Chidi Odinkalu: How to end violence against women

by Chidi Odinkalu

Chidi_Odinkalu_516823647-404x300Often they are economically dependent on the men who violate them. In most cases, families of married daughters care more about sustaining the image of happily married daughter than about the wellbeing of the victim and are unwilling to provide the support she needs.

The government of Lagos State deserves commendation for supporting the Mirabal Centre, a refuge for women escaping Violence against Women (VAW), at the highest levels. This is a thoughtful and timely project.

This centre is opened on the 32nd anniversary of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25) begun in 1981 and supported by the United Nations through UN General Assembly Resolution 54/134 of 17 December 1999.

This week also marks the beginning of the globally recognized 16 Days of Activism on Violence against Women.

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.

This Mirabal Centre is inspired by and named after the uncommon leadership and sacrifice of these three sisters.  I am here also as an act of personal thanksgiving.

VAW has affected members of my family. My own kid sister is a recent and very lucky survivor. The man who claimed to be her husband presently faces charges of attempted murder before a Court in Nigeria.

Many of VAW’s victims are not always as lucky as my kid sister.

Crimes of spectacular mass violence such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and terrorism continue to catch the headlines around the world. In response to these, the Ad-Hoc tribunals established by the United Nations to ensure accountability for the mass atrocities in the Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and Sierra Leone have crystallized various forms of gender-specific mass atrocities in conflict, including mass rape, forced marriage, and forced pregnancy. These are now recognized as crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

A more pervasive but less advertised form of violence remains the experience of many women everywhere. Domestic violence affects millions of women. It probably kills thousands annually and probably maims tens of thousands. It can kill in one moment of madness. It can also kill in installments. It is profoundly personal.

But VAW is also political. Unequal societies tolerate it. According to 2012 Gender in Nigeria Report “up to one third of Nigerian women report that they have been subject to some form of violence. One in five has experience physical violence.”

Domestic violence is a crime. It can include sundry forms of emotional or psychological oppression, physical battery and assault, rape or other forms of sexual violence, oppression or degradation, and homicide.

Our media platforms carry regular reports of women killed in relationships that are supposed to afford tem love, care, fulfillment and dignity. An overwhelming majority of these are intimate relationships. The perpetrators are usually people we know. Often, however, we are quick to find excuses for these crimes: they are supposedly events in the family.

Many women who suffer violence are unable to save themselves because of economic or social coercion. Often they are economically dependent on the men who violate them. In most cases, families of married daughters care more about sustaining the image of happily married daughter than about the wellbeing of the victim and are unwilling to provide the support she needs.

Those who survive these attacks are often left with permanent injuries, diminished quality of life, bad memories that make normal relationships impossible. So, domestic violence is also a public health disaster with profound and lasting effects on the health, quality of life and life expectancy of millions of women in our country and beyond.

Yet, domestic violence is grossly under-reported; poorly documented; hardly investigated or prosecuted and few are ever held accountable for it.

Section 17(2)(a) of our Constitution promises that “the sanctity of the human person shall be recognised and human dignity shall be maintained and enhanced.” Section 37 of the same Constitution also offers to guarantee and protect “the privacy of citizens, their homes.” This promise is made to men and women alike. Often, however, the home is the last place that the woman in Nigeria can find protection or dignity.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which is domestic law in Nigeria, goes further. In Article 18(1) of the Charter, our country undertakes to protect the family and to “take care of its physical health and morals.” Article 18(3) of the Charter goes further in requiring us to “ensure the protection of the rights of the woman.” But how can we accomplish any of this when we give a free pass to those who kill our sisters and maim daughters in the home?

Under Article 3(4) of the Maputo Protocol on the Human Rights of Women in Africa, we undertake to “take appropriate measures to ensure the protection of every woman to respect for her  dignity and protection of women from all forms of violence.” Yet, we have no law at the federal level against this scourge. The House of Representatives has passed the Violence against Persons Bill but the Senate has not yet concurred. This can no longer wait.

At the National Human Rights Commission, whose Governing Council I currently chair, the biggest single category of complaints we receive arise from domestic violence. I’ll be honest here: Our staff often struggle with these. In the way some of them treat these complaints, you see a reflection of our country’s acceptance of VAW. We are determined to change this.

That is why in November the Governing Council decided to explore the establishment of a Refuge and Trauma Centre for victims of VAW in the Federal Capital Territory. We are also investing in re-skilling the staff to take VAW seriously as an egregious violation of human dignity. We need all the partnerships we can muster.

This event takes place in Lagos State, one of only four States in Nigeria (Ekiti, Imo and Cross River are the other three) that have adopted a law against domestic violence. These laws are still quite poorly implemented. Around our communities, we always manage to find new ways to tolerate one of the oldest crimes and cruelties known to humanity – beating up the woman and making her insignificant.

We live in a country in which impunity for violence has become accepted. From the spectacular violence of the mass murderer wielding an improvised explosive device, to the retail violence of the spurned lover spraying acid on the face of a beautiful girl who said no, violence thrives here because those who do it calculate they will get away with it. We have a duty to end this.

Impunity for violence is not a fate. It is the result of choices that we as leaders make. Changing it means working for a country of fuller equity, equality, dignity and more effective remedies for all irrespective of race, ethnicity, opinion, sex, gender or status.

Such a country needs us all to call VAW by its name – a crime and a public health crisis. Achieving such a country requires us to confront together common problems of violence as well as the pathologies of economic inequality, access to livelihood and age-long discrimination against women that underpin it.

Let me be clear: Far from being a threat to any of us, a more equal country is a great benefit for both sexes because it improves productivity, quality of life, dignity and life expectancy for all.

May those who come to Mirabal Centre rediscover all these and may we find the will to put out of business those who make the Mirabal Centre necessary.

Dr. Odinkalu, a professor of  human rights law, and Chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, read this keynote remarks at the opening of Mirabal Centre, a refuge for battered women, in Lagos, on Monday 25 November, 2013.




Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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