Every year, millions of boys and girls globally suffer sexual violence. The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reports that 6 out of 10 children experience some form of violence – 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys have been victims of sexual violence in Nigeria. A very tiny fraction of this statistic – whose magnitude only fully settles in when put into perspective – gets help.
5 out of 100 children who reported violence received support.
According to UNICEF, almost half of Nigeria’s population – 46%, is currently under the age of 15. Using the country’s current estimated population of about 206 million – that means Nigeria is home to about 119 million children over 71 million of which experienced some form of violence. The magnitude is staggering. And, it gets worse.
There is a sub-group of children – boys who were sexually abused by older men – who even more rarely receive the help they rightly deserve. A major contributor to this is what this writer will like to call the spectacle of poisonous homophobia.
A spectacle of poisonous homophobia
Homophobia – dislike or prejudice against gay people – is a terrible thing in whatever iteration or circumstance. It is manifold more terrible still when it is in the way of victims of sexual violence being able to speak up and receive help and perpetrators appropriately punished.
Take the case of Mena, a gay man who was assaulted by a much older man when he was 13 years old. He was a child just beginning to learn about his body, his sexuality, and what it entails in the world. His abuser, a 45-year-old gay paedophile, with years of lived experience successfully escaping public scrutiny as a closeted gay man and hiding from accountability as a sexual predator, saw his chance to take advantage of Mena and took it.
It was easy to silence his victim with the threat of the possible violence that the boy Mena feared could be his lot as a gay child.
“The way it started you wouldn’t catch a whiff of anything being off,” Mena said recounting the experience, “it is just this older neighbour being nice to me, showering me with attention and eventually asking me about girls before craftily inserting that it doesn’t have to be a girl. He reassured me it is safe to talk about whatever it is I was going through.”
Mena eventually opened up about his queerness and his abuser swooped in for the kill not long after.
“The first time it happened we were in his room watching a movie, I don’t remember the title but there was a sex scene between the main character and one of a harem of women that came on and off-screen at intervals.
“Years later I wonder if he chose that movie with intent.”
His abuser scrutinised his reaction and insisted on confirming its genuineness by touching him. The same thing will happen for the rest of his teenage years.
“The threats to ensure my silence came around when I turned 17,” Mena said. “I had read about statutory rape and began to withdraw from him, but he wouldn’t have it.”
His abuser threatened to out him, and naively terrified about what he saw as the wrongness of his attraction to boys, he kept silent for another couple of months until he left for University in another state.
“You hear all the time ignorant opinions about how gay people are recruited in childhood, and the scrutiny is on homosexuality itself – which is not wrong – and not the sexual abuse that absolutely is,” Mena’s voice carried palpable anger.
“I know in my case, and that of a number of queer friends with whom I swapped stories of sexual violence trauma, that what usually happens is that because of negative social attitudes towards homosexuality gay kids are forced to hide and in that hiding monsters like Azeez jump in to predate on them. I was one of those kids.”
The prevalence of sexual violence against boys by predatory men who hide behind homophobia to take advantage of lost queer kids remains largely unreported. The reality is, if properly documented sans prejudice, the numbers are likely to be staggering.
The culprit is homophobia
Mena chose silence to protect himself from homophobic violence. His story is one of countless.
Other than homophobia, another thing that cripples survivors from seeking justice is the limitations in Nigeria’s legal system which does a less than ideal job of protecting them.
The Nigerian legal system was exclusive of male survivors in its definition of rape until the introduction of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP.)
One of the key things the VAPP Act did was expanding the legal meaning of rape. The new definition closed a seemingly innocuous loophole that had time and again excluded male victims from obtaining justice by simply replacing the pronouns ‘she/her’ with ‘person’.
Perhaps, if we spend more time trying to come up with better ways to protect boys without conflating sexual abuse with consensual intercourse between grown men, we will make better progress.