I wrote this article with Ayisha Osori for Premium Times who published it yesterday.
As governments and activists across the world respond to the increase in gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigeria’s response raises questions about how well data (or the lack of it) influences advocacy and policy. In an ideal world, federal and state governments would know that gender-based violence always increases during health crises, insecurity, heightened fear, and economic shocks. They would then prioritise and plan accordingly to ensure services are in place to prevent and respond to violence.
This is not our wold. Prior to COVID-19, Nigeria was known for a high incidence of gender-based violence. A United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) study revealed that one in four girls (and one in ten boys) experienced sexual violence before the age of 18. There have been widespread verified reports of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls in northern Nigeria by camp officials, vigilante members and soldiers. The sex-for-grades scandal of 2019 and the resistance of the Academic Staff Union of Universities to a bill to address sexual extortion in tertiary institutions is a recent example of a culture of abuse of power.
Where Is the Data On Gender-based Violence In Nigeria?
Nothing has highlighted the need for centralised gender-based violence data collection and analysis as the inability of the state and civil society to present trends and say definitively: the numbers are up, how and why? Without a base to compare with, it is difficult to sound an alarm, especially to a nonchalant government with a history of underfunding ministries of women affairs and other social services.
We know Kenya recorded a 34 per cent increase in calls for help within the first three weeks of the pandemic curfew and calls for help doubled in Lebanon and Malaysia, and tripled in China within a similar period. Nigeria cannot make similar claims due to the absence of a base to rely on, comparable to the annual violence against women and girls report published by the United Kingdom’s Crime Prosecution Services. Only Lagos State’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team has reported a 62 per cent increase in calls to helplines.
The lack of data collection and analysis means that, two months into government restrictions, we still have no accurate picture. Are cases increasing? What are the reasons and why? What types of gender-based violence are we seeing? Were perpetrators violent before or are they committing violence for the first time? Is violence increasing in frequency and severity? Are levels of violence affected by specific government measures? How has violence changed? How can survivors escape violence?
Data is missing but we do know this: Women’s rights activists report that domestic violence is increasing. There have been a number of media reports of male family members and neighbours raping young girls. Violence occurs both online and offline. In addition to trolling, insults and attacks against women, we are likely to see increased revenge porn and non-consensual sharing of intimate photographs and personal information, when relationships break down.
Unfortunately, neither President Buhari nor any state governor has mentioned this often overlooked silent second pandemic that women and girls have always faced. Lagos aside, there is no sense that gender-based violence is a priority or a consideration in the federal or state COVID-19 response. While it never gets top billing, not having the numbers and the stories behind these numbers makes it even more difficult to advocate for action or to respond effectively.
What Can Be Done?
Even within our existing limitations, there are opportunities for action.
We need an easy reporting template for organisations working with survivors, including women’s rights activists, civil society organisations, the Police, and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). This information should be analysed by one central body, ideally the NHRC, working with women’s rights activists. The NHRC should work closely with the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons which, under the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act 2015, is required to submit annual reports on the implementation of the Act.
We must encourage reporting – not only by survivors but by neighbours, family and friends – and use traditional and new media to disseminate details of where to seek help, what help is available, and how to engage survivors. All too often, we see personal details of survivors indicating that we need more public education on the importance of anonymity, confidentiality and not blaming survivors.
State and federal task forces or committees on COVID-19 must prioritise the prevention of and response to gender-based violence. First, states should categorise gender-based violence organisations as essential and provide them with passes and items to enable better hygiene and protection. States must also channel public funds towards providing urgent support for alternate accommodation, the feeding and health care of survivors, and this should be transparent and publicly reported on. Finally, focus needs to be put on prevention. A global repository of knowledge on what works to prevent violence has been built up over the last decade. The time to look at how we can learn from and adapt this knowledge to our own context is now.
An Opportunity To Reset
Even during times of relative normality, gender-based violence has been a pandemic in Nigeria. Gender-based violence will not end with the lifting of government restrictions on the COVID-19 situation. The economic, social, and political ramifications of the pandemic will fundamentally change how we interact. Tensions and frustrations wrought by these changes will be relieved on the bodies of women and girls. Societal buffers against violence, already often ineffective, will have become further eroded as family and friends visit less often, schools and businesses stay closed, women’s incomes are impacted, and social and recreational opportunities remain unavailable.
This is why we need to think and plan long-term, even while in response mode. If Nigeria had some of the required built-in mechanisms and institutions to collect and analyse data, our work to prevent, respond and advocate in the past few months would have been more effective. We must not waste this opportunity to design a system during this pandemic to collate and analyse data and improve state response. This way, we will have the basis upon which to build a responsive and enduring system in the years to come.