© Blessing Williams, 2020
Many would not have thought that the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19) in China in December 2019 and its subsequent global spread would have devastating effects on the already worsened gender-based violence across Africa and Nigeria in particular. Alas, with the lockdown and other prevention strategies imposed by respective governments across the continent, there have been widespread reports of sexual attacks, harassment, and even killings of women and girls during the stay-at-home and inter-city travel restrictions in Nigeria. There was a spike at the rate at which the female gender was assaulted as officials said rapes have tripled during the country’s coronavirus lockdown. Governors in many states in the country have declared a state of emergency over rape and other gender-based violence against women and children.
According to the reports from various newspapers and social media headlines, women and girls were and still being raped, abused and killed by men almost on a daily basis. For example, the Washington Post (June 12, 2020) reported that the 36 states’ governors had imposed tougher measures against sex offenders. Thanks to the nationwide protests by women’s rights activists and others with the social media hashtag #WeAreTired in Abuja and other states. The Minister of Women’s Affairs, Pauline Tallen, was quoted as saying “I know we have always had rape in this country, but with the lockdown of people in homes because of COVID-19, women and children are locked down with their abusers,” Although, there are no reports of how many rapes have occurred during the lockdown that started in late March for major cities. Though the reasons behind this crime during the pandemic lockdown have not yet been revealed. But one can posit that the containment measures might have prevented some of the perpetrators to go out to indulge in their pre-covid-19 immoral practices. Also the mental and social health of some men might deteriorate as a result of the lockdown to the level that they might not have imagined or comprehended the scenarios of stay indoors and hence the mental outburst or uncontrolled behaviour.
It is important to mention a few cases. A student, Vera Uwaila Omosuwa was a 22-year-old who died two days after she was reported raped in a church where she had gone to read in Benin, Edo State. Barakat Bello was raped and murdered at home in Ibadan, Oyo State by some yet-to-be-identified assailants. An 18-year-old lady simply identified as Jennifer was attacked and raped by a gang of five men during the covid-19 lockdown in Kaduna in Northern Nigeria. The list goes on. The Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami said an inter-ministerial committee would be inaugurated immediately to propose legislative changes to ensure that sexual violence is dealt with in line with international best practices.
Regardless of age or gender, the impact of sexual and gender-based violence goes far beyond the physical injuries. The trauma of being sexually assaulted or abused can be shattering, leaving the victim (s) feeling scared, ashamed, alone or plagued by nightmares, flashbacks and other unpleasant memories. Subsequently, a 12-year-old minor, name withheld, was not spared. She was raped by a 42 years old Dennis Ojah in Otukpo LGA of Benue state (Vanguard newspaper). Again in Kano state, young 32-year-old identified as Mohammed Alfa, allegedly confessed to raping 40 women in a year. For some selfish reasons or lack of exposure, cultural and religious background most families did not only conceal this crime and endanger the victim’s life but also the first to stigmatize the victim by asking them not to make a formal report. Another recent report was a 25-year-old man identified as Aminu Bala, who was arrested by the police in Zamfara, for allegedly raped his elder brother’s wife to death in Gusau. The list is unending as there is no safe space for women and girls in the society but one would be correct to say that, the increased reporting may be due to the improved access to support and not necessarily changes in patterns of violence during the pandemic lockdown. Unfortunately, home used to be the safest place for anybody to stay but not anymore especially for women and girls around the globe and Nigeria in particular.
Like other crimes that go unreported, rape is almost unreported to formal agencies of social control in Nigeria due to trust gap, associated stigma against victims, fear of re-victimization, cultural barrier, religious sentiments, and powerlessness of the victims in the pursuit of justice. Due to these incessant reports on violence against women and young girls, it is therefore important to highlight how the pandemic contributed to the plight of women, and what lessons can be drawn to mitigate the effects of such development in future.
In Nigeria, the total lockdown was imposed on the federal capital (Abuja), Lagos and Ogun States on March 31s t while other states of the federation also embarked on various measures to restrict physical movements of persons in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. It was not until May 6th, 2020, that the federal government and most states began to ease the embargoes. Despite the stern warning on how the coronavirus and how it could be transmitted, rape and gender-based violence is still one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the country. Barely a week into the 14days initial lockdown of the 3 above states in the federation, the Guardian newspaper reported a case of one Mr. Christian Chikezie that was arrested for defiling his neighbour’s 9-year-old daughter at Ikorodu in Lagos state. The stay-at-home order did not only expose women, minors and young girls to grave violations of their sexual and human rights, but forcefully molested and killed by close relatives and in some cases by unknown men. For instance, on the 23, April, 2020 a rape case was recorded in Lagos state. The victim, who was simply identified as Favour, was rape by one Godday Robinson until she became unconscious (Punch Newspaper). As narrated in the report, the victim and the rapist are somehow related.
No wonder why the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres alluded to the unwholesome development of the global lockdowns. He said it has resulted in a ‘’horrifying surge’’ in gender-based violence. This surge in domestic violence also has a direct impact on victims because, as the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) noted, the pandemic further deepens gender inequalities because the caring for children at home and sick or older family members is disproportionately on women.
Most women who were engaged in petty trading and small-scale businesses, are being made to shutdown due to the quarantine and economic slowdown. They are trapped at home with their violent partners/ spouses and the responsibility of caring for old and young family members. This did not only increase gender-based violence but also their mental, psychological and emotional abuse. The psychosocial impact of the rape during lockdown on victims and relations is huge. Stigmatization, social disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are a few of its effects. Education progression can also be altered or delayed.
The pregnant woman who lost her life in a stampede in Kubwa, FCT, the 27 April, 2020, simply because she wanted to get palliatives for her family, would have been alive today if only she got prompt medical attention. Much as PTSD is one of the hidden consequences on women amid the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and restrictions, it also has a silent health toll on victims that is paid less attention to. The assailants could infect the victim with Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), pregnancy, miscarriage and low birth weight. Today, most women are currently facing a resurgence of PTSD probably because they were neglected to heal on their own, lack of psychosocial support, and the restriction has made it almost impossible for them to interact or related with that one trusted family member/friend they rely on to fight the anxiety whenever they are faced with any edgy situation. In any case one of the ironies of PTSD is that, the victim takes a longer time to heal even after the crisis of pandemic is over.
Apart from the fact that gender-based violence / rape survivors and their families go through PTSD, they are also at high risk of relapsing into Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). This makes them significantly different from people as it affects how they think, feel, perceive and relate with people around them. They no longer have self worth in themselves and their sanity. They see themselves as “dirty’’ and “damaged’’, relationships seem impossible and dangerous, and slowly they sleep into depression leaving them with no choice but suicide.
In conclusion, in order to put an end to these dastardly acts particularly during emergence periods, the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, through its Gender Unit should collaborate with relevant agencies, CSOs and NGOs to scale up advocacy programmes on women and follow up on the proposed legislative action in order to mitigate the risks of rape on women and girls in Nigeria. It is hoped that the effort would go a long way to alleviate the pains, reverse the trends and prevent such dastardly act in future emergencies.
Blessing Williams is a research fellow at the Nigeria’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Abuja.