The prevalence of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) in Nigeria has dominated public discussion for decades. The media has been consistently inundated with bizarre tales of woes, agonies and deaths of Nigerian women and girls who are victims/survivors of violence against women and girls.
A report from the Women Aid Collective (WACOL), a non-governmental organisation that works to defend the rights and interests of women and girls in Nigeria and beyond, shows that between 2018 and June 2021, she recorded a total of 4,139 cases of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV). These cases range from various degrees of violence and sometimes outright death. They include rape/defilement, and incest, child forced marriage, denial of inheritance: properties, lands, economic trees, harmful cultural practices, widowhood practices, physical and emotional abuses, assault, trafficking, child abuse and exploitation, and abuse of rights of persons with disabilities (PWDs).
These were only cases reported to WACOL. Other human rights organisations and service providers, including the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), also recorded a plethora of similar cases. These statistics serve as a deadly reminder that Nigerian women and girls are not safe.
In Igbo land, for example, VAWG is a common practice. Despite all efforts by non-governmental organisations to sensitise the populace on the menace of VAWG, the unfortunate phenomenon continues due mainly to the patriarchal system that dominates Nigerian culture, especially the South-Eastern part. And these could be corroborated by the avalanche of cases reported to the WACOL legal clinic and WACOL Tamar SARC.
For instance, in August 2021, WACOL received a report from Mrs Emejor, a widow from Abia State, who is currently facing a case of harmful widowhood practices perpetrated by her husband’s brothers. She has been ejected from her home both at Kaduna and Abia states and left homeless. Also, on 7th May 2020, Mrs Josephine, a widow from Ibagwa in Nsukka LGA, reported to WACOL a case of malicious damage and wilful dispossession of her property by her late husband’s brothers. Another woman, a 35 years old widow from Amechi Awkunanaw in Enugu State and her five-year-old daughter, Divine, was forcefully taken over by her husband’s brothers in September 2019.
Similarly, Mrs Peace from Awkunanaw, also in Enugu state, was severely assaulted by her husband’s brother after her husband died in 2020. A woman from Ebonyi state also reported that her husband abandoned her and her children, threatening to take custody of the children when they are grown. In Imo state, a forty-year-old mother of two is being threatened by her uncle to forcefully take her late father’s landed property because she is the only daughter of her late father. Another story is about a forty-year-old woman who got married in 1998, had their only daughter, and separated in 2000. Their daughter is now twenty-three years and a medical intern in the estranged marriage, but her father has never supported her. Now, the daughter decided to go back to stay with her father, who abandoned them earlier.
There are a plethora of cases where young girls are impregnated and abandoned. The men involved either denied responsibility or refused to care for them. Such girls are left in hopeless conditions; they suffer rejection, agony, and even stigmatisation and public shame during the period of pregnancy and child care. The paradox is that such men would return years later to claim ownership of such a child. Most often, they are backed by these unfair customs. The litany of cases of the impact of these harmful norms on the girl child and women is inexhaustible.
According to research carried out by WACOL in 5 (five) South-East States plus Delta and Edo states, there is no significant shift in harmful cultural norms that subjugate women and relegate them as subordinate to men. Igbo men, despite their education and exposure, still cling to these harmful practices.
Against the backdrop of these challenges faced by women in Igbo land, WACOL and Ford Foundation are implementing a project to eliminate harmful cultural norms against women and girls in the South-East and some South-South states.
The objectives of the project are: to engage with relevant stakeholders in different states to understand and document norms and practices that positively or adversely affect women and girls’ rights and general equality in rural communities; to ensure the elimination of VAWG; and to ensure the operationalisation of the state of emergency on SGBV declared by the Nigerian Governors forum in 2020.
The project started with research conducted around the seven (7) project states. The report was later validated in a strategic and validation meeting carried out in the states. The validation also confirmed the outcome of the research findings.
During the meeting, the findings of the research were made known to stakeholders. Consequently, they unanimously agreed that there is a need to review these existing cultural norms as they have been detrimental to society’s social, economic, and political advancement. Beyond women, they also agreed that a shift in the cultural practices would engender development in the society because women have both the childbearing capacity and the ability to contribute to community development if given a level playing ground. They believed that the men needed attitudinal change, specifically the traditional rulers who are the custodians of culture in communities.
To kick-start the advocacy for eradicating these practices, WACOL further trained and inaugurated 50 women rights advocates to lead the advocacy for change in the status quo in each state. The groups, code-named “The 50/50 Action Women Group”, are in Imo, Abia, Enugu, and Ebonyi states.
Just recently, WACOL organised a multi-stakeholder meeting in Enugu state. The meeting involved 30 members of the leadership of the Enugu state council of traditional rulers, the Enugu State Ministry of Justice, Enugu State Ministry of Gender and Social Development, and the Ministry of Local government and Chieftaincy Matters.
In a communique issued after the meeting and signed by HRH Igwe Amb. Dr Lawrence O. C. Agubuzu (OON), Ogbunechendo of Ezema Olo, Chairman of Enugu State Council of Traditional Rulers, for the council members, the paramount leaders condemned in strong terms the anti-women practices. They abolished all harmful cultural practices that violated women’s rights and put them in a disadvantaged position.
The Communique reads in full:
We make the following commitments; that we condemn all forms of Violence against Women and Girls in Enugu State and commit to the empowerment of women and girls; that we are committed to eliminating harmful traditional practices, e.g., marrying out a girl child and abolition of sacrificing female children to the shrine; that we are committed to respecting the rights of widows and widowers; that we commit actions to codify communal laws and regulations that will protect women and girls which include rejection of harmful traditional widowhood practices, including disinheritance of widows; that we are committed to implementing the Supreme Court judgment that females have a right to inherit property from the family estate whether married or not; and that we support the inclusion of women in decisions affecting them.
The Communique concluded that the traditional rulers would encourage women leadership at the community level and committed to mediating in human rights and women’s rights cases in line with state, national, regional and international human rights laws. Subsequently, they agreed to have an Enugu state free from all forms of violence against women and girls.
Similarly, the founding director of WACOL, Prof. Joy Ezeilo, commended the traditional rulers in Enugu State for the milestone they achieved in the fight against VAWG, especially the obnoxious traditional practices against women.
Prof. Ezeilo, who is also the immediate past Dean of Faculty of Law, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN) and the united nations’ special rapporteur on human trafficking, averred that such obnoxious practices should be criminalised like forms of gender-based violence, adding that women and girls have the right to live free from violence.
The university don, who is also the chairperson of the steering committee of the Network of Sexual Assault Referral Centres in Nigeria, said that the action by the traditional rulers is one whose time has come given the developmental strides of women around the world.
She said that harmful cultural practices such as widowhood practices, child/early marriage and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and disinheritance of widows should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
She lamented that although the supreme court decided in 2014 on Ukeje v. Ukeje that women, whether as wives or daughters, are entitled to inheritance, the practices are still contrary. Igbo women are still discriminated against concerning the customary inheritance of land, housing, economic trees and other properties.
Our organisation welcomes this very historical development in Enugu State. We are particularly excited about the level of commitment displayed by the traditional rulers in the state, showing that Enugu State is always progressive in areas of gender empowerment, women liberation and entrenchment of women rights.
Beyond these firm commitments from critical stakeholders, WACOL is looking forward to continuing engagement with traditional rulers in the country, specifically in Igbo land (Imo, Ebonyi, Abia, Anambra, and Abia states) in addition to Delta and Edo States to change these harmful norms and create an enabling environment in various communities for both men and women to thrive.
As an organisation, we are fully committed to assisting communities willing to take the process forward by creating these by-laws. We would provide technical support to the communities to ensure a transparent and accountable process.
WACOL envisions a Nigeria where: all harmful practices limiting women are erased; there is equal opportunity for boys and girls; and women feel safe in pursuit of a better standard of living for their children and themselves.
We believe that the quest for sustainable development depends largely on gender justice, equality before the law and economic justice for women and girls