By Lawrence Ejeikwu

THE festering rape epidemic in Nigeria and the impunity it commands has renewed conversation on the status of subsisting laws on the subject. The need for a clearer, broader legal framework, stiffer penalty and other measures to stem the tide is upon us as a nation.

The media has been awash with rape incidents, and even as I write, it remains the most trending, perhaps only second behind covid-19 news. It is a crime that many women dreaded and hardly recover from. A sense that one must always be on guard, vigilant and alert, a feeling that causes a woman to be edgy with anxiety if someone especially a stranger is walking too closely behind her; a psychological disposition that exerts a toll on her health. The fear and distress are all a daily part on the life of many women globally.

Virtually all societies have had a concept of the crime of rape. What constitutes this crime has varied by historical periods and cultures. It is narrowly conceived as “penile penetration of the female genital.”

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However, in most jurisdictions today, it is considered as a sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration committed by an offender against a victim without consent either by threat of violence or imminent threat of death or severe bodily injury, blackmail, other manipulative machinations and abuse of authority.

While the criminal code recognises penetration with other objects, the penal code operational in the Muslim North recognises only penile penetration. This accounts for inconsistency in the concept of rape between governmental agencies; law enforcement, healthcare providers and the legal profession. A 2003 Child Right Act puts the legal age of marriage at 18 but it was not domesticated by 12 states that instead opted for the traditional way of determining marriage age, oblivious of the abuse and violence children go through in such marriages.

It includes people that cannot give valid consent like those unconscious, incapacitated, have intellectual disability or below the legal age of consent. Some effects of rape have been identified as fear-induced aversion to crowded area, intrusive thoughts, humiliation, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, mood disorder, borderline personality disorder, and suicide ideation, etc.

Child sexual abuse is an offence under several sections of chapter 21 of our country’s criminal code with the age of consent at 18. However, it does not recognise the penetration of anus, mouth and nose; rape in marriage or the possibility of a woman raping a man.

While the criminal code recognises penetration with other objects, the penal code operational in the Muslim North recognises only penile penetration. This accounts for inconsistency in the concept of rape between governmental agencies; law enforcement, healthcare providers and the legal profession. A 2003 Child Right Act puts the legal age of marriage at 18 but it was not domesticated by 12 states that instead opted for the traditional way of determining marriage age, oblivious of the abuse and violence children go through in such marriages.

A four-year review of sexual assault cases at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital that began in 2008 and ended in December 2012 revealed that “out of a total 284 reported Cases of sexual assault, 83 per cent of the victims were below the age of 19.” A one-year similar survey at the Enugu State University Teaching Hospital between 2012 and 2013 revealed that “70 per cent sexual assault victims were under the age of 18, and majority of the victims knew the perpetrators and the assault occurred inside uncompleted buildings and the perpetrators residence.”

Another sexual offense bill of 2013 that would have expanded the definition of rape to cover both gender was rejected by the Senate irrespective of the grim picture of  cases in the country. There’s a need for a clear and broader position on the subject across the nation to remove ambiguity and facilitate easy reference by all stakeholders.

According to UNICEF in 2015, “one in four girls and one in ten boys in Nigeria had experienced sexual violence before the age of 18.” A survey by Positive Action For Treatment Access maintained that “31.4 per cent of girls said that their first sexual encounter had been rape or forced sex of some kind.” The Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development reported that “1,200 girls had been raped in 2012 in Rivers State.”

A four-year review of sexual assault cases at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital that began in 2008 and ended in December 2012 revealed that “out of a total 284 reported Cases of sexual assault, 83 per cent of the victims were below the age of 19.” A one-year similar survey at the Enugu State University Teaching Hospital between 2012 and 2013 revealed that “70 per cent sexual assault victims were under the age of 18, and majority of the victims knew the perpetrators and the assault occurred inside uncompleted buildings and the perpetrators residence.”

Between October and December 2019, about 219 cases of rape were reported to the Salama Sexual Assault Referral Centre in Kafanchan, Jema’a LGA of Kaduna State. Additional 108 were reported between January and February 2020. According to the manager of the centre, Grace Abbin, 29 of the reported cases are boys and only 4 convictions have been attained with remaining cases pending in court.

The underlying motives of rapists are multi-faceted – anger, sadism, power, feeling of entitlement to sexual gratification, evolutionary proclivities and the strange ‘bedfellow’ reason of money-making ritual.

The World Health Organisation has identified weak legal sanctions for sexual violence, sexual entitlement and beliefs in family honour and sexual purity as some of the reasons behind rape in Nigeria. Certain conditions increase vulnerability to being victim of rape. Child labour, one of the traditional means of socialisation in some parts of Nigeria is trading. However, introduction of young girls to street trading as a means of learning how to be industrious and self-sufficient increase their vulnerabilities to sexual predators according to research. There is a need for advocacy against child labour or criminalisation by government in every part of the country.

Religious and cultural misgivings about surrogacy, adoption and the associated public stigma in some parts of Nigeria created a problem of ‘baby factory’. Operators of such factories prey upon pregnant girls from low income households, unmarried and are afraid of the stigma of teenage pregnancy. Some are abducted, kept and raped solely for the purpose of procreation. Babies are reportedly sold between 30,000 to 200,000 to buyers. So, a legislation to criminalise the practice with a stiff penalty is required immediately. Lack of funds to provide for children has left some of them with the option of fending for themselves in the streets. The need to keep family size within our income is compelling.

Victim-blaming attitude of caregivers and families should be discouraged through advocacy and sensitisation by civil society, non-governmental organisations and opinion leaders in every community. Also, the notion that reporting rape cases in the public domain and cooperation with police and activists during investigation and evidence gathering which is required under 72 hours of incidence, reduces a child’s chances of getting a suitor later in life.

Young adolescents should be equipped with pepper spray to protect themselves and avoid private meetings with people other than family members. Leaving kids with neighbours should be avoided as much as possible. Anyone convicted of rape should be given the maximum penalty in view of the rising cases and must be domesticated in all the states including the Federal Capital Territory. It will not be a good commentary for Nigeria to become world’s rape capital as South Africa was infamously reputed with over 500,000 cases annually.

Ejeikwu writes from Port Harcourt and can be reached via his email:  lawrenceejeikwu@gmail.com

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