPP coordinator strongly believes that the VAPP act is grossly under-enforced. She charged state actors on impactful implementation of the Law for the overall benefit of vulnerable Nigerians.

    “The most unfortunate part of the VAPP act, even though it is the best law that has happened to us as a country in terms of human rights. It is a local law, it is an indigenous law, a law that took 25 years to push for”. 

    “It is said to be the most protective law that gives relief to victims and maximum punishments to offenders”. 

    The VAPP coordinator frowned at the government at all levels for not doing enough to ensure full implementation of the law. 

    The call for SGBV ‘victim support fund’

    Dorothy Njemanze is the founder of Dorothy Njemanze foundation, an NGO working  to end sexual and gender based violence through direct support for survivors across the country. 

    In a chat, Dorothy highlighted some of the major contributors to teenage and unwanted pregnancies. She lamented that there are a lot of children with children, and there is really nothing in place to support these teenage mothers. 

    Dorothy advocated for the provision of SGBV support fund to help cater for the basic needs of teenage mothers such as basic healthcare, education and clothing needs.

    In her words; “Until we have a victim support  fund that is realistically to cater for SGBV survivors, we will continue failing. Until there is round the clock real time response to SGBV, we’ll continue failing, until SGBV stops getting treated like a civil service matter but a fundamental human right matter that deserves round the clock attention, then we keep failing”. 

    “And the biggest of all, until we all come out to use our Permanent Voters Cards, PVCs. And remove everybody, house of assembly, senate, house of Reps and all who are responsible for the non implementation of the VAPP Law, we’ll continue encouraging sexual and gender based violence to thrive”. 

    She believes Pregnancies are a thing of joy and therefore be treated as such through mental and social support for survivors of violence. 

    “The children’s children also need a lot of clothings. The government needs to make these things readily available. There’s a lot of advocacy for free sanitary pads and I am here advocating for free supplies for children that have children”.

    The role of  ‘poverty  and ignorance’

    Poverty, ignorance and illiteracy has been identified as some of the major factors that has contributed to the prevalence of rape leading to teenage and unwanted pregnancies.

    Early pregnancy is indeed a preventable menace that needs to be addressed by civil society. We share a collective responsibility to girls everywhere to join this fight.

    The fight should lead to empowering girls to speak up without fear of stigmatization. The fight should also be directed at policy makers to ensure equitable distribution of resources, and improvements in living conditions in rural areas where the majority of young girls live.

    Way forward

    The Federal Ministry of Women Affairs, with funding from the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative/UNFPA and technical support from the Centre for Communication and Social Impact (CCSI) developed a National Communication Strategy.

    This is aimed at Ending all forms of Gender-based Violence and Harmful Practices such as child marriage, female genital mutilation, and teenage pregnancy against Women and Girls in Nigeria.

    The call now is on civil society groups, policy makers, and all others to join in this campaign to fight and put an end to sexual and gender based violence and other harmful practices. It is the collective responsibility of all stakeholders to remain focused on empowering women and young girls. 

    Deborah still holds dreams of pursuing her education career for her future and that of her child. She needs the support of government, NGOs and well meaning individuals 

    “I desire to go back to school, re-write  my WAEC because I didn’t make all the papers when I sat for it before and then go to university. For me to do that, I need people’s help. “My mum is a farmer and does not earn much money, I myself don’t have anything to do now but I know I want to further my education.

    “Please help me out, I will make all of you proud one day, I need to be able to cater for my daughter and also my mother and younger brother”.

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