Gender-based violence worsened under Buhari despite President’s limited efforts


Osinachi Nwachukwu, Elizabeth Ochanya and Iniobong Umoren have one thing in common. They were among the over 600 Nigerian victims of gender-based violence (GBV) who died under the President Muhammadu Buhari-led administration, according to the government-owned dashboard Report GBV.

One Mr Buhari’s campaign promises during the 2015 elections, and reiterated 100 days after he assumed office, was that he would “ensure the rights of women are protected as enshrined in our constitution.”

For instance, the Nigerian constitution, in sections 17(1) and (2) (a), recognises women’s equal rights; equality of rights, obligations, and opportunities before the law.

Section 43 also recognises the right to acquire property and guarantees every citizen the right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in the country. This protects women against cultural beliefs that deny them the right to own land.

After he was reelected in 2019, Mr Buhari assured of his “administration’s determination to fight gender-based violence through the instrumentality of the law and awareness creation.”

Has he fulfilled his promises, and do his words match his actions? Let’s examine his performance in quelling GBV in Nigeria.

Worrying GBV statistics

President Buhari has spoken out several times, condemning violence against women and girls. In 2015, during his campaign, he promised that, if elected, his administration would have zero tolerance for violence against women and girls. In 2016, at a book presentation titled 8 Evils of Human Trafficking, he called for “better legislation” to protect women and girls.

He reiterated the call in 2019 after a BBC documentary exposed sexual harassment in tertiary institutions, but this time calling for “stricter laws.”

In 2020, at the United Nations Initiative town hall on sexual and gender-based violence, he urged men and boys to help achieve the goal of creating a society that is free from domestic violence, rape and all other forms of violence against women and girls.

In 2021, in commemoration of the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), he promised to continue supporting women in any programme to end GBV. In the same year, he requested a global treaty to end violence against women and girls at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

A review of GBV incidences sheds light on how Nigerian women’s and girls’ situations have changed during his presidency.

Between 2013 and 2018, findings from the Nigeria Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), the latter half of which falls under Mr Buhari’s tenure which began in 2015, revealed that incidences of spousal physical, sexual, or emotional violence grew from 25 per cent to 36 per cent, with spousal violence being the most prevalent.

Also from the DHS data, instances of sexual violence against women from ages 15 to 49 increased from 36.9 per cent to 44.9 per cent.

This fuelled lamentations from different quarters, such as a coalition of civil society organisations under the aegis of #StateofEmergencyGBV Movement and the Federation of Muslim Women Association in Nigeria (FOMWAN). They decried the rising GBV cases as more Nigerians suffer or survive multiple forms of violence ranging from deprivation to sexual violence, physical assault, emotional abuse, cyber-attacks, female genital mutilation, and child marriage.

“FOMWAN engaged in situation analysis across the target states and realised that these practices are so rampant, primarily in rural communities. There are long-standing customs and traditions of these practices. This is why FOMWAN is coming in to build the CSOs’ capacity,” the National Programmes Coordinator of FOMWAN, Asiya Rodrigo, said at a training for CSOs on GBV in 2022 in the Northwest state of Kano.

More recently, in October 2022, 17 million Nigerian women were reported to have experienced gender-based violence. According to statistics from the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), one in three Nigerian women has experienced physical or sexual violence, as Derby Ifeanyichukwu Collins-Kalu, a senior programme officer in charge of gender-based violence (GBV) at the Institute of Human Virology, Nigeria (IHVN), explained

Also, in 2022 alone, at least 401 Nigerian women died due to GBV, as stated by the Minister of Women Affairs, Pauline Tallen. She did not indicate which form of GBV caused the most deaths.

Failed bills, unimplemented policies to protect women, girls

Since the country returned to democratic rule in 1999, Mr Buhari’s administration has not been the first to pledge to protect the rights of women and girls. But while his tenure helped improve the adoption of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act and the Child Rights Act (CRA) in states, other bills introduced at the National Assembly during his time to cater for their welfare were relegated.

In March 2016, the Gender and Equal Opportunities (GEO) bill, which sought to grant equal rights to women, the right to freedom from violence, and end gender discrimination, was vehemently shut down by some senators who claimed it conflicted with Sharia law, a body of religious law that forms a part of the Islamic tradition.

In September of the same year, the bill was reworked and presented again to the Senate to address the previous points of contention. It passed the second reading, but no public hearing was conducted until the tenure of the assembly ended in May 2019.

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Biodun Olujimi, the senator who sponsored the bill, reintroduced it in November of the same year, but it still suffered a setback after some senators raised concerns that it infringed on Islamic morals. At no point did the president intervene in the issue.

Kemi Okenyodo, a lawyer who serves as the executive director of the Rule of Law and Empowerment Initiative, said that President Buhari, in his capacity, could have played a role in securing the passage of the bill.

Kemi Okenyodo, a lawyer who serves as the executive director of the Rule of Law and Empowerment Initiative

“While the president cannot directly enact legislation as that power lies with the National Assembly, he could have exerted influence and advocated for the bill’s passage. As a new government emerges, the president-elect can also work with the stakeholders interested in the Gender and Equal Opportunities Bill reintroduced and passed by the National Assembly,” she explained.

March 1, 2022, presented another opportunity for federal lawmakers to show their support for Nigerian women and girls and pass five gender bills proposed in the constitution review process at the federal parliament. Yet, they were rejected because the male legislators could not be convinced of their relevance, according to Ms Olujimi.

“The men were just set on what they wanted to do. It was tough; only a few of them supported us, and God knows why because most of them have very special daughters, daughters who have done very well; daughters who have made them proud and have grown in the system. Yet, they couldn’t vote for the simplest thing—their future—because the future is in the woman,” she said.

This led to a massive outcry from women’s groups, who besieged the gates of the National Assembly complex the following day.

On the positive side, the federal legislators in the Senate and House of Representatives under Mr Buhari’s tenure passed the Sexual Harassment Bill, which was introduced to prevent, prohibit, and redress sexual harassment of students in tertiary educational institutions. This was after an initial rejection by the House of Representatives because they wanted the bill to include other spheres of society like the workplace, and religious institutions, among others, along with academic institutions.

However, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters, Babajide Omoworare, explained to Newslodge that the bill has not been sent to the president for assent and is stalled at the federal parliament following different versions passed in the Senate and House of Representatives.

“They set up a conference committee to look into the differences. They will report back very soon. That is when it will now go to the president,” he said.

In the heat of the pandemic, the Nigerian government inaugurated an Inter-Ministerial Management Committee on Eradication of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in response to “the worsening cases of sexual and gender-based violence in the country arising from the pandemic and lockdown measures” as stated by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami.

Part of the mandate of the committee, according to Mr Malami, was to “review all the existing laws and policy instruments touching on offences of rape, child defilement, and gender-based violence.”

It was also tasked with “developing, for adoption, a national prevention of sexual abuse/violence strategy for the period of 2021–2025 that identifies and encapsulates measures to enhance response to rape and gender-based violence, and sets new targets for prevention, intervention, and treatment.”

However, existing GBV laws and policy documents have not been reviewed, and the strategic plan to prevent sexual abuse has not been developed as indicated in the mandate.

Even the First Lady, Aisha Buhari, faulted the committee’s level of implementation of the task assigned to it.

First Lady of Nigeria, Aisha Buhari

“As a result of this entire advocacy, the NGF declared a state of emergency against GBV on June 10, 2020. He, President Muhammadu Buhari, supported the calls for urgent action through the establishment of an inter-ministerial Presidential Task Force on Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, which is yet to be fully implemented,” she said.

Mrs Buhari has a foundation, Future Assured, whose mission is to improve the health and well-being of women and children through advocacy, community mobilisation and health promotion. A search through the social media accounts of this foundation showed that Mrs Buhari mostly helps Nigerian women and children with economic empowerment and medical care and only advocates against GBV.

More state domestication of GBV laws, slow implementation

Prominent laws to protect Nigerian women and girls from gendered violence, like the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act of 2015 and the Child Rights Act (CRA) of 2003, although not introduced by President Buhari, got adopted in more states during his tenure; with the help of the Nigerian Governors Wives Forum, the Ministry of Women Affairs, and other development partners within the sector.

“With the coming of Buhari’s regime, the Ministry of Women Affairs stepped up their game by ensuring that more states domesticate the act, which has helped. They have what we call VAPP committees, which are made up of women-led civil society organisations to advocate and mount pressure on the different states,” Mabel Ade, a GBV advocate, disclosed to Newslodge.

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Likewise, Mr Buhari canvassed for them to be domesticated in the 36 states while celebrating 2022’s National Children’s Day.

The VAPP Act seeks to prohibit all forms of violence against persons, including women and girls, in private and public life and provides maximum protection, effective remedies for victims, and punishment of offenders.

Prior to the Act, only women could be raped in the eyes of the law because rape was defined as vaginal penetration according to the definition in Section 357 of the Criminal Code Act. However, this law is the first to acknowledge that men can be raped too.

The definition of rape in the Act is “if he or she intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus, or mouth of another person with any other part of his or her body or anything else…”

It is also the first law to define ‘instruments of rape’ as more than just a penis; it recognises other parts of the body like a hand or objects like pens and pencils.

Infographics on the level of domestication of the VAPP Act under President Buhari

Under Mr Buhari’s tenure, the Minister of Women Affairs, Pauline Tallen, said the government got all 36 states and the FCT to domesticate the VAPP Act as of 18 January 2023.

The CRA is the law that guarantees the rights and responsibilities of all children in Nigeria. It specifies the duties and obligations of the government, parents, and other authorities, organisations and bodies.

The Child Rights Act protects girls from being married until the age of 18. The provisions prohibit the use of corporal punishment for children.

Theminister also mentioned that 32 out of the country’s 36 states have domesticated the CRA. The remaining states that are yet to adopt the Act are all in the northern region of Nigeria, where child marriage is prevalent.

Infographics on the level of domestication of the Child Rights Act under President Buhari

However, different provisions were domesticated, particularly with the CRA, according to Mrs Ade, the GBV advocate and founder of the Adinya Arise Foundation, which provides a range of interventions for women. She indicated that nine states in the Northeast and Northwest like Borno, Yobe, Kano, Kebbi, and Katsina, had either pegged the age of consent at 14 years or were silent about it to perpetuate child marriage.

“The age of consent has been a headache for us in the field. Because without the legal framework and backing, as a lawyer, what can you use to defend your client? If there are gaps in the law, what can you do?” she quizzed.

While different versions of the same law allow “more tailored approaches to addressing GBV, taking into account local contexts and challenges”, it can also lead to “confusion, particularly for law enforcement agencies, victims, and service providers operating across state borders,” said Mrs Okenyodo.

During the Buhari administration, the government established family courts in 17 states, which Mrs Tallen said was based on the provisions of the Child Rights Act. These specialised courts were created to adjudicate SGBV matters.

However, Mrs Ade, who is also a GBV first responder, noted that the family courts are underfunded and overwhelmed with many cases.

“A family court can function when you have the police bring a forensic report and carry out investigations promptly. When there is no funding, how do you talk about its effectiveness and functionality?

“With the number of cases on a daily basis, they don’t have the ability to handle them because the basic prerequisite for handling such cases is not there. We have a volume of cases that have not received any attention,” she explained.

Also during Mr Buhari’s time in office, two states – Ekiti and Lagos – joined their counterparts to either pass or assent to their versions of the acts.

To complement these laws, states like Lagos introduced a Domestic and Sexual Violence Agency and launched a 24/7 helpline, code, and mobile application for GBV, and they recorded a spike with 4,860 domestic violence and child abuse cases between 2021 and 2022.

Ekiti State introduced psychiatrist tests and a register for sex offenders, issued grants to former Female Genital Mutilation practitioners to discourage them from the practice, opened a Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) and plans to establish gender courts as a means to end GBV.

Thestate’s SARC recorded 139 cases in one year of its establishment, and  female lawyers bemoaned the rise in GBV cases, which they noted is caused by unabated “impunity of perpetrators, cultural/religious beliefs, family/cultural influence, gender inequality, survivor stigma, and the culture of silence, among other factors.”

Despite being widely adopted by the majority of the states in Nigeria, the VAPP Act has not seen an increase in people being prosecuted, Mrs Ade told Newslodge.

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“Non-enforcement of the VAPP Act is caused by lack of political will. Because where there is political will, it is backed by funds and enforcement.

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“This government is very insincere about many things. If a donor is supporting a centre that helps survivors and then the donor’s project ends, what stops the government from saying, let’s put a budget here to continue?” she said.

Another factor, like a slow justice system. as stated by Mrs Tallen, on January 18 at a capacity building programme for designated judges handling SGBV proceedings, contributes to the stalled progress. Mrs Tallen noted that out of a total of 3,754 pending cases of SGBV, only 33 convictions were recorded as of 16 January 2023.

She did not mention when this data was first computed.

More positive changes

Another success against GBV under Mr Buhari is that relevant ministries, departments, and agencies collaborated with civil society groups and international partners to introduce diverse initiatives focused on tackling the menace. The development partners did this to ease the implementation of their projects.

The lack of central GBV data collection by the National Bureau of Statistics, NAPTIP, and the National Human Rights Commission has been identified by the United Nations as one of the shortcomings in fighting GBV in Nigeria, according to the United Nations and the First Lady Aisha Buhari.

The UN indicated the need for centralised data collection and management of GBV through collaboration between the government, donors, and CSOs following the rise in GBV amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Positive changes to tackle GBV under President Buhari’s administration

The Buhari government addressed this gap by launching the National GBV Data Situation Room and Dashboard by the Ministry of Women Affairs in November 2020 to have a platform, Report GBV, that collates the unified data of violence against Nigerian women and girls, since 2019, from CSOs, NGOs working in the GBV sector, and GBV desk offices of security agencies across the country through monthly submissions to the ministry on the dashboard.

On the platform, 15,299 cases have been recorded, and 674 people have died from GBV. There are 825 closed cases, 4729 open cases and 33 convicted perpetrators as of 24 April 2023.

This initiative was supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Union-United Nations Spotlight Initiative.

Similarly, in 2021, with support from the British Council and European Union, the National Agency for Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP) introduced the Nigeria Sexual Offender and Service Provider Database (NSOD), a sexual offender register, and a service provider register, and as of 24 April 2023, the following numbers were recorded: 1,189 total cases, 232 convicted, 546 in court and 187 under investigation.

The data are gotten from governmental, non-government, faith-based, voluntary, and charitable associations/ institutions, or individuals providing shelter, homes, counselling, legal, financial, vocational, educational, psychosocial, medical, or other assistance to victims and survivors of all forms of domestic and sex-related violence and entered into a dashboard on the website.

While Mrs Ade, the gender advocate, commends the existence of the sex offenders’ register and database for GBV, she also advises that they be made more visible by putting them in the media and public places.

“How many people go on the website to check? You don’t know who raped who until you check. If it’s in the media or posted as you are entering the motor park or at the airport, it would deter others and caution people who have such tendencies. Nobody wants to be associated with something like that,” she explained.

Furthermore, the Nigerian government also established family courts in 17 states in May 2022,  to ensure the safety and protection of children. It also established designated special courts for SGBV cases in the Federal Capital Territory, and four judges were assigned to handle them.

However, family courts were not created in the remaining 14 states because it depends on the state government to introduce them. Mrs Ade, who did research into this, noted that the state governments did not implement the initiative because they lacked funds to sustain it, while some that are existing are non-functional.

Through collaborative efforts between the Nigerian government and international bodies like the UNFPA, UN Women recorded successes like behavioural changes in FGM practitioners in Ekiti and Imo states through constant sensitisation and the creation of surveillance groups, mostly locals, to serve as watchdogs for perpetrators. Similar strategies help survivors in Sokoto and Lagos states speak more, report cases, and get help, but a lot more work still needs to be done.

Now, the onus lies on the President-Elect, Bola Tinubu, to implement his manifesto and plans to tackle the prevalence of GBV in the country.

This report was supported by the Africa Women Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and with the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation

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Gender-based violence worsened under Buhari despite President's limited efforts

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