Violence against women is a dreadfully brutal and pervasive crime. In many countries, those who are responsible for preventing, eliminating and ensuring accountability for it mostly fail to recognize it as such, tolerate it or simply blame the victims for being violated. On the 31st Anniversary of the International Day of Action on Violence against Women – 25 November – law enforcement and public officers in Nigeria must commit to a programme of action to change this.
On Friday, 23 November 2012, I attended a workshop of the International Association of Women Judges at the conference room of the High Court of Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory in Abuja. The theme of the conference was “Sextortion”. Its aim was to call attention to the various forms of sexual exploitation that women suffer in the public space and inspire a committed search for how the judiciary and the legal process take action to diminish and ultimately eliminate this.
Present at the workshop were senior judges of all the Superior Courts in Nigeria, including High Courts, the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court as well as some international judicial experts. The conference showcased the progress that women have made in Nigeria’s legal profession as well as the considerable amount of work that is still needed to eliminate historical discrimination against women in the legal profession and the wider country.
The afternoon panel discussion featured three presentations respectively by a Nigerian judge, a Tanzanian judge and this writer explaining the concept of sextortion, illustrating its various dimensions and offering suggestions as to how to address it. The session was moderated by a recently retired Justice of the Nigerian Supreme Court.
In response to the panel ‘s presentations, Katsina State Attorney-General, Alhaji Ibrahim Dan-Soho, who was also present at the meeting, offered a spirited defence of “men” and a shocking plea for tolerance of the levels of gratuitous sexual violence in our country. During the course of this prolonged allocutus, the Honorable Attorney-General asserted that “rape is self-inflicted….in at least 90% of cases.”
Three different participants at the meeting, including this writer, publicly pointed out to the Honorable Attorney-General the egregious baselessness of his claim, the obvious insensitivity of it and the clearly adverse implications for victims of rape and other sexual violence in Katsina State, and requested him to withdraw it. He failed to acknowledge this request.
Rape is a vile crime of violence against mostly – but not necessarily or exclusively – women. It grossly violates the physical integrity and dignity of its victims, causes serious damage to public and reproductive health, and injures social cohesion. It is, therefore, evidently outrageous for anyone to say or suggest that such a crime is self-inflicted or to blame the crime on its victims.
Every criminal justice system has a basic obligation not just to recognize rape and similar sexual violence as the vile crime that it is but also to ensure that it is effectively punished. Even in situations of conflict, rape is now well established as a war crime. Victims of such crimes are entitled to expect the state to treat the crime of rape seriously and to provide the necessary care and support to enable them survive its lingering and most damaging consequences.
Victims or survivors of rape in Katsina State, for instance, have no hope of such support, care, remedies or accountability if or where the Chief Law Officer of the territory takes the view that a crime of this seriousness is self-inflicted. This attitude further victimizes survivors of sexual violence and violates the political and legal obligation on government to protect its entire people equally by providing effective remedies for such crimes.
This is why most victims will suffer in silence rather than report rape. It is also why the attitude reflected in the statement by Attorney-General Dan-Soho is a danger to public safety and security. Any Chief Law Officer that harbours this view has a duty to re-consider his position as such because this is fundamentally incompatible with the functions and primary responsibilities of the Attorney-General.
It is worth recalling that since 1981, November 25 has been commemorated globally as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In December 1999, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 54/134 formally recognizing this day as such. The International Day is instituted in memory of the sacrifice of the Mirabal Sisters – Patria Mercedes, Maria Argentina Minerva, and Antonia Maria Teresa – persecuted and ultimately assassinated by suspected agents of the regime of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic on 25 November, 1961.
The globally recognized 16 Days of Activism on Violence against Women also begins this week. In recognition of the multiple dimensions of sexual and other forms of violence against women, the 16 Days of Activism include the International Day of Action on Violence against Women and World HIV/AIDS Day on December 1, and ends with the International Human Rights Day on 10 December.
On this beginning of 16 Days of Activism on Violence against Women, law officers and leaders – like Attorney-General Dan-Soho – must do more and take clear action to address the multi-dimensional problem of violence against women.
A proper investigation and documentation of the prevalence of sexual violence is needed. Inter-agency capability to ensure accountability for it should be established and health ministries must be involved in the design and roll-out of trauma care initiatives for survivors. Above all, reform of rape laws is needed to reassure victims, enhance reporting of such crimes, recognize that rape happens to both sexes and make it less difficult to hold perpetrators accountable. By dealing firmly with this form of violence in which the perpetrators can often be identified, the country will demonstrate readiness to confront other forms of wholesale violence, such as crimes of terror.
Odinkalu chairs the Council of the National Human Rights Commission