Why do rape cases seem so much on the rise? Why are rapists now targeting mostly three-year-olds? There are no easy answers to these questions. But what is gaining unanimity is that the law punishing rapists is too lax and most of the victims hail from poor homes.
Deputy director and head of legal and investigation of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), an agency at the forefront of the fight against rape, Mr. Z.O Sebanjo told Weekly Trust: “Poverty is at the centre of rape. The law punishing rape must also be reformed. There must be a law reform on the crime of rape. There is no way a rapist should get less than life jail.”
At present, the maximum a rapist gets is a seven-year sentence, and this normally comes after long-drawn legal processes that heap unimaginable embarrassment on both the victim and her parents, not to talk of the monetary costs. Because of this, victims and their families prefer to swallow their shame in silence and in the process emboldening the rapists who embark on further conquests. “Few people report rape cases because it is like a stigma for life,” says Sebanjo. “Sometimes families cover them up. They accept settlements, money etc.”
A child but bleeding
The travail of three-year-old Blessing Omaba, recently raped by a policeman in Bagusa, Gwagwa, Abuja, probably captures the triple shortcomings in the laxity of the law, poverty and stigma in the fight against rape. The NHRC did their job by raising an alarm about the rapist and the police had him arrested while the press gave it wide coverage. It was one of the most gruesome crimes ever reported in recent times, especially when details emerged about how the policeman damaged the child’s private part and anus. He was raving drunk when he drew her to the stream and forced himself into her. But it might come as a surprise that despite all the attention, the rapist might walk away a free man after all.
Why? It is quite simple: the rapist is offering the parents of his victim N30,000 to withdraw the case against him, and the father, a very poor man, is jumping at the offer. The NHRC, Sebanjo says, had to invite an NGO that raised N15,000 for the mother to convince her to resist the lure of the offer and continue with the court case.
It is easy to vilify the Omabas as greedy and uncaring until you visit their home and realise that for people in their kind of poverty N30,000 is like a million dollars. Not that Mr. Omaba is such a role model of a father or a husband. When Weekly Trust visited their home he was in a drunken stupor while his wife is still in the bush at 6pm, plucking wild bitter leaf for the evening meal. He gets angry when he is asked about why he wants to withdraw the case against his daughter’s rapist, saying, “Blessing, na me born am.”
Later, he grows coherent and begins to lament about what had happened to his daughter. “Why should someone do this to me? Is it because I am a poor man? Kai, that man must be punished and the Federal Government must settle me.” The house is a mud structure. Inside, there is no mattress but a long wooden bench, two cupboards with nothing inside and stacks of firewood by the corner, still waiting for the wife to come back from the bush. It is now approaching 7pm.
It is safe to say that the rapist has chosen his prey carefully: a poor girl from a home with a barely responsible father and a mother who is often away toiling till night to provide for her siblings.
Roaming without care
There are other ways poverty factors in the rise in rape against children. Here, the victims are the child hawkers sent out to the street where they become easy preys for rapists. Sometimes, they are too innocent to even know what has happened to them. Rape like this could go on for long. The case of Adama, a 12-year-old, reported by Weekly Trust in August 12, 2006 comes to mind. Adama, who hawks banana for her widowed mother in Jabi, Abuja was subjected to repeated rapes by one Christopher Onwumere, a 60-year-old man, who will lure her into his room under the pretext of buying from her. The whistle was blown on him when she began to question the nature of her relationship with him and screamed one day when he forced himself on her. But it was too late for her because she was diagnosed later as HIV positive. After some enquiries, it was realised that there are others who had taken advantage of her beside Onwumere.
Lots of concerns have been raised about the culture of child hawking with some state governments coming out to ban it. But the culture refuses to die. While it is true that it is a clear case of child abuse, it is also true in some instances that these children are the bread winners of the family. “If they don’t hawk they will not eat,” says Sebanjo. “And have other alternatives been provided? No!”
There is a kind of superstitious belief that having sex with a virgin can be a cure for HIV. So, desperate men in search of a cure swoop on children who are certain to have their hymen still intact and defile them. HIV positive children like Adama are victims of this belief. It was a belief that was popular in South Africa for a time where several children were raped. But like most superstitions, it is still a wonder how it is spreading in Nigeria.
The capital of rape
Abuja enjoys the reputation of being Nigeria’s most modern city and the capital of the country. But it is fast acquiring another reputation as the capital of rape. “I will say that there has been an increase in reported cases of rape in Abuja and environs,” says Sebanjo. He attributes it to transferred aggression. “People sometimes transfer their aggression on others when everything around them is drowning. They transfer their frustration on their victims.” It is quite plausible how this comes about. Abuja is reeling from the pains of demolition where many people lost their homes and properties overnight. The cost of living in the city is one of the highest in the world and accommodations remain scarce and expensive. There is a high degree of frustration around.
This frustration is palpable in the headquarters of the NHRC where the commission is presently handling a deluge of human rights abuses, complaints and petitions, all-related to housing or accommodation in Abuja. “Government policy is not human right-friendly,” says Sebanjo, in reference to the frustration felt around.
The aggression is not confined to the poor only. Even the highly-placed in the society are perpetrators. On the day Weekly Trust visited the NHRC, the commission is beginning to look into the petition of rape written by a 16-year-old girl against a highly placed individual at the directorate level in Abuja. The commission is investigating the allegation that she was raped by the individual at knife point and told not to squeal about it. “We don’t want to be emotional about it and for that reason we are doing our investigations,” said officers of the commission.
Overcoming the stigma
It is probably a sign of hope that some victims are developing the courage to report their abusers to the authorities. The challenge though is protecting them from the likely stigmatisation that might follow. The police have proved incompetent in handling the sensitive nature of rape related crimes, often placing the burden on the victims to describe how it happened. One of the rapists of 19-year-old Jamila Abubakar (reported in Weekly Trust of July 21) Salisu Babale, was reported to have escaped from police custody. Babale and his gang allegedly kidnapped Jamila and raped her for two days. She was reported dead on July 17, weeks after the gruesome act, probably from heartbreak.
During her recent visit to the National Assembly to lament the spate of rape incidences in Suleja, a town neighbouring Abuja, the wife of the Niger state governor, Jummai Aliyu petitioned that some cases were not charged to court by the police. She was reported to have said “the role of the police so far in the matter is far from satisfactory.”
Maybe the attitude of the police is a reflection of the general attitude of Nigerians to rape. It is not seen as a serious offence, except by the victims who have had to put up with the horrors or their families who have to battle the stigma. What this engenders is victims suffer in silence while their abusers are left unapprehended to scout for new victims. In other countries, a data base of paedophiles and rapist is kept so that the police can constantly monitor them. Schools are also alerted about them so they should not be employed to work near children. Nigeria is still a long way away from achieving that.
But there is something within the power of the government to effect immediately, and that is a review of the law punishing rape. Armed robbery for instance, is seen as a serious crime because the punishment is stiff, but rape on the other hand, even though more gruesome, is not taken as a serious crime because the punishment is light.
What the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Patricia Etteh, did on receiving the petition of the wife of the Niger State governor is to promise to make punishment for rape stiffer. Such promises are not new. But the state governments are beginning to help themselves though. The Niger state House of Assembly is considering a law making the offence of rape punishable by death.