COVID-19 has aggravated Nigeria’s rape crisis immensely, and this occurrence is not confined to Nigeria alone. The UN has denoted that ‘various measures employed by governments have led to economic hardship, stress, and fear — as well as conditions that lead to violence against women and girls.’ The rape epidemic in Nigeria is perennial, but experts say COVID-19 has greatly exacerbated the crisis.
June 2020 evoked widespread outrage across the country following the brutal murder of 22-year-old Uwavera Omozuwa. The university student was brutally raped and murdered in a church, eliciting mass protests across the country and an online petition signed by thousands worldwide. The incident also birthed the Twitter hashtag #WeAreTired, noting that the murder of Omozuwa is only one of many shocking cases that continue to take place in Nigeria. Experts call this a “rape epidemic,” pointing to the country’s poor legal system and societal pressures as major forces that continue to drive it. In addition, healthcare workers have indicated this crisis could bring upon potential risk of increased HIV transmission in the country.
Moreover, COVID-19 has served to further magnify this crisis. Rape kits and HIV tests are limited as healthcare workers remain mindful of possibly transmitting the virus through the tools. School and business closures are also leaving women and young girls especially vulnerable. Due to quarantine and social-distancing measures, many women are left at home, entrapped with their abusers. Such restrictions are being taken advantage of by perpetrators, who are able to commit abuse more discreetly. Dr. Anita Kemi DaSilva-Ibru, a U.S. trained gynaecologist, says her role has become critical during this time, reporting a 64 percent increase of calls to the 24-hour sexual violence hotline she manages. Such centers struggle to remain open, often relying on external donors to sustain the costs.
Workers are also struggling between balancing the needs of their patients along with their own safety. “We carry out forensic examinations on survivors and our frontline health workers who triage and examine patients are in close proximity to the survivors. As much as we need to carry out our duties, we also need to ensure our workers are adequately protected,” stated DaSilva-Ibru.
Approximately one in four women have experienced sexual assault in Nigeria, according to the UN. However, experts say the numbers may be significantly higher due to stigma around sexual assault in the country. Rape victims are often highly stigmatized, rejected or renounced by family members, or fail to be taken seriously.
Nigeria’s legal system is said to actively discourage suspected rapists and place blame on their victims instead. Legal experts say shortcomings are glaringly obvious, especially upon extensive review of Nigeria’s anti-rape laws. Drawbacks such as requiring proof of any non-consensual activity, or validation that the act even occurred, are just one of many hindrances in the law.
Together, Nigeria’s legal system and societal pressures continue to form a constitutive cycle and discourage sexual assault victims from speaking out.
As more brutal rape cases begin to come to light, Nigerians are calling upon the government to invest in resources to assist during this crisis. Activists have suggested resources to aid in responding rapidly to abuse reports, as well as building more shelters for abuse victims. Prior to this, the general public, lawmakers, and government are encouraged to fully understand the extent of the rape epidemic and its repurcussions. All forces are being sanctioned to put a united front together in order to combat this crisis. Acknowledging and condemning this crisis is counterproductive if no action follows. The rape crisis in Nigeria is an ongoing human rights violation, and immediate action by these forces will assist in validating the outcry of women in the country.