Since 2015 when the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP) was signed into law, Nigerian women, NGOs, civil society groups, and gender rights advocates have pushed for it to be regularly enforced. Seven years later, it appears as though their voices are finally being heard. Except for one thing: it’s not making a difference. Yes, abuse cases are continuing to be charged; but no, convictions are not being recorded, despite the law being adopted by many states. Advocacy has continued to trail the law.
The law is critically important. It is the only one in Nigeria that criminalizes female genital mutilation (FGM), a violation that has gone unchecked for ages because of its long history of being culturally accepted. It is also the first law in Nigeria to not only recognize that men can be victims of rape, but also that rape need not be narrowly defined by penis penetration; that it can be perpetrated with other parts of the body and by objects. It also broadens the definition of violence and abuse beyond sexual violence to include domestic and psychological abuse.
While states across Nigeria continuously report disturbing domestic violence and sexual assault statistics, there is a wide gap between arrests and convictions.
Currently, 28 of the 36 states in the federation have passed the VAPP Act; two are en route to passing it and it is believed it won’t be long before the other six bring the law up in their state legislatures.
In a recent interview, Chinwe Onyeukwu, the executive director of Women Africa, a gender equality NGO, told HumAngle (an online African news site covering conflict, humanitarian, and development issues) that while significant progress has been achieved in passing antiviolence legislation, implementing the law has remained stagnant. There are several reasons, she said, chief among them is what she described as a lack of structure.
“[From] what we know [about] the Sexual Assault Referral Center (SARC)… —where we conduct forensic examinations, treatment and medical care for victims of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and even domestic violence to some extent—these SARCs are not in place in most of the states,” Onyeukwu said. She noted that there are only about 32 SARCs sparsely scattered across Nigeria (and those are only in 19 states, slightly more than half). Most are managed by civil society organizations (CSOs).
“It means that in some states, you have about three or four SARCs… but it is not widespread. Only about half the states have all these SARCs, and it is important that all the states have it… and even when you have it, it is not enough.”
Apart from the scarcity of referral centers, Onyeukwu noted that there are not enough shelters available to victims of abuse; as a consequence implementing the VAPP Act has been slower than expected.
The law is supposed to make life easier for abuse victims, where shelter stays are intended to be only temporary before they return home, Onywukwu explained. “… [I]t is a difficult situation that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. It is part of the things that have stalled—implementation in places where this law has been passed,” she said.
Even with trainings to help communities become more sensitive to issues surrounding domestic abuse and other acts of interpersonal violence, Onyeukwu noted that the rate of convictions is exceedingly low compared to the number of cases. She believes this is because police lack the resources to thoroughly gather evidence for prosecutors to take cases to court.
She questioned why it’s NGOs, CSOs, and development partners—instead of the government—providing the bulk of resources to implement VAPP’s provisions. The government should be jolted to act, she said.
Governments “are the ones who are supposed to provide the resources to ensure that there are shelters across the states…,” Onywukwu said. She pointed to similar challenges facing healthcare facilities where there are not enough workers or adequate provisions. “It’s the same thing… with providing medical care and treatment for victims of sexual abuse,” she argued.
The solution to the glaring implementation problem, according to Onyeukwu, is “gender-responsive budgeting. The part of the VAPP Act stipulating that women should be compensated is also being affected by the lack of funding,” she said. “There is supposed to be a victims’ support fund… [to] help them to reintegrate back into society and get back on their feet… The economic dependence of victims makes it difficult to leave abusive situations,” she noted.
Onyeukwu, the Women Africa founder, has it right. Several studies have revealed that economic dependence ties abuse victims to their abuser. An abuse victim who spoke with HumAngle recently confirmed that she endured years of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse impeding her ability to care for herself and her children.
She pointed to a sexual/gender-based violence “one-stop center” in Kurudu, Abuja—in north central Nigeria—where abuse victims learn vocational skills to help them gain economic independence, as well as psychosocial and medical support. Rather than the exception, she urged making such centers ubiquitous around the country.
“If we had enough of them, women would feel empowered, that even if they leave their homes, they’ll know that they can go to such a place, and they can learn a thing or two.” They can earn an income, making it more viable to leave their abusive relationships and “be able to move on with their lives,” she said.
Onyeukwu is not the only gender rights advocate who has spotlighted the weak implementation of the VAPP Act. Earlier this year, during a policy briefing in Abuja, Edidiong Idang of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy made similar observations, noting that advocating for “inclusive gender-sensitive budgeting should be the focus now that many states … are executing the VAPP law.” Because conviction rates remain low, she also recommended establishing a “special Human Rights Court that would focus only on sexual and gender-based violence and related abuses.”
Despite the VAPP Act’s remarkable qualities, she said, it cannot accomplish all that it was created to achieve without urgently needed structural changes so it can reach its full potential.
Chigozie Victor is a journalist and a creative writer whose work focuses on sexual and gender-based violence, and policy and security infrastructure. Passionate about helping audiences understand salient issues through clear reporting and multimedia journalism, she tweets at @nwaanyi_manaria. This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in HumAngle, an online African news site.