Rape culture in Nigeria is pervasive. It is evident in the way we speak, interact, react and think. It is tightly rooted in an intricate system of patriarchy, cultural beliefs, control and powerful, feeding an environment where sexual violence is justified and normalised. The culture is fueled by the attitude towards gender and sexuality, the impunity with which perpetrators operate, the stigma which society attaches to victims, and the attitudes of law enforcement officers when dealing with a rape case.
Any woman or girl can be raped in Nigeria – irrespective of age, position, culture, or status. One in 10 girls under age 18 are victims of sexual violence. Between January and June this year, over 80 women and girls between two and 80 years old were reportedly raped, including the rape of a 12-year-old girl by 11 men in Jigawa State, and 32 separate cases of defilement, rape, incest and sodomy reported to the Lagos Police over the past six months. An opinion poll conducted by NOIPolls in July 2019 revealed that about 3 in 10 Nigerians (26 per cent) disclosed that they know someone who has been raped. The rape victims were particularly minors and young adults aged between 1 – 15 years (72 per cent) and 16 – 25 years (24 per cent) respectively.
The report also implies that one in every three girls would have experienced at least one form of sexual assault by the time they reach 25 years. According to the respondents, offenders were mostly strangers (38 per cent), neighbours (24 per cent), an acquaintance of the victims (18 per cent) and relatives (16 per cent). Further probing revealed that most of the rape incidence happened either at the victim’s residence (36 per cent) or at the offender’s home (24 per cent).
Evidence already suggests that most rape in Nigeria goes unpunished, even though just 28 per cent of rape cases in the country are reported to the Police. The Penal Code, section 55 – which still applies in Northern states – condones domestic violence and permits husbands to ‘discipline’ their wives: ‘Nothing is an offence which does not amount to the infliction of grievous harm upon a person and which is done by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife.’
While fourteen African countries, including South Africa (1993), Zimbabwe (2001), Rwanda (2009), Sierra Leone (2012) and Malawi (2016) have made marital rape a crime, Nigeria provides rape exemptions for married couples. For instance, S. 357 of the Criminal Code Act defines rape as “unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman or girl, without her consent, or with her consent if the consent is obtained by force or by means of threats or intimidation of any kind.” In the same Act, S.6 refers to “unlawful carnal knowledge” as a “carnal connection which takes place otherwise than between husband and wife”. Essentially, married men cannot be prosecuted for engaging in non-consensual intercourse with their wives and also women cannot be charged for rape at all under this law.
Many experts have explained that the notion is predicated on a theory by Matthew Hale, chief justice in England in the 18th century who wrote in 1736 that: “…the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract, the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract.” Does a person suddenly stop being susceptible to pain or violation just because they are married? Such spousal rape exemption did not start in Nigeria; it is rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’ conception of marriage and the obligations of the husband and the wife under that relationship.
It also operates with the common law principles of coverture, which explicitly subordinated wives to husbands. William Blackstone, whose treatise on the laws of England was extremely influential in the United States of America and the Commonwealth in the 19th century, offered a classic definition: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.” As elaborated by scholars, “the laws of nature and divine revelation” jointly designed the husband as the head of the family. As such, “it (was) for the wife to love, honour, and obey; it (was) for the husband to love, cherish, and protect.”
Such male prerogatives, which were enshrined in English common law 300 years ago, were received into Nigeria through local statutes that permitted the application of English law. They remain valid in Nigeria and continue to have a persuasive and structural effect that is not limited to Nigerian jurisprudence, but even how the Nigerian society perceives the female gender.
Rape Culture is not a mere buzzword
Although it was not recognised until the 1970s, the ‘rape culture’ concept has been around for centuries. The phrase initially reflected how victims of sexual violence are blamed for their experience, and male predators are justified for sexual violence, normalising sexual violence and abuse. In Nigeria, rape culture mostly affects women and young girls, leading all state governors to declare a state of emergency on rape following a spate of sexual violence.
Rape Culture refers to an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalised and excused in the media and popular culture. Clearly evident in Nigerian music, films, comedy, cultural norms and social interaction, it is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorisation of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety. Rape culture is not just about individual actions or behaviours. It exists in relationship dynamics, cultural beliefs, and broader societal systems.
The culture is also captured in how Nigerians react to rape issues and reports: blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”); trivialising sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”); sexually explicit jokes; tolerance of sexual harassment; publicly scrutinising a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history; teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape; refusal to take rape accusations seriously; defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive; assuming only promiscuous women get raped; gratuitous gendered violence in movies and television; defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive and assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped.
Dissecting the Rape Culture Pyramid
The Rape Culture Pyramid by the 11th Principle: Consent! serves as a resource for community agencies, educators, and organisers to better understand and talk about rape culture. The infographic shows how rape culture builds from attitudes and words up to more severe behaviour and violent actions.
Sexual violence against women does not occur in isolation but exists as part of systematic rape culture. It begins with the normalisation of rape and sexual assaults, leading to gender degradation, which finally perpetuates into more violent and sexual assaults. These are actions and attitudes accepted as “harmless” and “not related to rape,” but have grown to become part of the societal structure that reinforce and excuse more violent sexual acts.
1. Normalising Rape
In October 2018, an architect in Lagos, Damilola Marcus started the Market March Movement to bring an end to sexual harassment in Nigerian markets. Fed up with the catcalling and touching, Ms. Marcus and other young women, staged a protest at the Yaba Market wearing yellow T-shirts and signs inscribed with messages such as “Stop Touching Us.” As the women protested, some male traders threw stones and sachets of water at them. But for the traders, that’s just the way they drum up business. Emmanuel Ugorji, a trader in the market, said that women bring on the harassment. “There are women that dress indecently, prompting the touching,” he says. “So it’s a sign they want men to touch them.”
For Bose Ironsi, founder and executive director of the Women’s Rights and Health Project, a nonprofit promoting reproductive health, rights, and development for women and girls across the country, “most of these men see women as objects for pleasure, but it’s a violation of their bodily integrity and abuse of their right. Other factors that normalise rape in Nigeria include rape jokes, locker room banter, stalking, unwanted non-sexual touch and sexist attitudes.”
In 2011, the Abia State Police command caused widespread anger after it suspended investigations into a gang rape video that was posted on the internet. The Assistant Commissioner of Police, J.G. Micloth stated that the lady had consented to the rape. Apparently, upon watching the video, he determined that “the victim did not resist, and the suspects could not be identified from the legs shown in the video amongst 70 million males in Nigeria.” Never mind that in the 10-minute clip, the five men laughed and joked while they assaulted her, or that she begged for mercy – at one point even asking them to kill her.
A 13-year-old girl rape victim reports the crime to the Nigerian Police. Still, the mother preferred to hurl insults at her over skimpy dresses and refusal to attend evening church services, which she believed led to the incident. Another Nigerian mother was also seen in a viral video beating and calling her 2-year-old daughter a “whore.” Apparently, she had warned the small girl to “stop going to visit the man” who had raped her severally. It has become socially acceptable for a man to catcall, whistle and objectify women on the streets without facing any consequences, and with the victim often chastised for responding harshly.
Compared to South Africa, Ghana, and the United States, a recent global study revealed that Nigerians were significantly more likely to think that a female rape victim “Asked for it” or “Lied.” They were even more likely to believe that the male perpetrator “Didn’t mean to” rape the female victim or that the sexual violence “Wasn’t really rape.” Similarly, an online poll by Guardian revealed that physical and verbal abuse ranked among the major types of harassment experienced by Nigerian women with a frequency of 69.8%, with sexual remarks about their looks, poking, whistling amongst the most common.
Ultimately, this is where it ends – molestation, drugging, rape and in many cases, murder. During the launch of the National Sex Offenders’ Register in November 2019, Nigeria’s Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development estimated that two million women and girls are sexually assaulted in the country every year. However, only a few are reported, with slightly more than half (53 per cent) of the respondents indicating that rape incidents were reported to the Police. In addition, 67 per cent acknowledged that the offenders were arrested, while 33 per cent claimed that the offenders were not arrested.
In 2015, the federal government enacted the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, a law aimed at banning all forms of violence and providing justice for such crimes. But five years on, the law is only applicable in Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and in the 9 out of Nigeria’s 36 states that have ratified it. With Kaduna recording the highest proportion of girls and women that were sexually abused during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, the state achieved global notoriety as the House of Assembly and Governor Nasir El-Rufai amended the state’s rape law to provide for surgical castration and bilateral salpingectomy for male and female convicts of child rape, and death. The Kano State House of Assembly has begun a process to adopt the same punishment in its Penal Code. At the same time, the Adamawa Coalition Against Rape, a body of civil society organisations, recently staged a protest against rape, demanding castration or at least life sentence for rapists.
A Nigerian lawyer and activist, Chidi Odinkalu, described the new law as legislative sadism, saying it could make it even harder to reduce sexual assault. Gender activist, Dorothy Njemanze, a sexual abuse survivor, welcomed the bill and said she would like to see it adopted in other Nigerian states. So, whether the country agrees on the number of its rape convictions or recommendation to address the crisis, the demand for answers and a fundamental change has reached a critical point.
The YNaija #RapeCulture Special Series will run from September 15th to September 30th. Visit YNaija.com/Specials to catch up on all essays and excerpts from our Instagram interviews.
Ifedayo Adeleye is a writer, culture enthusiast and communication professional.
He can be reached on: Twitter @that_PRGuy.