BY TOBI AWODIPE
As Nigeria joins the rest of the world to celebrate this year’s International Day of the Girl Child (IDGC), Titilola Vivour Adeniyi, the head of the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) writes on the present state of the Nigerian girl child and her fight to change the status quo.
Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and Its Prevalence In Nigeria
Sadly, our norms, cultural and religious beliefs normalise Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) and traditional harmful practices.
These norms and values have been passed on from generation to generation and as such; changing mindsets would require a systematic and holistic approach. We need to identify institutions that shape mindsets, be it the religious or cultural institutions, the entertainment industry, the education institutions where mindsets are shaped and moulded.
If this is agreed, then we need to be more creative in our approach. We need to leverage on the media, the entertainment industry in developing and promoting content that amplifies the multiple interwoven and damming effects of SGBV, not just on individuals, but on the society and even our economy. We need films, music videos, and dramas that amplify a society free from violence and the benefits. We also need to strategically engage and partner with traditional and religious institutions in promoting gender equality.
Similarly, we need to catch children young. We need to start promoting positive masculinity from primary schools, promote healthy relationships devoid of violence, we need to encourage and foster gender equality and equity from a young age. Finally, we need to go back to the first institution: the family.
We are all a product of our upbringing. Values that we depict are a result of what was inculcated in us, primarily by the family we are from.
Patriarchy’s Role In Promoting SGBV Against Girls
Patriarchy is a social structure in which men are considered to have a monopoly on power and women are expected to submit, a system in which men hold power and women are excluded from it. Patriarchy is indeed multi-layered. No fabric of society is immune to its far-reaching influence.
It operates through inequalities in the home and the workplace and is upheld by powerful cultural norms and supported by tradition, education and religion. Gender inequality, the belief that the male gender is more superior is concomitant to SGBV.
Patriarchy is therefore at the heart of SGBV. One of the expressions of patriarchy is the desire to control and dominate the other gender, and that is what SGBV is, simply put. The idea that a man feels entitled to the body of a girl is an expression of patriarchy, which often leads to sexual violence.
Fighting Sexual Violence Against Nigerian Girls
Contrary to public perception, we actually have an increase in reported cases of Domestic Violence (DV), especially during the lockdown necessitated by COVID-19.
We saw new heights of extreme violence meted out on women and girls, pregnant women, young girls that are courting, women were maimed for life as a result of DV, women requiring psychiatric evaluation and experiencing mental health breakdown as a result of violence experienced.
Now more than ever, we are striving to ensure that survivors are able to access holistic support, psychosocial, legal, empowerment and are rescued where necessary. A trend which we have noticed, which is rather worrisome, is child-to-child sexual abuse; children of the same age found in sexual situations. You begin to wonder, where did they learn such? What have they been exposed to? What have they been watching? Did they see their parents performing sexual activities and want to act out what they saw? Is it possible that they were abused by an adult and now are abusing others? I think this is an area we don’t really talk about. One of the consequences of child sexual abuse is hypersexuality of the child survivor and that is why we need to ensure that all cases of child sexual abuse are reported so that the child can receive both medical services and counselling support.
Rehabilitating SGBV Survivors
In terms of rehabilitation, we have to look at psychosocial support, therapy, professional counselling; we need to work on the victim’s mind. Asides the physical impact of SGBV on the survivor, the mental and emotional aspect has to be properly addressed and that is why we place a huge premium on psychosocial support.
Some people confuse religious counselling with psychosocial support or therapy. Whilst both are important, they serve different purposes and should both be embraced. The fact that you need to receive psychosocial support doesn’t mean you are “mad”.
If you experience violence, it is imperative that you speak with a professional to assist in providing therapy to help you on your road to healing. Similarly, survivors of SGBV, especially DV, are in dire need of empowerment, financial liberation and the ability to earn a living. We have found out that when a woman is financially independent, it is less likely that she would make wrong choices that would have far-reaching impact not just on her but on generations to come.
This and more are the reasons why the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Trust Fund was established. Similarly, the Ministry of Women Affairs and Poverty Alleviation has a robust empowerment mechanism in place to ensure that women acquire skills and are empowered with necessary start-up tools for their businesses. This is very important. The DSVRT also has different partnerships with institutions such as the Lagos State Employment Trust Fund as well as financial institutions in ensuring employability opportunities and access to soft loans for SGBV survivors.
Individuals Roles In Eroding The Normalisation Of SGBV Against Girls
We must realise that “silence is violence.” When you have an opportunity to speak up against SGBV and you remain silent, you are normalising violence and emboldening perpetrators. Perpetrators need to know there is no safe place for them to hide. We all have platforms and social media, we have our scope of influence, in our communities, let’s start from there. Individuals should seek information, so you are informed about these issues. When you are armed with information, then you can use your platform, your area of influence to propagate the zero-tolerance message to all forms of SGBV.
How SGBV Affects The Mental Health Of Children Survivors
Research has revealed that children who witness Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and do not receive psychosocial support especially the boys, most times grow up to perpetrate violence, whilst for the girls, there could be a tendency to be attracted to men that would physically assault them or they become the aggressors. It is very much a vicious cycle, and that is why the narrative must change.
You don’t stay because of the children; you leave to live and be alive for yourself and the children. Children growing up in violence become withdrawn, take up the role of adults, are unable to have healthy relationships, some become suicidal, some abuse drugs, they begin to look for an escape from the violence at home, some become aggressive, rebellious and violent themselves. The mental health impact on children who witness IPV is far-reaching and inexhaustible.
Hope For The Girl Child’s Liberation
There is hope. We are well on our way in ensuring that girls can thrive. We must continue to place a high premium on safeguarding and child protection. The girl child must have access to education, as this is one of the surest ways of reducing ignorance and driving a sense of self-worth and empowerment. When we educate the girl child, we empower the nation.
Improving The Lives Of Nigerian Girls On This Year’s IDGC
It is imperative that the girl child can blossom and reach her full potential, and we need to ensure we create an enabling environment for this to happen.
Similarly, it is of utmost importance that girls penetrate male-dominated spaces, including STEM and of course we need to continue to ensure that the girl child is safe, protected from all forms of abuse, including sexual, domestic, and all other forms of violence against children.
Currently, we are institutionalising and mainstreaming SGBV response in all the sectors; health, education, agriculture, and the financial sector. We need to ensure that our girls are not marginalised, and they have access to equal opportunities. We are therefore addressing those issues that hinder or impede on this.
Actioning This Year’s Theme, “My Voice, My Equal Future”
The judiciary has continued to demonstrate commitment in ensuring survivors have access to justice. This is evident through the establishment and designation of Special Offences Courts for domestic and sexual offences (the first in Nigeria). We are therefore confident that with such initiative, cases would be adjudicated upon timeously and justice would be served.
Similarly, the Legislative arm of Government, the Lagos State House of Assembly continues to be at the vanguard in enacting relevant laws that seek to protect and promote the rights of girls and ensure that appropriate criminal sanctions are provided in the law for perpetrators of SGBV. For Nigeria as a whole, we need to primarily commit to ensuring that all states in the country enact relevant laws that would protect the rights of the children, primarily the Childs’ Rights Law and ensure full implementation of same.
It is disheartening that not all states have domesticated the Child Rights Act since 2003, 17 years after it was enacted. The Child Rights law is the embodiment of all the rights of children and it is an indispensable tool in ensuring the rights of children are adequately safeguarded and protected. Similarly, there needs to be adequate funding for prevention and response to all forms of violence against children.
In the words of the Late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” We need to encourage girls to discover the power of their voices so they can rise and take their place. As a nation, we have a collective duty to ensure our girls are empowered to lead as a generation of activists and change agents who accelerate and inspire positive social change.