Violence against women and girls in Nigeria is a pandemic-sized problem. Millions live in fear of being abused, assaulted or raped.
Frontline heroes like the doctors, lawyers, social workers and counsellors who deal with the daily casualties of this crisis describe the heartbreak of handling cases of women and girls who have been abused or raped. These protectors of women and children’s rights persevere in their efforts, even though they know most cases will not be reported, receive support and get justice.
And the cases we know about are only the small tip of a colossal iceberg.
So many women and girls suffer in silence and shame because they are worried about their family’s reaction and social stigma. Like a woman in Sokoto, who was assaulted by her husband whilst in purdah and denied access to critical support; or a woman in Lagos who was raped and impregnated by her neighbor and forced to leave her home for fear of stigmatization. Countless women and girls who are either ostracized or in community seclusion and at risk of violence still need to be reached.
But we are finally seeing a slow shift in attitudes.
Across Nigeria, women and girls are standing up, reporting their cases, and demanding local solutions to the problems of violence, including rape and sexual exploitation.
Cases like Blessing, who is 13 years old and lives in Abuja. Last year she was raped by her neighbor but kept quiet because he threatened to kill her. When she finally told her parents, they pressed charges and the rapist was arrested but released on bail. The rapist lives near the family and threatened her mother to drop the case. But her mother refused to settle and is pursuing justice in the courts.
“I want to be a lawyer because I don’t want other girls like me to go through a similar experience,” Blessing told us. “I want to stand up for them, be there for them and fight for them – that’s why I want to be a lawyer.”
Breaking the silence on violence against women and girls has created a momentum and encouraged more families to come forward and report cases of rape and other forms of violence or abuse. This increase in reporting is ringing alarm bells for clear political action. Nigerian communities and leaders are increasingly coming to terms with the scale of the problem and promising support to find solutions.
These are signs of hope. Even within the COVID-19 pandemic, a proactive culture is developing, whereby community leaders, health and social service providers including the police are working together with unprecedented coordination to implement a zero-tolerance policy for violence against women and girls.
Working together means engaging men and boys to address attitudes that perpetuate violence. Global solidarity campaigns such as HeForShe and #WithHer include men and boys as important allies in the gender equality movement, and in Nigeria, there is a surge of male champions actively and publicly pushing for justice for victims and survivors.
Whilst ending the pandemic of violence against women and girls in Nigeria begins with encouraging more reporting, it is only the first step.
It must also include a comprehensive review of the system from the girl’s and woman’s point of view. Resources and training are needed to improve services so survivors of violence can get free medical care, legal support and long-term counselling and support.
The government has a critical role to play in leading the way, providing the necessary systems and removing the obstacles to accessing services. But the government alone cannot solve this problem – it is the small but momentous changes at the family and community levels – the changes we are starting to see now – that will drive the real change and finally make Nigeria a place that is safe for women and girls.
There is a long way to go before we realize the dream of a Nigeria where women and girls do not live in fear of being abused or raped. We must not squander this moment to make a lasting transformation – for Blessing and for millions of other girls and women like her.
Pauline Tallen is the Minister of Women Affairs in Nigeria