Social media stimulates Nigerian debate on sexual violence

In Nigeria, where a  majority of cases of sexual violence go unreported, social media has brought the issue into the openIn Nigeria, where a majority of cases of sexual violence go unreported, social media has brought the issue into the open.
Photo: Africa Media Online / Eric Miller

“Kill me, kill me, you people should just kill me.” Those were the words of an unidentified woman as she was being gang raped by five men and her ordeal was filmed with one of their mobile phones. The crime is believed to have taken place at a private off-campus hostel near Abia State University, Nigeria, in August 2011.

The video of the rape, uploaded onto the Internet, caught the attention of blogger Linda Ikeji. Her subsequent blogpost of the crime sparked widespread anger and debate in Nigeria and beyond, especially among bloggers, Twitter users and organizations such as the youth group EnoughisEnough Nigeria.

The authorities’ initially dismissive response to the rape video fuelled the outrage. Assistant Commissioner of Police J.G. Micloth released a statement saying that after watching the video, he had determined that the victim had not resisted, nor could the suspects be identified from the “legs shown in the video amongst 70 million males in Nigeria.”

The only positive reaction by the authorities came from Minister of Youth Development Mallam Bolaji Abdullahi, who described the rapists as “decadent and barbaric” and urged the authorities of Abia State University (ABSU) to investigate the crime.

Abike Dabiri, a member of the House of Assembly and the only prominent female politician to speak out publicly against the rape, attempted to raise the issue in the legislature. But she was rebuked by another parliamentarian who accused her of dabbling “into cases the police can handle” and asked that she “take up the case personally and not bring it to public glare.”

Human rights lawyer Caroline Ajie and other campaigners expressed their disappointment at the lack of response from the first lady “to issue a tacit statement and lead in condemning the dastardly act.” Ironically, the first lady is the founder of the Women for Change Initiative, which aims to raise women’s awareness of their human rights and promote issues that affect Nigerian women and girls.

Unreported crime

A majority of cases of sexual violence in Nigeria go unreported. This is due largely to fear on the part of the victim of being socially stigmatized or blamed. Ms. Ajie estimates that at least 2 million Nigerian girls experience sexual abuse annually and that only 28 per cent of rape cases are reported. Of those, only 12 per cent result in convictions.

Elsie Reed, founder of Delta Women, an organization that aims to empower and fight for the rights of women in Delta State, estimates that 80 per cent of Nigerian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

Marianne Møllmann, senior policy adviser at Amnesty International in London adds that violence against women, particularly sexual violence, is often viewed as normal or inevitable in many countries. “I’ve spoken to women whom I’ve asked if their husband is violent, and they say ‘yeah, he rapes me sometimes,’ as though it’s normal,” she says. “That shouldn’t be.”

According to the UN Women campaign against gender-based violence, Africa Unite, anywhere between 13 per cent and 45 per cent of women in sub-Saharan Africa experience assault by an “intimate partner during their lifetime.”

Africa Unite also reports that in Uganda, for example, an astonishing 59 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 “have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence in their lifetime.”

Letty Chiwara, chief of the Africa Division of UN Women, explains that one of the key elements of the Africa Unite campaign is “to advocate or to make governments realize the need to have laws and policies that not only are about prevention, but are also about protecting and providing services to the victims.”

Stirring online debate

The existence of video evidence of the ‘ABSU rape’, as it has become popularly known, added to the outrage at the lack of an appropriate response by the Nigerian authorities.

“Rape goes on in this country in universities everywhere,” argues blogger Joachim MacEbong. “Many are not reported, those that are reported are waved away. So if such a video [shows] there was clearly no consent, and we cannot do anything about it, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Bloggers like Joachim have been at the forefront of the online debate regarding the ABSU rape. Popular Twitter users have also capitalized on their large following by releasing regular tweets to keep the debate alive.

Henry Okelue, who lives in Nigeria and has more than 3,000 Twitter followers, sent out periodic tweets in his contribution to the campaign. “[I was] trying to get people to focus on the issue, trying to help people to form an opinion on what had happened,” he said. “Because the moment people stop talking about it, that’s the end of it.”

‘Rape walk’

On 5 October, less than three weeks after Ms. Ikeji first blogged about the ABSU rape, the social media campaign moved offline as campaigners went on a ‘rape walk’ in Lagos and Abia. A similar walk was planned in Abuja, but had to be cancelled after authorities in the federal capital warned that the safety of the campaigners could not be guaranteed.

In Lagos, only about 60 people were present at the march, suggesting perhaps that campaigners still have a long way to go in establishing physical social mobilization in their efforts to combat sexual violence against women.

However, the use of virtual platforms to open up the debate is beginning to yield some positive results, according to Ms. Reed. “People now come forward, and people talk about it, and people are now aware that it’s not okay to sexually harass somebody.”

Yet, despite the assertive social media campaign and the subsequent “rape walk,” no one has been charged in the ABSU rape.

— Africa Renewal online

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