Civilians in South Africa and Nigeria have met rises in gender-based violence during the COVID-19 lockdown with waves of indignation and fury. In recent weeks, South Africa has experienced a series of deeply disturbing femicides, thrusting the issue into the public spotlight and leading to the hashtag #StopKillingWomen trending on social media. The murdered women include Tshegofatso Pule, a pregnant 28-year-old who was found hanging from a tree; Sanele Mfaba, who was discovered dumped by a tree in Soweto; and Naledi Phangindwo, who was stabbed. In Nigeria, protesters have taken to the streets after 22-year-old student Uwaila Vera Omozuwa was brutally killed as she attended a church to study. Another student, Barakat Bello, was raped and murdered less than a week later during a burglary of her home. Social development experts in Osun State have recently declared that gender-based violence in Nigeria is as deadly as the coronavirus pandemic.
This gender-based brutality is a reflection of a deep and systemic issue that has plagued both societies for too long. In South Africa, police recorded almost 178,000 crimes against women, 46% of which were registered as assault. The country’s opposition political party, Economic Freedom Fighters (E.F.F.), has been largely critical of the government’s role in analyzing these rates of violence. At Pule’s funeral, E.F.F. Member of Parliament Mbuyiseni Ndlozi attacked the government’s negligence: “We say: Let there be justice for Tshegofatso Pule… The police are in their numbers. They have come to make sure that we stay one meter away from one another. But where were they [when she was killed]? They are here with their guns. They are more than 50 of them.”
Indeed, according to UNICEF, 1 in 4 girls in Nigeria has experienced some form of sexual violence. Human rights group Amnesty International is now pressuring the Nigerian government to declare a “national crisis on rape.” The situation is made all the more severe by the underreporting of many femicide and rape cases, which both increases the chance of perpetrators escaping punishment and heightens a sense of lawlessness and fear. Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty’s Nigerian branch, has emphasized the importance of a zero-tolerance government policy when tackling the tragic prevalence of gender-based violence, but women are still in danger. “No matter where you are in Nigeria,” Ojigho said, “in the north or south, in the city or rural, Christian or Muslim, every woman and girl is at risk of rape. Nowhere is safe or immune to this violent crime against women.”
Now, protest and agitation are starting to coalesce within Nigeria. The murders of Naledi Phangindwo and Barakat Bello inspired a coalition of rights groups to march on the state parliament to demand it declare a state of emergency on gender-based violence. Celebrities have also added momentum to the movement, with Nollywood actress Hilda Dokubo joining a group of student protestors in Benin City, as well as a women’s group protesting at police headquarters in Lagos. Among the reforms it is pushing for, the coalition demands that all states in Nigeria introduce a sex offenders list, an instrument which protects women from previous perpetrators.
Both South Africa’s and Nigeria’s political leaders have paid lip service to the issue in recent weeks, condemning the violence and offering assurances of change. Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission has released a social media campaign to educate men about consent, and the country’s police force has announced plans to allocate more officers to police the issue. Meanwhile, South Africa’s Ministry of Justice is continuing to organize more workshops and discussion groups for men, where they will be able to reflect on and challenge the role of gender-based violence.
However, the South African and Nigerian governments must do significantly more to stem this tide of violence. To really address the issue, the judicial systems legislating against this type of violence must be strengthened, reflecting Osai Ojigho’s call for “zero tolerance.” The strictest possible punishments for sex offenders are needed in order to prevent further violence. The government must listen to Ojigho’s and others’ voices when they say that perpetrators must feel the full force of the law.
Alongside this short-term measure, there must be also be a push for longer lasting reform. Local governments, schools, and communities should be provided with the resources to help educate the next generation of men to understand, stand up, and speak out against gender-based violence. Perhaps most crucially, the government must invest in a social care system that is able to provide genuine support to the painfully high number of victims. It is therefore essential that the South African and Nigerian governments acknowledge the urgency of this problem with judicial reform, a significant refunnelling of investment, and carefully thought-out policy changes.
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