Reader warning: this piece contains descriptions and links to descriptions about sexual assault & violence, which may be triggering for survivors
Her name was Obiamaka and she was 14-years-old. She was gang-raped to death by teenage boys in her neighborhood in Lagos state. Her story has been shared publicly and widely on national media and social media. Everyone who hears about her story is moved by a mix of emotions: sadness, fear, and outrage.
Her story is not the first and sadly doesn't seem to be anywhere close to being the last. A few days after the incident, there was another case of a man raping a 20-year-old girl in the streets of Lagos. And before that, a group of high school boys planned and attempted a mass rape attack on their female school mates.
With these cases and more across the country, many have offered a variety of reasons for the increased incidences and coverage of sexual assault on adolescents and young women. One not-so-shocking response has been to blame it on Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE). The Nigerian Family Life and HIV & AIDS (FLHE) curriculum, which is being taught at basic education level, is an abstinence-based program and wouldn't be considered "comprehensive" but rather, a sexuality education program. Recently, some groups, especially conservative faith-based organizations with connection to the Evangelical Christian movements from the United States, are attempting to link the provision of sexuality education to the increased cases of sexual violations in the country. They are using these brutal cases against adolescent and young women’s bodies to call for removal of sexuality education from Nigerian curriculum - "Sexuality education is creating sexual animals amongst our children". "When children are overly sexualized, what you get is interest in practicing the content learnt from school and rape is a result of that". These kinds of statements, which have been thrown around in one-to-one conversations or over social media, are not surprising, but they demonstrate a limited and narrow understanding of sexual violence, sexuality, and gender inequality issues.
These unfortunate recent cases bring to the forefront three critical issues: male entitlement, safety and trusting girls. These issues should be the focus of the discourse at all levels in Nigerian society.
The first issue is Male Entitlement. In Obiamaka’s and other cases, it was reported that the girls were violated after rejecting sexual advances from the perpetrators. What societal norms embolden men and boys to sexually violate women and girls in response to rejection to their sexual advances? Why do men and boys feel justified in using sexual assault as a means of retaliation? This phenomenon has been happening in Nigerian universities for years. Many have come to accept this as a norm and narratives from girls indicate that many accept unwanted sexual advances as a strategy to prevent various forms of sexual assault including gang rape because of the social stigma attached with being a rape survivor. This is a critical issue that is intrinsically linked to the issue of consent and needs to be seriously examined within the broader context of gender inequality and patriarchy.
The second is safety. It is obvious that nowhere is safe for girls. Not schools and not even their homes. Parents of survivors of the mass rape attack might have perceived that schools could offer safety. Sadly even the security guards were perpetrators, as they were more concerned about recording the violence than actually protecting the girls from harm. Obiamaka's parents thought she would be safe in their home and went further to lock the gate to keep her safe, but inadvertently kept the assailants in. As a country, we need to have conversations about what constitutes safety for girls and young women. How can we ensure safety for girls and young women that go beyond the traditional spaces of home, school or place of worship? We need to work with girls to define what safety means to them and what spaces they consider to be safe in order to provide true "safety" from all forms of violence and harassment.
The final issue is trusting girls. Obiamaka, probably like most girls, had fears and concerns and shared them with her family or friends. Unfortunately, when these fears are raised by girls, they are more often than not dismissed. Girls' narratives, experiences, and concerns are rarely ever believed or taken seriously by their families and communities. In the Nigerian context, girls tend to be considered less trustworthy when it comes to sexual issues and this creates a "silencing" effect, that can prevent them from sharing concerns about safety or seeking help in situations where they have experienced sexual assault. How do we as a society support girls to break the culture of silence and ensure a favorable environment that acts and responds promptly to their concerns?
In a country where the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act ( VAPP Act),was passed at a national level and where provisions in the law would only apply to the Federal Capital Territory, it is expected that the law would still serve as a deterrent across the country. Sadly, very little has changed since the law took effect in May 2015. It could be that there is not enough awareness about the law, or the systems and institutions responsible for the law are incapacitated, or this might be a pointer to the new thinking that penal policies on their own are not enough to address sexual and reproductive rights violation. Irrespective of the factors, it is now critical for Nigerian State government to take deliberate actions to address the growing number of cases of sexual violence.
What more can be done beyond criminalization to get to the root causes of sexual rights violations? How do we change the individual and societal norms that limit women and girls’ bodily autonomy and that fuel sexual violations? Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) can be a possible solution. CSE programs with strong gender equality and human rights components have helped to change negative gender stereotypes and violent attitudes held by boys which may be carried into adulthood as men. CSE programs also help both boys and girls to examine interactions between individuals and interpersonal relationships. It teaches the concept of bodily autonomy and the need to respect personal decisions and space. This is one program that can help address the issues of male entitlement; perception of safety for girls and trusting girl's voices and experiences.
There is no one single solution, not within the Nigerian context. We need strong laws that criminalize sexual violence at state levels; well coordinated and resourced institutions to implement these laws; and most importantly, we need programs like CSE at various levels (schools, health facilities and communities) that address the fundamental root causes of sexual rights violations.
Instead of exploring strategies on how to remove sexuality education from the curriculum, Nigeria should be exploring opportunities to expand the content of the curriculum to be “comprehensive”.