Opinion . Turning the tide on gender-based violence in Nigeria amid COVID-19

Written by Mr Edward Kallon, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Nigeria

If you are in a room with ten women, there is a high chance that three of these women have experienced physical, sexual, economic or psychosocial violence simply because of their gender, which is known as gender-based violence (GBV). Even though these three women know their perpetrator, o nly one of them know about what health support is available, and only one would approach the justice system.

The two other women are shameful, they would not speak about the violence they experienced out of fear of stigma from their community, friends, and family, who might say she should be more careful or that she dressed improperly.

During the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown, states reported more than a doubling of the already existing pandemic of violence against women. We call it the shadow pandemic because it is equally deadly, global, and harmful, but often invisible to the eyes of the public.

In June 2020, Nigeria witnessed something remarkable. For the first time, 36 Governors united to speak up and out and declared a State of Emergency on sexual and gender-based violence. This was the response to women and men across the nation standing together, defying Covid-19 restrictions, and protesting online and offline to demand decisive, cohesive action to tackle GBV on all fronts.

Starting 25th November each year, marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, until Human Rights Day 10th December, the United Nations stands with all who stood in the streets in June to push for the GBV Declaration of Emergency or shared their anger towards the increase in gender-based violence.

During 16 Days of Activism, the whole world, led by civil society, the United Nations, Governments, media, and the private sector, join forces and call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. The 16 Days of Activism Campaign forces us to have serious conversations and to map out actions that address the GBV pandemic.

The United Nations System in Nigeria urges the Government of Nigeria; civil society; the media; traditional, religious and community leaders; schools and institutions; the private sector; health practitioners, social workers, emergency responders – and all other stakeholders in positions of power and influence to take swift action.

Our appeal to the  Governors, together with key stakeholders  is to take action and end gender-based violence  in the following areas:

We must fund, and make sure funding is flexible and available for women`s rights organisations, that essential services are available, and funds for GBV prevention included in fiscal stimulus packages.

Almost half of Nigerian girls are married before they turn 18, we must acknowledge that the health sector is key to address the challenge, and fund sexual and reproductive health care for these girls, and survivors of GBV, so they don`t carry life long scares from early pregnancy, such as HIV or fistula. We must respond with adequate funds to address the GBV crisis in the North East, amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic.

We must prevent gender-based violence from happening in the first place, declaring a state of emergency is the first step, what we need now is an action plan and campaigns that change behaviors and men speaking up and out against violence against women. Unequal power relations between men and women feed and fuel gender-based violence. Religious, traditional, community, and political leaders can undo harmful practices and dismantle stereotypes wherever they may be found.

We must respond to this violence. The police must have trained staff and gender desks to support survivors of GBV, and access to justice is critical to protecting women and girls. Federal and state legislators must tackle GBV via the domestication of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act, develop a third National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, and the passage of the anti-sexual harassment in tertiary institutions bill. The national gender machinery must be empowered to equip sexual assault referral centres and develop sex offenders’ registers in the states. The health sector is a key institution, without skilled health workers, evidence of GBV will not be collected, and no one will be held accountable. There are positive developments out of some states, but with 20 states yet to pass the VAPP, they only amount to a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things.

We must collect data on gender-based violence, so we know where and how to help to improve life-saving services for women and girls. The European Union and the UN Spotlight Initiative, collaborating with the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs, just launched a National GBV Situation Room and Data Dashboard, which means that six states now has a coordinated system to collect and coordinate GBV data in Nigeria.

Eliminating sexual and gender-based violence, tagged ‘the shadow pandemic’, is an urgent task with responsibilities for citizens; we all have a place in the 2020 theme “Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!” if we are to achieve success in protecting our women and girls.  In our homes, our places of worship, our schools, our communities, and public places, we have to call out all appearances of GBV regardless of our relationship to the survivor or perpetrator.

Together, we can and must prevent violence everywhere, from war zones to people’s homes, as we work to beat Covid-19“, says António Guterres, UN Secretary-General. The United Nations System in Nigeria remains committed to working with governments and partners to prevent and address GBV.

Together, we can end gender-based violence and ensure the safety and security of all women and girls. We must take action during this year’s 16 Days of Activism.

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