Holding fort for the girls and women who cannot speak for themselves | The YNaija Special Series on #RapeCulture

Violence against women and girls is pervasive and normal in Nigeria. Gendered ideas and norms are a  rite of passage for children especially women and girls.  Many women myself inclusive carry the pain and trauma of incidents in the past and present with us, often never sharing with anyone. The silence is very loud and deafening even though we are beginning to see a break in the culture of silence.

Statistics show that before the age of 18 in Nigeria, 6 out of 10 children will have experienced some form of violence. Also, girls are more likely to face sexual and physical violence while their male peers are more likely to face emotional and physical violence. Although data often reveals trends, it  is highly dependent on how and what is being measured. The data collated gives us an idea of the rates of Gender Based Violence but the truly devastating part of what the data reveals is that violence in all its forms are underreported.

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As Nigerians, we live in a culture that trivializes violence and promotes silence. The reports of increase in gender based violence as seen in the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown that women are especially casualties during mandatory lockdowns and restrictions. I would posit that the silencing of women is itself  an entrenched form of violence.

As someone who works in the GBV space, whenever I listen to survivors sharing their stories for the first time, I am often struck by the phrases that I hear.  Some phrases include: “I did not know who to talk to,” “I did not know who to tell,” “I was ashamed,” “I blamed myself,” and “I did not think it was rape.”  The aforementioned phrases and many more stories are quite common and exist due to a culture that reinforces silence and ignorance even amongst women and girls—who are the primary victims—on the subject of rape and sexual abuse.

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The culture of silence ensures that society continues to pretend that violence against women and girls is not based on gender or the power imbalances reinforced by laws, traditional norms, and religious beliefs. It is important to acknowledge that sexual violence and the silence that surrounds issues of gender inspired violence, are not an aberration but rather a function of our society.

The historical and current work done by feminists, gender equality activists, women’s rights organizations and more have shown that silence is an integral part of the violence perpetrated on the bodies of women, girls, and other vulnerable persons whose status in society have been feminized or deprived of their human rights. Irène Assiba d’Almeida captures it succinctly when she says: “Silence represents the historical muting of women under the formidable institution known as patriarchy; that form of social organization in which males assume power and create for females an inferior status.” We cannot separate violence against women and girls from the culture of silence.

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It is as deliberate as the act of violence in itself. The shame and blame are mostly placed on survivors, most of whom are women, girls, intersex, and gender non-binary persons. This shame that especially targets vulnerable groups of which women constitute the majority, can be said to be a major reason why the data collected from reports still reflect a large gap in the cases which get reported. The breaking of silence around violations particularly of women and girls is now only being recognized due to the activism of women, girls, and allies who put their voices, bodies, and freedom on the line. It should not require courage to speak up, to get help, and to get justice.

However, being silenced as described by Mary Eagleton is not about being incapable of speaking the language. Rather it is about the social and cultural pressure that makes it difficult for women and girls to speak up. According to the Violence Against Children survey, children who experienced sexual violence have lower rates of disclosure compared to those who experienced physical violence. It was also noted that girls have a low rate of awareness of where to get help. In addition to that, slightly more than 6% sought help, and less than 5% received help. This is also true for adults.

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The 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Household Survey found that 55% of women aged 15-49 have never sought help and only 32%–which was roughly the same as the 2013 survey—sought help. Silence is structural. Until we address the fundamental issue of what causes violence, the inadequate response system that reinforces silence with stigma and shaming from some service providers and law enforcement agents; Freedom and protection from sexual violence and other forms of violence will remain a mirage. This is in addition to societal expectations of perfect victimhood and the knee jerk reaction to often blame a survivor for not speaking up or reporting.

I have learned in the years of doing this work, that no one is voiceless or unable to speak for themselves. It is a restriction and a weapon of control due to patriarchy. As the well-known Arundhati Roy quote from her 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture perfectly encapsulates, “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Women and girls in Nigeria are deliberately silenced by their families, friends, religious leaders, community leaders, teachers, justices, police officers, and even by those who to claim to help.

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We all have stories and we are told to have the courage to speak yet the oppression continues.  This is critical to the work we do, the work I do through Education as a Vaccine, and as a member of various women’s groups such as the Feminist Womanifesto Platform, the Nigerian Feminist Forum, and the State of Emergency Coalition. Beyond advocating for laws and survivor centered services as provided by Sexual Assault Referral Centres like the Mirabel Centre and civil society organisations like Dorothy Njemanze Foundation; we are advocating for enabling environments within communities and institutions for all women and girls to be heard and seen especially when they are facing violence or harm so they can no longer be: “Deliberately silenced or preferably unheard.”

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I always believe survivors; I tell them the shame is not theirs to carry. It the perpetrators’ and society’s shame. It is our shame and we can address this by dismantling the patriarchy starting with ourselves and even more importantly treating this situation as a state of emergency.

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.

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