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Rape in Nigeria: Theory and Reality

By Paola Brigneti and Shadrack Egbonimali

On September 2011, a video of a Nigerian woman being gang raped emerged on the Internet. As the five men took turns raping her, she pleaded to her rapists to kill her. She knew that being raped was not only hurting her physically and psychologically, but she knew that her honor would also be permanently stained in the eyes of Nigerian society.

Despite the explicit nature of the 10-minute video, local authorities dismissed it. In fact, university and government officials denied the video’s authenticity and claimed that the rape did not took place on or around the university campus. Thus, they excused themselves from any duty to bring justice to the rape victim, or to enforce the criminal laws regarding rape.

Nigeria’s Youth Minister, Bolaji Abdullahi, was the only official to come forward and issue a statement calling for the university and the police to arrest and prosecute the men shown in the video. He even did something unheard of: he offered assistance to the woman.

In 2001, Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, a Nigerian teenage single mother was given 100 lashes for adultery. Bariya claimed she had been raped by three men but, in accordance with Sharia law, she was required to show proof that the men who raped her had indeed forced her to have sex with them.

Under Sharia law, Bariya’s rape was interpreted as fornication because she was unable to present witnesses who would confirm the veracity of her rape accusations. Fornication, a Hudud offence under Sharia law, can result in punishments as severe as death by stoning.

Whether addressed by the Nigerian law, or under Sharia law, both these women ended up bearing the burden for being raped. As if having been victimized once were not enough, they were further punished by archaic laws that place the blame on women. This legal approach to rape has continued to bring suffering to Nigerian women across the country.

In order to find out more about people’s conception about rape, Delta Women conducted a local survey in Delta State, Nigeria. Our sample included 12 female and 10 male respondents between the ages of 15 and 50.

Survey results showed that most participants were acquainted with the definition of rape. The most commonly provided definition of rape was “an act of sexual violence that involves intercourse without consent or against someone’s will.“ However, when asked about why women get raped, most participants attributed rape to the behavior of women and to the indecent way in which some women dress. Other reasons provided were low self-esteem in men, drugs and alcohol, hatred of women, and unwanted thoughts in men’s minds. The results matched the unfounded beliefs that women are the ones to blame for provoking the rape. Not surprisingly, women in the Niger Delta are often unwilling to testify about their experiences.

The question is: Did respondents mean to say that rape is an act of sexual violence done without a woman’s consent because of the way women act or dress? Is this an example of the good old “she was asking for it” excuse? I certainly hope not.

Even though the Delta Women survey showed the participants’ knowledge of the definition of rape, the results suggested a need to gain a better understanding on why rape happens in Nigeria and other societies.

Survey participants were also asked about how rape is addressed under Nigerian and Sharia laws. The results indicated that the participants knew little about government laws addressing rape. Additionally, their knowledge of Sharia law was limited to the fact that these laws are derived from the Koran and are mostly followed by people of Muslim faith. This limited understanding of Sharia law might be explained by the fact that all participants reported being Christian.

The lack of awareness regarding laws surrounding rape is alarming. How are individuals supposed to protect themselves, and to exercise their rights, when they are unaware of the laws that are in place? Perhaps there is a need for some sort of campaign to make rape laws better known among the Nigerian populace. But, in the absence of that, I will provide a synopsis of how the law in Nigeria protects against rape.

In addition to having ratified the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (“CEDAW”), which was designed to put an end to all types of violence against women, including rape, Nigeria has specific laws addressing rape. Section 357 of the Criminal Code states that “any person who has unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman or girl, without her consent, or with her consent, if consent was obtained by force or by means of threat or intimidation of any kind, or by fear or harm, or by any means of false and fraudulent representation as to the nature of the act, or in the case of a married woman, by personating her husband is guilty of an offence called rape.” Under Section 358, the punishment for rape is life imprisonment. Only four percent of survey respondents were aware of this punishment.

Whereas the law might appear to provide protection to the victim of rape, the key word to focus on is “consent”, as it is the victim’s duty to prove that she did not consent to the rape. This is a main difference from the way in which rape is addressed under the law in other countries in which the individual accused of rape can claim the defense of consent, but then bears the burden of proving that the victim consented.

Having to prove that the intercourse was not consensual further contributes to the culture of silence surrounding rape. A woman who has been raped also has to deal with humiliation by the police, as well as the “embarrassment” resulting from public acknowledgement. Moreover, in Nigerian society, when a woman is raped, she and her family are ostracized due to the dishonor associated with rape. All people surveyed by Delta Women agreed that when a woman is raped, her family is dishonored as well.

The Nigerian Constitution, however, does not specifically prohibit rape. In addition, the laws that exist, such as the ones mentioned above, are oftentimes outdated, and not enforced.

Moreover, the Nigerian government tolerates the existence of customary and religious practices, some of which adversely affect women. Sharia law, which applies in twelve Nigerian states, is one example of customary law. Under Sharia penal laws, rape is criminalized. However, the definition of rape does not follow the principles underlined by the country’s criminal laws, and does not provide sufficient protection or redress for women and girls who have been raped. In some instances, a woman’s failure to consent is not considered in criminal proceedings under Sharia law.

As with Nigerian law, under Sharia law, victims are burdened with proving the absence of consent. Moreover, a woman’s rape accusation can only be backed by eyewitnesses and no circumstantial evidence is accepted. In fact, the way Sharia law works makes it very challenging to prosecute rape, once again leaving the perpetrator unpunished and exposing the victim to yet another traumatic experience.

In some cases, Sharia law only levies a monetary punishment against a convicted rapist. For example, a rapist might be obliged to pay the victim the amount she would normally received as marriage payment, or if the rapist cannot be punished, he must pay the victim the amount equal to bride-money. When asked about whether monetary compensation was sufficient punishment for rapists, eighty percent of survey participants said that money did not compensate for the trauma and the dishonor resulting from rape. The remaining twenty percent approved of monetary compensation.

In addition, it should be noted that, that neither Nigerian law nor Sharia law criminalize marital rape. Under both sets of laws, a husband cannot be accused of raping his wife.

Under both legal systems, prosecuting rapists represents an extremely challenging task. Interestingly, the survey conducted by Delta Women showed that participants believed rape should be severely punished. In some instances, participants suggested rapists should be incarcerated for extended periods of time, and some even advocated for castration of the perpetrators. However, despite the demand for punishment, laws continue to turn a blind eye to rape in Nigeria.

The reality is that rape terribly hurts women. In order to eliminate rape, we must first understand it.

Contrary to participants’ beliefs, rape is not caused by women’s behavior. In reality, rape is used to oppress women, especially in societies where women are less valued. When women’s value is framed in terms of their sexual purity, women’s status becomes more vulnerable. If virginity is what makes women honorable, rape is an easy weapon to permanently damage them. Not surprisingly, the societies and cultures that view women and men as equally valuable are less likely to have incidence of rape.

The fact is that rape is used to oppress women. Regardless of the governing laws, women in Nigeria—and around the world—need to be protected from such a terrible crime. Sadly, the laws in Nigeria appear to further victimize and humiliate women. They do not bring justice to them. Until new laws are specifically tailored to protect women, and the actors responsible for enforcing them do so, women’s rights across Nigeria will continue to be violated. Nigeria will be depriving itself from what has been shown to be the most effective tool for development: the female factor.

Sources consulted:
Steiner, S. (2002). Sharia Law. Retrieved on February 5, 2012 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/aug/20/qanda.islam

Chineze J. Onyejekwe (2008). Nigeria: The Dominance of Rape. Retrieved on February 5, 2012 from http://www.bridgew.edu/soas/jiws/Oct08/Onyejekwe.pdf

Huffington Post (2011). Nigeria Rape Video: Footage Of Brutal Attack On Woman Outrages Nation. Retrieved on February 2, 2012 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/21/nigeria-rape-video-footag_n_974...

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