Although sexual violence is a common crime, with one in every four girls and one in 10 boys having been assaulted before the age of 18 according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, many Nigerians are ignorant of issues relating to rape and associated crimes.
Figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics indicate that rape and indecent assault was the fourth most reported offence against individuals in 2017, coming only after assault, grievous bodily harm, and murder.
Recent reports suggest that one of the reasons for this phenomenon is that the understanding of rape by many conflicts with the provisions of the law.
A survey conducted in 2019 by NOIPolls showed that many Nigerians, across geopolitical zones, age groups, and gender have poor understanding of rape and factors that lead to it.
While 92 per cent of respondents said that consent meant when a person who is not underage and intoxicated verbally agrees to have intercourse, more than half (52 per cent) also said consent is given when a minor (someone below 18 years) says ‘yes’.
Thirty-nine per cent said consent could be given by someone who was intoxicated and by someone who said ‘yes’ before later said ‘no’.
Also, 32 per cent of the respondents said there was also consent even if given after pressure and the person had originally said ‘no’.
The breakdown of the responses indicated that younger people were more likely to think of consent in these broader terms.
The respondents were also asked what they thought were the causes of rape in the country. Although it is not clear how many would think rape is justifiable based on those factors, the answers offer an insight into what Nigerians think are the motivations for the offence.
Forty-seven per cent blamed rape on indecent dressing, 36 per cent blamed it on the excess intake of alcohol by the offender, and 34 per cent blamed it on the excess intake of alcohol by the victim.
Another 34 per cent said promiscuity caused rape, 18 per cent said flirting, 14 per cent said unemployment, and 11 per cent blamed it on the lack of moral values, poor parental care and drug addiction.
Thirteen per cent of the respondents said decent dressing among women would check the occurrence of rape.
A poll conducted by Punch Newspaper in 2016 also reflected widespread misconceptions about sexual violence in Nigeria, with 46.6 per cent of respondents saying women were to blame for being raped.
“Rape is evil but women by their action can make themselves easy targets. Sometimes by provocative dressing that suggests they want something; at other times by unwise visits, e.g. going alone with a man to his room after a party late at night after one or both have been drinking,” a respondent said.
Another respondent told the newspaper that any woman above 18 years raped outside her home should be blamed.
The rape victim lacks moral values and discipline, exposed her body or lacked communication skills, the respondent said.
In concluding its report, NOIPolls recommended nationwide advocacy by government agencies and civil society groups on gender-based violence.
“There is also a huge need for the orientation of Nigerian on the meaning of consent,” it said.
What the law says
There is a big difference between what the public perceives as consent during sexual relations and the position of the law.
For instance, it is legally impossible for an underage person to “agree” to have intercourse. The Child Rights Act prohibits intercourse with a child (anyone below the age of 18) and anyone who has sex with such individual is liable to life imprisonment.
The law stresses that it does not matter if the offender believes the victim is at least 18 years or consent given before the act.
But not all states in the country have domesticated the law, including 11 in Northern Nigeria.
Nigeria’s Criminal Code Act also nullifies consent that is obtained through force, threat, intimidation, fraud, or impersonation. Also, various court judgments and applicable laws have established that sex with a person who is sleeping or drunk amounts to rape because they are incapable of consenting.
It is possible for a person who initially agreed to have sex to later withdraw their consent, including during the act of intercourse. It is likewise not a defence that the victim consented to other acts of intimacy, such as kissing, or that the victim willingly entered the offender’s house.
While it is possible for a man to rape his wife in other jurisdictions, married couples in Nigeria cannot be prosecuted for forced sexual intercourse. The Criminal Code states in Section 6 that “unlawful carnal knowledge” can only take place between people who are not husband and wife.
‘Mindsets will change if we jail more’
Wanda Ebe, a gender activist and founder of Wanda Ebe Foundation, said one effective way to re-orientate people about rape would be to make sanctions more severe and sentencing of offenders more consistent.
“They will see it as the crime that it is and understand also that a child cannot give consent,” she explained.
She expressed doubt if stiffer penalties could be attached to sexual violence because many lawmakers were possibly violators of the law.
Because of this, she said the consideration of and deliberation around bills pertaining to rape should be restricted to women in leadership.
Ebe also recommended the use of the media, including radio and television, street campaigns, film shows, community sensitisation and dialogue with traditional and religious leaders to change the people’s attitude to the problem.
“I believe it is a cultural thing, I believe our ancient culture permits men to think they are superior to woman and incharge of everything, so a woman really does not have a right in our cultural context,” she said.
“If we can take our advocacy to traditional rulers, local chiefs, and all of those gatekeepers, it will go a very long way to help, there will be a mind shift in how we look at things.
“Our religious leaders are also very important because a lot of people honour them. The pastors and imams have a very strong voice and we can use them as tools for the campaign.”