The Head of the Nigeria Office of Open Society for West Africa (OSIWA), Udo Jude Ilo, has said that the current wave of anger over sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) needs to be taken advantage of before it begins to lose attention.
Nigeria witnessed widespread outrage following the rape and murder of Vera Uwaila Omozuwa, in Benin City, Edo state, Nigeria on June, 2020. The 22-year-old student of microbiology at the University of Benin was raped and murdered at a church premises.
Ilo made the recommendation in the light of national revulsion at the rape and murder of several young ladies in Nigeria recently. The Nigeria Police Force reported 717 rape cases from January to May, 2020.
Vera’s case brought about widespread national outrage, with the National Assembly declaring a state of emergency on SGBV on June 7 and President Muhammadu Buhari also speaking up, on June 12, promising governments’ commitment to bring an end to the phenomenon.
Equally, the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) and the police expressed their concerns on the escalating sexual violence promising to arrest the situation. Ilo argues that authorities in Nigeria ought to go further by initiating policy steps to fully address the problem.
“The unfortunate events in recent months provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to build on the public mood to ensure an enduring system for protecting women and children against sexual and domestic violence. It is not going to be easy but with strategic collaboration and consistent engagement, this is possible.
“Effective SGBV response needs to be built around three pillars: prevention, accountability and support. We need to make an effort to prevent SGBV. When it happens, we must ensure accountability and there must also be a support system for survivors to ensure justice and healing. These three elements are equally important and only a holistic strategy encompassing their various elements will help us move the needle,” Ilo said.
He also noted that a national response plan was necessary to provide the needed framework to properly combat the “unfortunate pandemic”.
“Baseline studies should identify existing policies, conventions, laws, institutions, projects and groups that have relevance to SGBV in Nigeria,” Ilo added.
He further pointed out the need for the process to be owned by the Nigerian government, and not by funders, in order to show their commitment in making a proper case for the support it might need as shown by the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, after which 14 states passed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition law, and 25 passing the Child Rights Law.
“But beyond passing the laws, the framework which the law creates must be resourced. We have never been a country lacking in legislation. We just do not concern ourselves with implementing them. We must make it difficult for states to renege on this commitment. The Federal government must consider some incentives to encourage states to do the right thing,” Ilo explained.
At the federal level, Ilo further pointed out the need for “a special SGBV support fund” from the already existing Legal Aid Fund under the Legal Aid Act for necessary support to be available to victims.
“This fund should be quickly established and a significant portion of it dedicated to SGBV survivors. Through this fund, the Federal Government can also incentivize the states in establishing sexual assault referral centres.”
He furthermore said a policy attending to the unique needs of survivors was imperative, such as medical attention in hospitals as well as going a step further to preserve forensic evidence.
“The SGBV support fund can be deployed to pay claims from the hospital within specific safeguards and procedures. This way, the perennial loss of evidence or inadequate care that has been the lot of many survivors will be addressed. This will also encourage survivors to come forward,” Ilo explained.
He also stressed the need for the establishment of “National SGBV Response Protocols” for all law enforcement agencies.
“This will require some inter-agency collaboration but a process that can be led by the National Human Rights Commission.
“This protocol must provide for physical protection of survivors, access to medical care and management of evidence amongst others. These standards will not only protect survivors but provide a roadmap for agencies who are often at a loss about what to do with survivors.
“Similar operational regulations must also be adapted for NGOs working on SGBV. There must be some standard of care that operates across the board and helps with the maximum protection of survivors,” Ilo said.
He added that the toxic and dependent relationship between victims and their abusers made it difficult for victims to leave the environment of abuse.
Ilo said although the legislation had yet to address this actuality, a “solid mechanism” could be put in place to ensure livelihood for victims in such cases.
“This is a collaborative effort that can be led by the state but incorporating the private sector, NGOs, and credible religious institutions.
“Frontline defenders working on SGBV issues should be treated as essential workers with adequate protection. Without resourcing and focusing on an enduring support system for survivors and frontline workers, we will only contribute to entrenching the culture of silence where survivors never come forward,” he explained.
Ilo said that apart from reforms, a need for a changed mindset was necessary, adding that factors such as culture, religion and social narratives encouraged audacious behaviour in men where it comes to women.
“Building a new crop of men and empowering women to have a voice and fist must be embraced with the urgency it deserves. Nobody should be in doubt where our values are when it comes to women.
“We should utilise every available institution – family, schools, religious houses, media, social media and sports to create a new narrative of respect of women and children. No nation can ever be great if women and children are endangered species or easy prey for toxic masculinity.
“We have serially failed our women and children in this country. We now have an opportunity to make amends,” he stated.