Charity Agbakwuru, a beauty queen in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, was indeed a bundle of beauty and elegance. Ten years ago, her boyfriend who felt she had become the apple of the eyes of other men and had threatened to jilt him, poured acid on her. Her face, neck and breasts were severely burnt. She was blinded. Her nose and mouth were disfigured.
Agbakwuru’s case was probably the first acid attack on a lady in Nigeria. The nation rose in stout condemnation of the dastardly act. The media gave the incident so much publicity that different non-governmental organisations sprang up to campaign against violence against women.
The campaign didn’t seem to have succeeded. In the past ten years, Nigeria has witnessed several other acid attacks on women. Take the case of Tina Isiekwe, a widow and staff of the registry department of First Bank, Marina, Lagos. Her husband’s younger brother poured concentrated acid on her during the burial ceremony of her late husband in their Imutei village, Illah, Delta State. Tina died as a result of the third degree burns she sustained.
Apart from acid attacks, women in Nigeria in the past 40 years have suffered several other terrible acts of violence. There are cases where husbands have stabbed their wives to death because they were denied sex. In many cases, some husbands turn their wives into punching bags as a result of minor disagreements in the family. One man chopped off his wife’s hands after accusing her of adultery. In many cases, too, teenage girls are raped by their neighbours, drivers, gardeners, or other depraved adult males. Indeed, incidents of violence against women in Nigeria are on the high side. (see box)
Some experts number some dehumanising cultural practices such as widowhood rites and female genital mutilation among acts of violence against women.
Violence against women means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.
Accordingly, violence against women include physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, among battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, marital rape, nonspousal violence and violence related to exploitation. It also includes physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution as well as all such acts of violence perpetrated or condoned by the state.
It does appear that 40 years of Nigeria’s independence have not actually brought socio-cultural, political and economic independence to Nigerian women to pursue their fundamental human rights and protect them from physical and psychological violence. Uju Uchendu-Ozoka, a woman activist and politician believes that 40-years of nationhood have not eliminated violence against women. “Today, we have more men who behave like beasts. They treat women as if they’re not human beings. They inflict all sorts of violence on women: wife battering, rape, assaults, murder, name it.” Uchendu-Ozoka wants the national assembly to enact a law to check violence against women.
Several NGOs in Nigeria have been working hard to stop the violence against women. Project Alert on Violence Against Women, Gender and Development Action, Women’s Right Project (an arm of Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO), International Federation of Women Lawyers, FIDA, etc. organise workshops, seminars, rallies and other awareness programme to draw attention to the evil and map out strategies on how to eliminate it.
They seem to have succeeded in drawing attention to the issue but they have failed in eliminating or even reducing the rate of occurrence. Some people have even argued that the morbid publicity the NGOs seek for themselves and the incidents have helped to exacerbate the matter. Said one observer: “In fact, today, more and more men know what they can do to hit back at a woman.”
Josephine Effah-Chukwuma, executive director of Project Alert on Violence Against Women told Newswatch that the rate of violence was very high. Her NGO publishes Violence Watch newsletter to campaign against the menace.
Clinical psychologists and criminologists are of the opinion that violence against women has increased over the years as a result of many factors including exposure to violence on television and other mass media; psychiatric disorder including hot temper, morbid jealousy and excessive possessiveness; lack of religious upbringing and practice, and flaws in the legal system.
Effah-Chukwuma said: “Violence against women in Nigeria is a very serious problem which should be urgently addressed. The seriousness of it is evident in the prevalent rate of various forms of violence against women nation-wide. Hardly any week goes by without 5 newspaper reports of wife battery or intimate murder (women being killed by husbands, in-laws, boyfriends). And for every 5 reported cases in the newspapers, there are 10-20 others unreported. Acid bath (pouring of acid on women) has in the last 10 years increased from just one reported case in Port Harcourt to over 50 cases nation-wide.”
Effah-Chukwuma said Project Alert is providing information on existing and emerging trends in violence against women, and also rendering support services to female victims of violence. “By providing information through quarterly newsletter, and various outreaches, we are educating society on the seriousness and harmful effects of violence against women. Under our support services programme, we offer legal aid counselling to female victims,” she said.
Officials of the federal ministry of women development said violence against women is an obstacle to the achievement of women’s decade goal of equality, development and peace, and it both violates and impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. They insist that the long -standing failure to protect and promote those rights and freedoms in the case of violence against women is a matter of concern to all states and should be addressed.
Knowledge about its causes and consequences, as well as its incidence and measures to combat it, have been greatly expanded since the Nairobi conference. To a greater degree, women and girls are subjected to abuse that cuts across lines of income, class and culture. The low social and economic status of women can be both a cause and a consequence of violence against women.
Experts are however quick to argue that women are not the only targets of violence in the society. Many men too are victims. In fact, Ayo Atsenuwa, a criminologist said “more men die every year than women in cases of domestic violence.” Recently, there was the case of a wife who cut off her husband’s genital, while he was fast asleep. There are also cases where some women beat up their husbands. Some of them poison their husband’s food. Many ladies who feel they have been jilted are also known to have poured acid on their ex-boyfriends. What it does show is that violence is not strictly a gender issue. Both men and women fall victims to it.
The issue of violence against women is equally not a Nigerian malaise. It is a world-wide phenomenon. In fact, the US-based Human Rights Watch reported last year that violence against women in Pakistan had escalated to the level of a “national crisis”. Because of the increasing rate of violence against women in the world, the United Nations in 1999 issued a resolution condemning the act and calling on individual nations to enact laws that would seriously check the menace. Nigeria is yet to enact such laws. Even the National Policy on Women did not address the issue.
Some victims of violence against women in 1999
- Veronica Nwamaka Ononye, mother of two, died, January 22, 1999 as a result of serious head injuries she sustained after her husband, Reginald Ononye, a superintendent of police allegedly pushed her over the balcony of their storey building in anger.
- Jumoke Ogunalan, a marketing student of the Nigerian Institute of Journalism (NIJ) Lagos, January 21, 1999, stabbed to death by her estranged lover.
- Jumoke Martins, died, May 2, 1999 after her husband, Femi Martins, pastor of Livingstone church, Ibadan reportedly forced her to drink a poisonous chemical during a night-long fight.
- Pamela Sunday Phillip allegedly murdered by her boy friend, Etim Ukpong, a deputy superintendent of police attached to Bode Thomas Police Station, Surulere, Lagos, July 28, 1999.
- Rotimi Martins who claims to be a pastor with Chapel of Christ Church poured acid on his wife Bolanle after she threatened to divorce him because of his hot temper.
- Fatimah Ajiroba, allegedly battered to death by her brother-in-law, Haruna Ajiroba, in the Idimu area of Lagos.
- Alice Agbede, clubbed to death by her husband, Augustine Agbede at their No. 1 Alhaji Maitama Close, Ojo, Lagos residence during a quarrel over Christmas turkey, December 24, 1999.
By Jossy Nkwocha
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