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SPECIAL REPORT: The ordeals of rape victims in a Nigerian university (3)

As Rachel struggled under the sweaty, crushing weight of Gbenga’s body, memories of 13 years ago came flooding back. As a seven year old living in Quanpan local government of Plateau State, a visit to her aunt’s house turned out to be a nightmare; she was raped by her nephew, a teenager.

Now 20, and an undergraduate at the University of Jos, she found herself reliving another nightmarish experience in the house of her supposed friend where she had gone to collect N4,000 she transferred to him.

Rape victim narrating her story

“He seemed harmless. He was jovial with me and my roommates,” Rachel, a 400 level Mass Communication student, said, as she recalled that hot afternoon in 2019.

“No one would have thought him a monster”.

The events that culminated in her rape began weeks earlier when Gbenga, who had graduated from the university five years earlier, began, without ceasing, to profess his love for her. On that fateful day, she had gone to Gbenga’s house unaccompanied – her roommate was unwell – and wanted to leave immediately after he started trying to flirt with her. He resisted, held her wrists firmly and forcefully kissed her. Then he grabbed her neck, pressed her hard on the bed, undressed her, and raped her.

“I had injuries on my neck, on my hands and my private part. I ran out in pain,” Rachel recalled.

“I had to pretend that all was well while walking to my place. My head was circling. I could not think straight. I was mad at myself, mad at him, mad at everybody. I was mad about fate making me a victim twice”, she wiped her tears with the back of her palms.

“I wished I could just strangle him.”

Rachel is not alone. Nancin, her colleague in the same department, is also a rape victim. Then a 23-year-old and in her third year, Nancin had struck up a friendship with a junior lecturer at the university. One day, he told her, “we have been friends for a while and you still don’t know where I stay?”

So she decided to visit him.

At his home, she was served a meal, and as she ate, he entered the bathroom to take a shower. And when he emerged from the bathroom, he was naked and demanding for sex.

“I tried to leave but I did not realize that he had jammed all the locks and hid the key,” Nancin said.

“I begged him not to. He requested that I either let him use his penis to rub my breasts or my thigh until he ejaculates”.

“None of these suited me and I continued to plead, but that was all in vain. He raped me”.

She said a neighbour came to the house during the act but her plea for him to rescue her fell on deaf ears. Even her screams, loud enough to be heard by the other neighbours yielded no result.

“It was as if they all knew this sort of thing happens in that compound”.

“I accidentally met him four months ago and I asked him if he knew me, he said he did not recognize me but yet he confessed that he was a changed person”.

Both ladies said they were afraid to tell anyone of their ordeal – although Nancin did tell her cousin – out of shame that they would be blamed for visiting the men in the first place. Nancin said she went for medical tests, after her experience, and missed classes for two weeks. The physical pains may have healed, but the memories still linger.

“If at all I am to advise anyone who has recently gone through this, please speak up to someone more mature and older. Speak to the police or anyone in authority. Don’t keep it to yourself”, she said.

Sexual Harassment in Nigerian universities

Sexual assault, which is a form of harassment, is an act in which a person intentionally without consent, coerces or physically forces a person to engage in a sexual act against their will. It includes rape, assault, and torture.

In 2015, a United Nations Women survey carried out across 27 universities in the U.S., revealed that twenty-three per cent of female undergraduate university students reported having experienced sexual assault or sexual misconduct. Rates of reporting to campus officials, law enforcement or others ranged from five to 28 per cent, depending on the specific type of behaviour.

This statistics, although from the U.S., clearly indicates that rape survivors are afraid to speak up. In Nigeria, there is no central database where incidences of rape cases or sexual assault are recorded as reports published online have conflicting data.

For 15 years, David Agirdo has been the youth leader of Rusau village, the community where Rachel was raped. He works in the Servicom Unit of the University of Jos.

“You know this is a very sensitive case, nobody can come out and just speak out”, Mr Agirdo said.

“Let’s tell ourselves the truth. All human beings have feelings. If you dress properly, and we have some conversations, it won’t trigger me to be attracted to you. Sometimes, if a lady comes to a guy’s place and not properly dressed, that creates room for rape and other sexual violence. Human beings are different”.

“We try to counsel the two parties involved to have the spirit of forgiveness because that is what the bible teaches us if that happens. If you leave such a person here if that happens, the community youths may gang up and beat the person to death. So we don’t want that to happen”.

Mr Agirdo said there is no mechanism put in place by the university and when rape incidents occur, the case will be taken to the Chief Security Officer of the university, and then to the police.

Peter Biringmiap, the President of the Student Union Government of the university, corroborated Mr Agirdo’s position, noting that although rapes cases occur in the school, the Security Division handles such cases.

“There are cases of rape but it is not rampant like before,” Mr Birinmiap said.

“Most times they don’t bring it to my office, maybe they take it to the security department. Cases of sexual harassment is a big crime in the school, they may suspend or expel you. If the abuser is not a student and the victim is a student, the only thing is just to take it to the Security Division. Mine is to report and follow it through, ensure the student is not victimized”, he stated over the phone.

Mr Agirdo advised ladies to walk in groups, especially at night. He also encouraged students to report issues of sexual assault to the Servicom Unit of the institution.

“Students can report such cases to Servicom, but nobody has ever reported anyone to us. We do sensitization regularly, even during orientation, but yet they fail to send complaints”.

Under Nigerian law, both the Criminal and Penal Code have defined rape as a crime and one that is punishable.

Section 357 of the Nigerian criminal code reads:

“Any person who has unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman or girl without her consent, if the consent is obtained by force or by means of threats or intimidation of any kind or by fear of harm, or by means of false and fraudulent representation as to the nature of the act, or in The case of a married woman, by personating her husband is guilty of An offence which is called rape”.

According to the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015, a person is liable to life imprisonment if caught in the act of rape. However, victims and family of survivors of rape find it difficult to report such cases to the police for fear of stigmatization and victim-blaming, and so, such cases are not captured in criminal statistics. Several studies attest to the fact that police statistics never capture the magnitude of rape reality, leaving the abuser to walk freely on the streets.

This reporter put out an online survey that ran for over four weeks before the publication of this report across different social media platforms of students in Nigeria. The survey focused on sexual harassment of female undergraduate students across Nigeria tertiary institutions.

The data received from 53 respondents revealed that 41.5 per cent have been sexually assaulted, and 77.4 per cent confirmed that they know persons who have been sexually assaulted in school. The forms of sexual harassment according to respondents ranged from rape (28.3 per cent), slut-shaming and cat-calling (22.6 per cent), groping (13 per cent) and torture (7 per cent).

Infographic showing statistics of rape cases in Nigeria

Further results showed that 66 per cent of those sexually assaulted said they did not report the case to the school management while those that reported (26.4 per cecnt) said the school did not act in their interest.

This result corroborates that of NOIPOLLS, conducted in July 2019 where up to one in every three girls living in Nigeria could have experienced at least one form of sexual assault by the time they reach 25. Respondents blamed the incidence of rape mainly on the indecent dressing (47 per cent), excess intake of alcohol by the offenders (36 per cent), victims (34 per cent) and promiscuity (34 per cent). The study also revealed that half (53 per cent) of the respondents mentioned that rape incidents were reported to the police.

According to Frank Mbah, the spokesperson of the Nigeria Police Force, the police handle issues that relate to women and children generally, not specifically tertiary institutions.

“We have data and it is not everything that we put on the website. The police is a very organized structure, it is a law enforcement agency, it is also a security agency”.

He noted that the Gender Unit of the Nigeria Police was established to handle cases touching on women and children such as rape, defilement, abduction of children and other cases that have to do with infractions of rights of women and children generally. Officers who work in this unit work under special standard operating procedures with other stakeholders such as the forensic experts, civil society groups and hospitals.

He explained that before the creation of the Gender Unit, some police officers who did not receive special and specific training on the investigation of gender-based violence, had problems relating properly with victims, as well as relatives of victims.

“Some of these allegations or fears being expressed are rooted in the past. But of course, it will take people relating with these new sets of detectives for them to understand that the police have been able to provide remedies for some of their concerns”.

Mr Mba expressed dissatisfaction in the society that stigmatizes the victims of sexual violence instead of providing a support system for them, and at the end of the day, drop all allegations at the doorstep of the police.

According to him, aside from lack of trust in the criminal justice system, people fail to speak out due to fear of stigmatization, reprisal attacks, and media publicity.

“So if you look at it, it is a defeating tendency for you to just take one out of it which is lack of trust in the criminal justice system and put the whole blame in the doorstep of the police”, he said.

“This large society as a whole has not been responsive as it should be with the provision of adequate defence for naming and shaming the perpetrators while protecting and supporting the victims.”.

He said that the police work with other components of the criminal justice system but that is determinant on the ability of victims to speak out.

“We must encourage victims to speak out and speaking out includes walking into the police station, reporting the cases, working with the police and the medical departments to go through the entire process of the investigation, package the case up to the courts and stand and walk with the prosecution to make sure the suspects are successfully prosecuted”.

Unijos responds

When contacted, Sebastian Maimako, the vice-chancellor of the univeristy, said it would be “most unusual” if alleged victims of sexual harassment had reported their ordeal through the appropriate channels and nothing was done to address their concerns.

“On the other hand, if by any chance the alleged victims either did not formally report their case or did not follow the normal procedure in doing so, it would be difficult for the school authorities to initiate the appropriate protocols for dealing with such matters,” Mr Maimako, a professor, said in an e-mailed response.

He stated different mechanisms instituted by the school management to address issues relating to sexual harassment, adding that the Students’ Handbook informs the students about how they can access services in the Youth Friendly Centre, which is the university’s main students Counselling Unit.

“It may also interest you to know that the Students Handbook has also been reviewed and the newest edition is currently at the printers for publication at the earliest convenience and subsequent distribution to the students,” he continued.

“Being an emerging problem in our higher institutions, the new document offers much more detailed referrals on what a student can do when faced with such a dilemma.”

The university also said it has a gender policy which has portions that address issues of sexual harassment.

“The University’s Centre for Women and Gender Studies has the mandate to ensure strict compliance with and implementation of the Gender policy,” Mr Maimako said.

“Additionally, the University has a very functional SERVICOM Unit that provides avenues for students to lodge complaints about any ill-treatment they encounter. They can even do so anonymously”.

The vice-chancellor also said that students can report such cases of sexual harassment to the Security Division which is empowered to investigate such matters and report their findings for appropriate action.

“The Security Division works very closely with the Police, DSS, Military and other conventional security operatives on matters of criminal and similar nature. All these are done to protect the lives and integrity of our staff, students and entire University community.

“It may interest you to know that the last known case of sexual harassment reported was investigated, after which the report was referred to the Council Disciplinary Committee which recommended that the lecturer be dismissed in line with the University statutes. The person in question has since been dismissed from the services of the University of Jos”.

“The University of Jos does not condone sexual harassment in any way or form it manifests itself. Once the attention of the authorities is brought to any such matter especially through any of the channels listed above, you can be sure that it would be vigorously pursued to its logical conclusion”.

CSO Reacts

Experts have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the penalties stated in the Criminal Code and the anti-sexual harassment Bill passed in July 2020 by the National Assembly. The bill titled: ‘A Bill for an Act to prevent, prohibit and redress Sexual Harassment of students in tertiary educational institutions and for matters concerned therewith 2019’, seeks to promote and protect ethical standards in tertiary institutions. It also seeks to prevent sexual harassment of students by educators in tertiary institutions.

According to Nkechi Enebeli, the Team Lead for Gender Equality Advocacy Movement in Africa (GEAM), an organization that is focused on advocating for gender equality in Nigeria, the enactment of a law does not stop the act of sexual assault from happening.

“A lot of persons are still willing to take the risk, knowing that they might not be caught and even when they are caught, our porous legal system can be beaten. Besides, the rape had already occurred and the life of the innocent person altered forever.”

She said that instead of addressing the issue from the fruits, it should be addressed from the root by stopping these offences from happening rather than waiting for them to happen before reacting.?

“This is where reorientation, advocacy and enlightenment campaign comes in. We have to appeal to people’s conscience rather than their fears. We have to learn to help people see the inhumanity in the act and not just the punishment. The punishment can be borne but the inhumanity is unbearable”

“When we can appeal to the conscience and make people understand that these forms of GBV eat at the very essence of what makes us human, we can get people to stop not for fear of punishment but love for humanity.”

She noted that one of the things her organisation does is to campaign and advocate against these vices by making people see gender-based violence as an act that defeats human essence in all forms.

“This is a proactive way of putting a stop to GBV, not waiting for it to happen so we can react but be proactive in ensuring that it does not occur at all”.

(This is the third part in a series on sexual assault in Nigerian universities and the need for more effective regulations.)

 
 

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