Monday, February 18, 2013

The Violence Against Persons Bill Debated in Nigeria

The bill on rape

Nigerian Guardian

THE Violence Against Persons Bill currently going through the legislative mill, which seeks to eliminate violence against women is timely and commendable. Its goal is noble, as it seeks to end harmful traditional practices and discrimination against women in private and public life. For its sheer focus on human dignity, especially of women, the exercise would rank as one of the most impressive legislative works by this National Assembly. The rationalization for the bill is the limited jurisdiction of the extant law and its seemingly feeble and flexible sanctions for offenders against the background of increased sexual assault on women and children across the country. It indeed has currency in the context of the worldwide upsurge in the crime.

In India, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was sexually assaulted by a gang, resulting in her death. The consequent national outcry led to arrest and prosecution of the culprits. South Africa, believed to have the highest cases of sexual assault against women in the world, is in grief and rage following the brutal murder of a teenager, Anene Booysen, through sexual assault by a band of criminals.

But unknown to many, the incidence of sexual assault and other forms of domestic violence is on the increase in Nigeria. In a recent report by the Centre for Constitutionalism and Demilitarization, between August 2011 and July 2012, there were about 61 cases of sexual assault against women, 11 of which were adults and 50 were children.

Most sexually assaulted women do not report to formal authorities for fear of stigmatization. It may well turn out, therefore, that the incidence of sexual assault against women in the country today is far beyond imagination. Cases of assault on women through beating and acid-bathing have become fairly common occurrence. Beside outright sexual assaults, there are cases that experts have called “mini-rapes” such as indecent touching, staring and malicious side comments at the physical make-up of a woman.

The sheer legal provisions apart, it is important to interrogate the causes of violence, particularly sexual violence against women, especially as such an act advertises a sickness of the mind, needing urgent counselling and treatment.

One cause of this is the breakdown of family values. The search for a living wage by both parents has put a huge strain on many families while the children are left to themselves without protection and moral guidance. In the urban areas, children’s upbringing is the first casualty of the endless race to make ends meet, in a society ravaged by poverty. They are often coerced into hawking of wares to augment family income. In the streets, the children are exposed to all forms of danger, including sexual assault and abduction. This breakdown of values also finds expression in children taking to alcohol and drug addiction as well as prostitution.

Then, there is patriarchy, a system that perpetuates male dominance. This value is alive and flourishing in most communities in Nigeria today.

In the wake of this new legal proposition, some lawyers have questioned its justification. What is wrong with the existing provision? Section 357 of the Criminal Code states that “any person who has unlawful carnal knowledge of a woman or girl, without her consent, or with her consent, if consent was obtained by force or by means of threat or intimidation of any kind, or by fear or harm, or by any means of false and fraudulent representation as to the nature of the act, or in the case of a married woman, by personating her husband is guilty of an offence called rape.” Under Section 358, the punishment for rape is life imprisonment while any attempt to commit it is also an offence punishable by a term of 14 years imprisonment.

The problem is not with the existing law but its implementation. It is pertinent, therefore, to ask how many people have been convicted under the existing law.

For effective outcome, the new law, when operational, should ensure adequate sensitisation of the public on the need for victims to report cases of sexual violence for prosecution.

While the new bill, which has scaled through the second reading in the House of Representatives may be desirable to take care of obsolete aspects of the law, there may be need to tie the proposed life imprisonment, which is provided for in the existing law to parole.

In the end, all enlightenment steps must be taken to discourage all forms of assault on women and children.

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