By Chioma EZENWAFOR
CHISOM Isaac was only in SS2 when she was first gang-raped by her classmate’s brothers and neighbour in July 2021.
She got pregnant from the incident and dropped out of school.
“I want to go back to school, and I want them arrested for raping me,” she said.
“I had told my mum nothing happened at the time because I was afraid she was going to beat me,” she recalled while narrating how her schoolmate lured her to meet the neighbour.
According to Chisom, the young men violated her after turning down his request.
“They locked me inside. His brother came with the girl’s brother. They now pulled my clothes and had sex with me one after the other. I tried to scream, but they covered my mouth.”
Sexual violence is a serious public health and human rights problem with both short- and long-term consequences on women’s physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health, the World Health Organisation has said.
Whether sexual violence occurs in the context of an intimate partnership, within the larger family or community structure, or during times of conflict, it is a deeply violating and painful experience for the survivor, it added.
Glory Martins, a petty trader, comes home one day to the news that her neighbour, a security guard and father of one, defiled her fifteen-year-old girl.
“The security man came to my house and raped my daughter, so I’m not happy. Me I no dey house reach like 10, 11. Somebody tell me say the man dey come my house when I no dey around. When I ask my daughter, she say yes. My small daughter tell me. Then I go ask my neighbour, and she said the same thing. I want make government help me teach that man a lesson so that he will not do it to another person,” she recounted.
Her teenage girl corroborated this.
“I was in the house; then one man came to tell me something. Then I went. Then he came to my house and raped me. He’s staying around my house, and the thing pained me. I don’t want him to come back again, so let him be in prison.”
Sexual Violence Response in Rivers State
Response to sexual violence in Rivers state became significant in December 2019, when the Rivers State Deputy Governor, Ipalibo Harry, inaugurated the Rivers State Violence against Women and Girls Response Team set up by the Medical Women’s Association of Nigeria (MWAN) – alongside a network of gender-based organizations.
The team raises awareness on issues of Gender-Based Violence against women and children, educate both gender on ways of preventing it, where to report when violated and the available response mechanism in the state, complementing the work of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) – An organization of women lawyers who advocate for women and children’s rights – in Rivers State.
Since June 2015, Médecins Sans Frontières MSF, also known as Doctors without Borders, has been running a sexual violence project in Port Harcourt targeting population of Rivers State.
Until 2013, MSF was running a “Trauma Centre” in Teme Hospital, treating surgical patients requiring emergency operations due to violence, accidents, and trauma.
During the Teme project, rape and sexual abuse victims started showing up.
In the last four years of the Trauma project, MSF treated about 2,400 rape and sexual abuse survivors.
After the Trauma project closure, MSF decided to stay in Port-Harcourt and open a specific project dedicated to rape and sexual violence.
The project, running from June 2015 to date, saw over 6,928 cases of rape and sexual violence who received medical and psychosocial care.
The ‘Alarming’ Data of Sexual Violence in Rivers State
Data by the MSF reveals over one thousand survivors of sexual violence in Rivers State received medical and psychosocial support from them this year.
The Nursing Team Supervisor of MSF, Blessing Dimgba, said 56.9% are minors, mostly girls out of these one thousand people. They continue to constitute the highest proportion of survivors offered care this year.
According to her, “the survivors assaulted by known people, we have 60.5%. Then for intimate partners, we have 1.4%. Those that came within 72 hours we have 52.7%.
“Most times, the issue we have is that they don’t report early. It’s either they go to police stations or their parents hold them back. Most people are afraid too because the perpetrator is someone prominent.”
Available data on the responses of various non-governmental organizations to sexual violence in Rivers state.
For the Rivers State Response Team on Violence against Women and Children, their records showed over one hundred cases of sexual violence this year. A figure the team coordinator, Tombari Dumka-Kote, describes as alarming.
“In 2019, we got a total of 572 reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence. In 2020, we had a total number of reported cases to be 2 312,” Dumka-Kote states.
“Then in the year 2021, till date, we have a total of 1,205 reported cases of sexual and gender-based violence, and we have 106 cases of sexual violence which are age defilement.”
Data from the International Federation of Women Lawyers FIDA in Rivers State showed a hundred and seventy-six cases of rape and defilement between December 2020 and July this year. The acting Chairperson of FIDA in Rivers State, Nnenna Igbokwe, regrets the menace of sexual violence lingers.
The report by PIND showed that over 160 incidents of sexual violence were recorded in Rivers State between January 2016 and July 2020.
The Rivers state police command did not respond to requests for their data on sexual violence.
However, the head of the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons NAPTIP Rivers State liaison office, Nwamaka Ikediashi, said more than twenty persons involved in various decrees of child abuses had been arrested in the last five months.
Implications of Sexual Violence
A weekly update by Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta, PIND spotlighting sexual violence in the Niger Delta, showed that sexual abuse of minors has social implications.
Affected children face serious psycho-social and health impacts that could last into adulthood and result in various problems with intimacy and relationships.
Sexually abused children could grow up to be frustrated and vulnerable and could develop age-inappropriate sexual behaviours.
The report said child sexual abuse could cause death, including sexual and reproductive health challenges. It also highlighted the economic implication of child sexual abuse mentioning the financial burden families of sexually abused children is forced to bear.
Child sexual abuse is a fundamental human rights violation with significant political implications. PIND’s report on this said that the prevalence of child sexual abuse could be construed as an indication of government failure to protect children’s rights.
Pursuit of Justice after Sexual Assault
Justice can mean different things to different people, but it mostly begins with reporting to non-governmental organizations, like FIDA, MSF, and the Response team in Rivers State. Others go directly to the police.
This first step in seeking justice for the crime by holding the perpetrator accountable for their actions is usually not an easy decision to make but has shown to be a choice that has a positive impact.
For Chisom, her journey to justice started when her mother questioned why she didn’t ask for sanitary pads like she used to. A question that led to the discovery of her pregnancy which was already three months old at the time.
Her parents confronted the parents of the young men involved in the incident, and they showed no remorse.
Instead, they blamed her parents for “allowing her to desecrate their vicinity” because he is a traditional ruler in his community. The parents of the young men demanded cow, eggs and some other items for “cleansing” – a request that sent her parents into hiding as they could not afford the cleansing items.
Precious Daniels is a young mother whose four-year-old daughter was defiled by her landlord in April 2018.
She says her pursuit for justice has seen her face threats to life and other forms of intimidation ever since.
Her daughter’s perpetrator walks free three years after the incident.
According to Precious, the Director of Public Prosecution told her the alleged defiler can only be charged for sexual assault and not defilement.
He is yet to be charged with either three years after the incident.
“Sometimes when you receive these threats, you might not be willing even to report those matters if the matters are of sexual violation,” Precious tells Nigeria Info.
“People might not be bold to say it due to that security threat. People don’t want anything to threaten their life so they would like to keep quiet, and these things keep happening.
“Justice has never prevailed in such kind of cases like that. There is always compromise, and I don’t know why it is like that. If one knows that if you do this, you’ll go in for it, I don’t think they will have the guts.”
Precious recalls why she decided to seek justice.
“I went to make entry at the police station, and the police said I have to get a doctor’s report. I had to take her to Doctors without Borders after getting FIDA involved.
“I had to explain to them. I went to court, and I met a lady, and she was a FIDA representative, and so, she interviewed me, and I got all the medical report with the proof that there was actually a penetration.”
She believes thorough investigations can help survivors of sexual violence get justice.
“The people I think that might have compromised or whatever might not be from the side of FIDA, I think it’s from the officers investigating it,” the young mother said.
“Wherever a rape case is may be recorded, they have to, perhaps if it is possible, take away some people that are on the investigation side or even put more people to go through this investigation and get the right thing done because investigation might not only be carried by only the police officer or people that come on the scene.
“The investigation also continues when the matter also goes to court. People influence such matters; thereby, at the end of the day, you don’t see any good result from it,” She added.
Why Sexual Violence Persists
Sexual violence persists even though its awareness level in communities continues to grow. We should continue to fight against it, the acting FIDA Chairperson in Rivers State, Nnnenna Igbokwe, said.
Igbokwe insists parental neglect remains a crucial factor contributing to sexual violence in the state.
“I think a lot of children and young ones are exposed too early to pornography, even right from home.
“People don’t see anything wrong when your child sits with you, and you’re watching an adult film.
“Also, parents are still not able to discuss sex education with their children early in life because I believe that when you teach a child the different parts of the body as early as two years old, they’d be better.
“Then again, young ones are getting into alcohol, and peer group influence is still part of what leads to sexual violence in the society.”
For Tombari of the Rivers State Response Team, “The level of moral decadence, drug and the lack of adequate parental care” are some other causes of sexual violence.
Appropriate sex education for minors can tackle sexual violence in Rivers state, said the Nursing team supervisor of MSF.
“Parents need to stop sending their children on errands at night. It exposes minors to sexual violence, especially on dark streets with uncompleted buildings. There is a need for street lights, too, she added.
The MSF sexual violence project was handed over to the Ministry of Health on December 1, 2021.
Tackling persistent sexual violence
The Violence against Persons Prohibition Act VAPP Act signed into law in Rivers state in 2021 remains a viable tool in fighting sexual violence in the state if implemented, said the FIDA Acting spokesperson.
She said, “the VAPP Act is very comprehensive. It has a lot. It has expanded a lot of things, I must say. I think the problem we have is implementation. If the laws available to us can be implemented, then we have it all. Yes, there might be one or two amendments here and there, but the present ones we have can actually implement and enforce logically. Then we have it all”.
The VAPP law redefined rape to include not just vaginal penetration but oral and anal sex and the use of objects or other body parts other than the penis, a first of its kind.
It remains the only GBV-focused legislation that provides for the compensation of victims by offenders.
NAPTIP is mandated to administer the provisions of the VAPP Act.
Their website https://nsod.naptip.gov.ng/ has the national sex offender and service providers register.
Chisom’s alleged perpetrators aged 15, 19, and 21 have been arrested by the police and have admitted to the crime.
They are yet to be charged to court.
It’s a similar situation for Mrs Martins and her teenage daughter, who has called for justice. But the suspect, who is in police custody, denies any wrongdoing.
He is yet to be charged to court.
According to the VAPP Act, the penalty for rape is life imprisonment. Where the offender is less than 14 years -: 14 years imprisonment, in all other cases, it is a minimum of 12 years imprisonment without an option of fine.
For rape by a group of persons, offenders are liable jointly to a minimum of 20 years imprisonment without an option of fine.
With the growing number of sexual violence in Rivers state amid a seemingly endless pursuit of justice, is Rivers state’s response to sexual violence enough to tackle the persistent menace?
This report, supported with funds from McArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR was first aired on Nigeria Info FM.