Photo credit: Unsplash / David Clode The 16 days are very important this year. Data from several countries shows increasing incidents of gender-based violence due to city lockdowns with victims and oppressors in close proximity. Voice of America report shows COVID-19 is increasing incidence of gender-based violence in the US; Russia; Mexico; and Malawi.
The situation in Nigeria is no different – a COVID-19 lockdown will lead to an increase in sexual and gender-based violence, according to research by the Pulitzer Center. Unfortunately, the United Nations has documented more than 3,600 cases of rape during the COVID-19 lockdown in Nigeria.
The work of the Women’s Crisis Center in Umuaka Municipality, southeastern Nigeria, is revealing new information about gender-based violence and the factors that perpetuate these brutal acts. In her role as Program Manager at the Women Crisis Center, Lolo held focus group discussions to learn attitudes, beliefs and behaviors related to violence against women.
The result shows the abuse of cultural practices, the use of child marriage as a means of escaping from poverty and the use of the threat of divorce by husbands to continue violence against women. Indeed, it is clear that violence against women and girls continued during and after the COVID-19 lockdown in Nigeria.
One issue that came up was masquerades, which are a very important part of Igbo culture for men as they are viewed as an extension of Igbo ancestors. Even during the COVID-19 restrictions, such festivals took place in the villages.
Meanwhile, women are forbidden to face masquerades, while men are given the freedom to dance, beat, and demand money from the observers. Some young men who wear the masquerade costumes use their holiness to intimidate women who previously rejected their advances.
“I was flogged by one of the masquerades and cut with a cutlass. He threatened me a few days before the festival because I refused his sexual advances … He told me he would take care of me in due course … My body was badly injured, “said a focus group participant .
Much of the violence spread during the focus group is related to poverty, as Nigeria is the global capital of poverty. 87 million Nigerians live in extreme poverty. The difficulty for families to care for their children forces them to give away their daughters as minors in marriages.
Female executives said that mothers sell their daughters in marriages because they are full-time housewives unable to financially look after their children. They also see the deed as a sign of love and care – means that one mouth less can be fed and the married daughter even contributes to the maintenance of her siblings. Horrifyingly, men are released from complicity in this act. Instead, girls and their mothers from community members are to blame.
“Those little girls – 13 and 14 years old … they are so spoiled these days. All they want is money and fancy things. I see them on motorcycles with these 19 year old boys. They always rub each other in public.” said a participant in the focus group.
In Umuaka village, a woman’s pride is her husband. Indeed, marital status determines how it is treated in the community. Women leaders said domestic violence cases were “resolved” at home because if the victim reports to the police it is considered a shame on their family.
“You can see a bruised woman on the ward reporting her husband today. If the husband is arrested, he threatens to divorce her and she will drop the case immediately,” said a focus group police officer .
“Men are afraid of the law and their crimes, so they know what to say to make women powerless … because they know men are scarce. Who wants to get a divorce or have a husband in jail because their wife sent them there? It’s a great shame, ”the policeman continued.
These acts of violence should not be allowed to continue, even if some people seem resigned to them. The Women Crisis Center intervenes in four ways to reduce the incidence of violence against women, based on the results of the focus group:
First, government and civil society organizations must start working with traditional Umuaka leaders to end the flogging during the masquerade celebrations in Owoh. Victims of violence should be encouraged to report to the authorities if their rights are violated.
Second, make sure women are economically stronger and can earn their wages. The Women Crisis Center already offers unconditional cash grants for women to start their own business. In addition, they are taught financial literacy with an emphasis on storing and opening their personal bank accounts as most women rely on their children’s or husband’s bank account.
Third, a community is needed to prevent violence against women. As a result, the Women’s Crisis Center is already working with traditional leaders, churches and the private sector to educate women about their rights and how to appeal if their rights are violated.
Fourth, get involved with the Umuaka community to view the education of girls and children as a form of poverty reduction. Every girl must be enrolled in school.
COVID-19 has exacerbated violence against women and girls. It is also a good opportunity to press ahead with reforms to end them. Speaking directly to the community will give you directions on where to start.
Dr. Ifeanyi M. Nsofor is a doctor, a graduate of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, CEO of EpiAFRIC and director of policy and advocacy at Nigeria Health Watch. He is a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University, a Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, and a 2006 International Ford Fellow.
Lolo Cynthia is a Nigerian Sexuality and Reproduction Educator who advocates for sexually empowered and liberated women and men through sex education and access to contraception. She is the founder of LoloTalks and program manager at the Women Crisis Center.
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