Private Grief

I have listened to and intervened in many cases involving Violence against women both at work and at home. Everywhere I look I see evidence of this abuse and the hurts of those who have the misfortune of suffering such pain or neglect.

Violence against women has been defined to mean “all acts perpetrated against women which cause or could cause them physical, sexual, psychological, and economic harm, including the threat to take such acts; or to undertake the imposition of arbitrary restrictions on or deprivation of fundamental freedoms in private or public life in peace time and during situations of armed conflicts or of war;” [Article 1(j), Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa 2003]. Article 2 of the Declaration of Elimination of Violence Against Women cites ‘physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family’ as an example of the types of violence suffered by women.

While it is easier to identify physical violence when it occurs due to the scars, marks, bruises and broken bones that need to be fixed; it is a lot harder to deal with emotional violence. This is because the scars are internalised, hidden and sometimes difficult to express.

I was on radio today, International Human Rights Day to talk about ending gender-based violence and to mark the end of the 16 days of Activism against violence against women. In each of the 3 stations in Lagos, Nigeria that I was on, I was asked the same question: Would gender-based violence ever stop?

The answer to that question is yes it can, but the solutions to the problem are complex, diverse and relative to the case at hand. We need the political will, the social acceptance and realisation of the victim that abuse is not normal and that they have the courage to seek help.

About a year ago I interviewed a toddler who was sexually assaulted by a neighbour. The parents initially were keen to prosecute but after much persuasion from the perpetrator’s family and church members, they decided to drop the case. Currently, I’m monitoring a situation of arbitrary arrests of women for being out late at night. These women are harassed and forced to admit they are prostitutes to justify the act of the law enforcement agents.

Then there was Alice** (Not her real name) who contacted my organisation for advice. I had a few counselling sessions with her and discovered that she felt trapped in a violent marriage and was beaten regularly by her husband. I spoke to her, adviced her on her options, told her she could get a protection order by the court under the Lagos State Protection Against Domestic Violence Law 2007. She agreed that applying to the Court for protection would be a step in getting the beatings to stop. However, a few days later, she called me to cancel further action in her case.

So, we do have people reporting but majority are not willing or ready to take the next steps that will free them. It is almost as if their grief is so personal, so private, intimate that they only want to keep it to themselves and suffer in silence. My advice always is that everyone should take control of their lives but the courage to do so is another case entirely.

Major reasons for gender-based violence are:
1. Negative cultural or religious perception of women
2. Poverty/Financial instability in the family
3. Impunity – few prosecutions or ineffective punishments against perpetrators of violence against women.
4. A woman’s lack of economic independence
5. A woman’s low level of schooling and education

The insensitivity of the criminal justice system to women can also isolate women and discourage them from coming forward.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Society is becoming desensitized to issues of violence against women. This apathy and lack of understanding of long term effects of violence leads to amazingly high levels of tolerance for such violence against women.

The legal framework is crucial in ensuring that such violence against women is prevented, and where they occur are punished. Solutions and actions that we can all take are:

• Review existing criminal and civil laws and judicial procedures with a view to improving treatment of victims of domestic violence particularly and access to justice
• Harmonise and create a single protocol guiding the procedures of the clinics, police etc in treating domestic violence cases
• Coordinated action and partnership among the relevant state agencies i.e. health, law enforcement, ministry of justice and NGOs
• Adopt model legislation for replication in all the states and at national level – e.g. the VAPP bill in Nigeria
• Fast-track courts
• Support the creation and maintenance of victim support centres, shelters for domestic violence victims and rehabilitative centres where perpetrators may be evaluated and trained on non-violent behaviour
• Improve the legal aid system including providing a special fund for the prosecution of domestic violence cases
• Consider the possibility of giving the Federal and State Attorney Generals special powers to prosecute in the public interest cases of domestic violence.
• Strengthening community projects and activities
• Sensitise the public through awareness creation using popular media,
• Conduct research on the causes of violence and how to prevent them
• Maintain statistics and analyse trends in domestic violence reporting, prosecution and adjudication
• Education/Training on VAW, dignity of the person and human rights
• Support the community projects and activities by NGOs working towards the elimination of domestic violence and counselling for victims.

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