Nigeria’s incurable pandemic: Silent, endless anguish of rape victims

By Tessy Igomu

With sufferers usually denied justice, sexual abuse of girls, women persists unhindered across the country, writes TESSY IGOMU

At age five, Halima (not real name) walks with a slight limp. She ambles around her parent’s tiny living room somewhere in the densely populated area of Makoko, Lagos. The faecal stench hanging around the apartment was pungent. A swarm of flies swirled hungrily around her and occasionally perched on the layers of bandage wrapped around her lower stomach.

“That is where urine and faeces come out from,” her mother, Bilikisu, pointed to the stained dressing, fighting back tears.

“We have to frequently change the bandage and polythene bag that collects all the waste. It has been very difficult keeping the flies away. This is why she always stays indoors,” she added.

Based on medical reports, Halima might never live a normal life. She was brutally raped by a neighbour and left for dead. Her developing vital organs were damaged, and for months in hospital, she underwent reconstructive surgeries. A hole had to be drilled through her lower abdomen to let out body waste. The toddler, aside from being stripped of her innocence, was forced into a life of seclusion. For Halima’s mother, the trauma has been unending. The perpetrator, she disclosed, absconded immediately after the sordid act.

“I look at my daughter daily and cry,” she said, appearing forlorn and dejected. “I am in pain and my heart bleeds.”

“Everyone that promised to help abandoned us. Sometimes, I feel like ending my life,” she mumbled as tears trickled down her cheeks.

Halima’s grief is not peculiar. Gloria (not her real name), who was raped by a total stranger when she was eight, also shares a similar fate. Her woes were further compounded when she fell ill and was diagnosed of vesico vaginal fistula (VVF).

VVF is an abnormal fistulous tract extending between the bladder and the vagina that allows for continuous, involuntary discharge of urine into the vaginal vault. It arises due to violent rape or complications during childbirth and could be corrected through specialised surgical procedures. So far, Gloria has undergone two corrective surgeries but the scars remain fresh.

The demise of Elizabeth Ochanya on October 17, 2018, following health complications after being serially raped by her guardians in Benue State, drew the biggest attention to the terrible fate of young girls in Nigeria in recent times. Her case exposed the failure of the Nigerian society in protecting young girls now at the mercy of sexual predators all across the country. 

Those that abused and murdered the girl were arrested and shamed, yet justice has been far from being served one year after Ochanya’s death.

Nigeria has increasingly recorded an upsurge in the number of gender-based violence, especially rape and child defilement. Interestingly, 90 per cent of victims, according to reports, are female. The United Nations Children’s Fund said one in four boys and one in 10 girls under 18 years are victims of sexual violence. There is no age limit to this barbaric act as babies, teenagers and even the aged are vulnerable. No race, tribe, colour or class is immune to this rampaging monster, it has been discovered.

Experts say the situation has become a pandemic and a thing of major concern for parents, counsellors, psychologists and millions of concerned Nigerians. They partly attributed the rise to the inability of publicinstitutions to address the menace by punishing perpetrators.

Sexual violence of any sort is an infringement on women’s rights, privacy, self-preservation and dignity, the United Nations stated. The Nigerian criminal code recommends imprisonment for the perpetrators of rape and 14 years for attempted rape. Many cases of rape or child defilement are either not reported by victims or their family members and, if reported, they are not investigated for fear of stigmatisation.

A lawyer, Chinonso Nwajiaku, noted that rape victims are usually afraid, shamed, stigmatised and humiliated by a society that should ordinarily protect them. He said the country’s laws and policies should explicitly seek to protect or provide rehabilitation for victims.

Already, Nigeria is said to be trailing India as the most dangerous place to have and raise a girl child. However, beyond rape or child defilement, the reporter discovered that victims and their family members live a life of trauma and pain, daily haunted by the bestial experiences.

For Cynthia Okowa, a gynaecologist and obstetrician with Lifeway Hospital, Ijegun, Lagos, the psychological pain caused by sexual violence runs deeper than people can fathom.

“I know better than anyone else the physical damage wrought by rape. It is unending,” she said. “I have stitched up the tears and retrieved inserted objects. I have repaired flesh seared with brutal force, made efforts to treat girls and women with fistulas – tears between the vagina, the anus, the bladder and the bowel.

“For me, the invisible wounds from rape are far more devastating and far harder to repair,” she added.

Statistics of horror

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention disclosed that nearly one in five women are raped or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, often by someone they know and trust. The World Health Organisation said 35 per cent of women worldwide experience some kind of physical or sexual assault in their lifetime, with adolescent girls much more likely to be victims of rape, attempted rape or assault.

A research conducted by a group of lecturers from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, titled “Women on Molestation, Intimate Harassment and Exploitation,” revealed that 80 per cent of girls experience intimate violence and abuse before attaining age 18, while 31 per cent of them experience intimate violence and abuse before the age of 13. About 80 per cent of the 3,118 students interviewed disclosed that they experienced intimate violence and abuse right in their homes.

A 2016 report, “Violence Against Children in Nigeria,” by UNICEF further revealed that four out of 10 girls experience sexual violence between the ages of six and 11, while one in every 10 boys experiences sexual violence before they become adults. Majority of the children raped reported multiple incidents. Girls are more likely to experience both sexual and physical violence during childhood than boys, said the report.

A research carried out by a Nigerian daily revealed that about 100 children were raped across Nigeria between January and July 2018, with Lagos ranking highest at 30 cases.

Between March 2012 and March 2013, the Lagos State Police Command recorded 678 cases of rape, while a total of 162 sexual and physical abuses were recorded as at April 27, 2016. The police stated that most victims were minors raped by those known to the child.

In 2014 alone, a hospital in Edo State reportedly handled 80 rape cases in seven months. The TAMAR Sexual Assault Referral Centre, Enugu, said it received 472 separate cases of sexual violence since 2014. Out of the lot, 89 victims were gang-raped. Seven could not remember the number of persons that raped them. Among that number, 354 knew the rapists, while 118 did not. But only 37 were charged to court, out of which five were discharged. Seven of the cases then were at the prosecution stage, with conviction recorded in one case and the perpetrator sentenced to 14 years in prison. The office of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation in Lagos State said it handled about 589 cases, ranging from sexual abuse to physical abuse and child labour in the same year.

Former Lagos State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr. Adeola Ipaye, put the figure of reported cases of minors’ rape and defilement in 2012 at 427, lamenting that many remained unreported.

The Office of the Public Defender, a department under the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, said, between January and March 2012, 15 cases of rape and 17 cases of defilement were treated. Between January and September 2015, it also reported handling about 70 child defilement cases and 406 rape cases, with 1,143 of them treated between 2007 and 2015.

Upon the establishment of the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team, 3,089 cases of sexual violence were recorded in Lagos between January and August 2018, 40 of them cases of defilement.

Julieth Olumuyiwa-Rufai, manager of the Mirabel Centre, a sexual assault and referral centre, said over 80 per cent of reported cases of sexual violence were children, especially teenagers, many of whom were still in secondary school. The youngest that was presented at the centre, she said, was a 10-month-old girl, while the oldest was a 70-year-old grandmother.


Beyond rape, the trauma, pain

In reality, beyond these narratives are lives that are impaired forever. Though the most immediate person affected by sexual violence is the victim, the effects go far beyond the individual to take a toll on their closest relationships and the society at large.

The mind of a rape victim is a constant battleground where blame, regrets, suicidal thoughts and depressive spells fight for supremacy.

According to a new Rutgers-New Brunswick study, victims of sexual assault experience more vivid memories than women coping with the aftermath of other traumatic, life-altering events not associated with sexual violence. Studies indicated that 70 per cent of rape victims experience moderate to severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have a hard time overcoming it. This medical condition typically takes the form of nightmares, anger, depression, suicidal thoughts, flashbacks, eating disorder, feelings of guilt and shame that can surface immediately or years after.

Sexual violence, in the words of Kayode Taiwo, a professor of Clinical Psychology and Personality Assessment at the Lagos State University, is like an open wound to victims, it never really heals as it leaves an eternal scar. Victims of sexual violence feel violated and stripped of the most sacred part of their being.

“It is life-long and can alter the destiny of the victim. It is always a sad reminder they carry for life,” he said.

Wuraola Hakeem, a counsellor, also explained that rape victims live with the traumatic experience for life and they are, with time, diagnosed with PTSD.

“Sexual violence is such a life-altering act that, in a minute, the perpetrator can negatively change the course of a victim’s life forever. They tend to ostracise themselves from people and stay in abusive relationships due to low self-esteem,” she said.

Hakeem said child marriage is a legalised form of sexual abuse. She lamented that the number of child brides living in seclusion and scarred for life due to VVF infection keeps rising in the North-East and other parts of the country, adding that no legislation has been made to stop the act.

A victim, Kemi, recalled how her father, from when she was 10 till she was 15, raped her. Now 20, she sees herself as damaged goods.

“Years after, I became a destitute and avoided my family members like a plague. Shame lived in me. I felt hopeless and worthless. The feeling of emptiness danced through my fragile bones for years.

“I never knew being raped meant countless nights of restlessness, suicidal thoughts and paranoia. I didn’t know there would be constant self-battle about whether it was worth revealing and if people would believe my story. I feel drained,” she told the reporter.

Sonia Obi-Okodo has now healed and has become an advocate against sexual abuse. But she was traumatised for years after being sexually assaulted at five by an uncle who preyed on her innocence.

“The first time keeps ringing in my head like a church bell,” she said. “He pulled down his trousers, brought out his manhood and commanded me to suck it. He ejaculated in my mouth and asked me to swallow what he referred to as ‘yoghurt and milk.’ I did. I wanted to grow big. I didn’t know it was wrong. I was just five.”

Still unrelenting in his bestial orgy, he went on to defile and deliberately expose Sophia to pornographic films, turning her into an addict. Years after the perpetrator left her parents’ home, Obi-Okodo became a troubled and emotionally imbalanced teen. The psychological trauma continued till she got married.

“When I grew up and realised what had happened to me, a lot changed. I felt scarred and moved about with lots of psychological and emotionally baggage. I became a troubled teen with the worst type of bitterness no one could understand.

“A little confrontation would lead to the worse kind of physical abuse from me. I was judged. No one understood me. People said I was possessed. I trusted no one. I grew up fast.

“Sadly, the abuse opened me up to more abuses and I picked up addictions. I got married and, as my children grew, I became paranoid. I was diagnosed with PTSD.”

“I had relapses, suicide ideations and would stay weeks without seeing my kids or having a bath. I just wanted to die.

“I had out of body experiences where my assaults were replayed before me. I later got therapy and drugs at no cost. I was ashamed of my past but learned to speak. I got my redemption,” she said.

However, closure for Sonia came after calling out her uncle.

“I found peace. And in my advocacy against sexual violence, I have found fulfilment and a voice,” she said.

Fifteen-year-old Ifunanya, who was raped by a Customs officer in Lagos, was full of frustration and anger. She said her pain deepened and became more torturous with the realisation that her perpetrator walked the streets a free man.

“I was denied justice,” she began. “I was raped on August 3, 2015, and when I opened up, he sent people to threaten me.

“I reported to the police but nothing came out of it till date. I contemplated suicide several times but was counselled and comforted by the Mirabel Centre in Lagos.”

Bukola Lameed, a psychologist, counsellor and therapist, explained that, regardless of age or gender, the impact of sexual violence goes far beyond any physical injuries. She explained that the trauma of being raped or sexually assaulted can be shattering, leaving victims feeling scarred, ashamed, alone, plagued by nightmares, flashbacks, anger and other unpleasant memories.

“Since rape is an unplanned event, the brain tends to break down when it happens. The brain either fights, takes to flight or freezes. However, most victims freeze or go into shock.

“During rape, some victims’ brain shuts down and they can’t fight their assailant. So, when people wonder why a victim did not fight back, I usually say, you can’t talk about a pain you have not been through,” she said.

She noted that most rape victims don’t ever come to terms with the ugly experience.

“Since it is not mutual, it strips them of their self-worth; they self-blame, regret and start having trust issues. This is more so if it was done by someone they know,” she added.

Lameed decried certain parenting styles that tilt towards overreaction and disbelieving a victim’s report of being sexually assaulted, which aggravates trauma.

“If not properly handled, in the case of a minor or teenager, it further pushes the victim into trauma. They become withdrawn, resort to bedwetting, thumb-sucking, aggression and cluelessness.

“In no time, depression sets in, followed by suicidal thoughts. The trauma of child sexual abuse can snowball into drug addiction. Some become promiscuous, and with that comes this bold mindset to venture into prostitution.

“Some become lesbians because they detest the opposite sex. Others develop unusual addiction to sex and pornography,” she stated.

Egodi, 20, was drugged and raped by her father’s driver when she was 11. She still experiences flashbacks and nightmares. She is daily held captive by depressive thoughts. Her parents live in regret, believing they exposed her to danger.

“The incident stole the peace and happiness in our home,” she said. “My parents feel they failed me. Shame and pain took over an outgoing girl like me that loved life. I was stripped of my soul and self-worth.

“Everything about that day still haunts me. I get paranoid any time I am around the opposite sex and live with this lingering sadness and dejection. Unfortunately, everyone feels I should have outgrown that experience.”

Scars fuelled by institutional failures

In the Nigeria Criminal Code, punishment for rape, as spelt out in Section 358, is life imprisonment, while an attempt to commit rape attracts 14 years. Cap ‘C38”, Sections 357 and 358, says that a person has committed rape when he has sexual relations with a woman against her consent, while putting her in fear of death or harm, misrepresenting as the husband of the woman or having carnal knowledge of a girl with unsound mind or with a girl under 14.

Mrs. Funmi Falana, a Lagos-based lawyer and public commentator, said the Nigerian Constitution is biased against women.

She said: “By virtue of Section 353 of the Criminal Code Act, any person who unlawfully and indecently assaults any male person is guilty of a felony and is liable to imprisonment for three years. But Section 360 of the Act regards indecent assault on a woman as a misdemeanour, which attracts a punishment of two years imprisonment.

“The serious criminal offence of having carnal knowledge of a girl being of or above 13 years and under 16 years of age or of a woman or girl who is an idiot or imbecile is classified as a misdemeanour, which is punishable by two years imprisonment under Section 221 of the Criminal Code.

“Even then, the accused may be discharged and acquitted if he can prove that he believed on reasonable grounds that the girl was of or above the age of 16 years.”

Punishment for rapists, many averred, is like a mere slap on the wrist. The police and other law enforcement agencies have also been accused in some reports to be brutish, brusque and uncouth to victims of rape as well as their family members, while treating suspects with kid gloves.

Despite the stance of the law on sexual violence, Arinze Onu, a sociologist, said the voice against sexual violence, especially rape and child defilement, is criminally silent. In his words, the law is ineffective, the institutions to render support sick and culpable of the act even as leaders appear helpless. Decrying the society’s complacency towards sexual violence, he noted that the laws do not deter enough, adding that this institutional failure fuels stigmatisation.

“There is a culture of silence on rape,” he said. “Some victims would rather keep quiet and move on, or those that know about the incident and the culprit involved would choose to turn a blind eye.

“Unfortunately, without evidence and witnesses, a rape case might end up dead on arrival. The lack of support base is another big issue,” Onu said.

This perceived lack of support from religious bodies, security, judicial and medical systems further deepens the trauma of sexual violence victims and those close to them, it was gathered.

Professor Chidi Odinkalu, former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, said it is everyone’s responsibility to champion the fight against sexual violence. He also faulted a portion of the law on rape that places stiffer penalty on someone that rapes an adult and lighter punishment on those that rape minors, saying such is responsible for the growing number of girls being sexually assaulted.

Mrs. Itoro Eze-Anaba of Mirabel Centre lamented that perpetrators of sexual violence carry out their acts with impunity due to corruption or incompetence in the process of investigation and prosecution. The activist said the biggest challenge in seeking justice for a victim is the absence of reliable and verifiable data as well as lack of support services. That, she said, explains why many survivors elect to live with the lifelong trauma rather than seek justice.

An anti-rape campaigner, Uduak Bello, said the lack of empathy for rape victims by family members and friends causes psychological trauma. Victims of sexual violence are mocked for bringing shame and dishonour to the family.

She noted also that lack of proper investigation, weak legal sanctions and lack of profiling of sex offenders contributes greatly to inflicting trauma on victims. She insisted that the judiciary should be the first to stand in defence of rape victims.

Absolving the Nigeria Police of any complicity as regards sexual violence, Frank Mba, Deputy Commissioner of Police and Force Public Relations Officer, said the police have been committed to the fight against sexual violence. He explained that the realisation of numerous challenges militating against successful trial of sexual violence-related offences prompted the emergence of a Gender Unit in all police stations.

“Access to modern equipment is not common and rape can mostly be established with the aid of forensic evidence. Also, victims are subjected to intimate inspections that they find uncomfortable. What also makes investigation difficult is that people are not aware of the importance of preserving crime scenes and evidence.

“They tend to clean up themselves, homes and clothes immediately after the crime is committed. Even though rape cases are not time-bound, timing can make or mar an investigation.

“The more proximate the time is to when the crime was committed, the better the chances to pick up evidence that will help in proper prosecution,” Mba said.

Finding closure

Mba said one sure road to healing is for victims and their family members to speak up and report the offence.

“Justice might not undo the damage but a sexual violence survivor will feel validated,” he said.

For Prof. Taiwo, a clinical psychologist, victims can only find closure if they come to terms with it as one of life’s challenges.

“It would not seem as if it never happened. It would be like a wound that seals, leaving them stronger and more determined,” he said.

He, however, stated that the first step to healing is seeking help, professionally or by speaking with a close, trusted person. He explained that talking about it would make them realise that the incident was not their fault and they could live above it.

Finding closure, in the words of Maymunah Kadiri, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, is a long road to traverse for victims. She explained that rape equates to losing something too precious, hence, victims go through stages of grief to heal. She noted that, for some, closure might come with going into advocacy, while for others revenge might be the only closure they seek.

“To actually get that closure, a rape victim will have to first go through shock or denial stage, then anger, bargaining, depression or full clinical depression. Acceptance of the incident is the last stage.

“To heal finally, they must go through counselling and mental evaluation. Once they find closure, they find peace,” she stated.

Getting it right

A medical journal, “The Annals of Ibadan Postgraduate Medicine,” noted that prevention of sexual assault will remain a mirage until society puts in place institutional frameworks to deal comprehensively with actual cases of sexual assault and protect the female gender. This approach, the report said, would involve functional, skilled and synchronised services of the criminal justice system, the police, social services, and sexual assault services.

Source The Sun Newspaper

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