Sexual abuse is one of the fall-outs of Covid-19 pandemic; however through sponsorship and collaboration with stakeholders, Yobe state government is fighting the scourge as MUSA M BUBA reports.
Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) is a world-wide problem that attracts wider public attention in Nigeria today. The situation is worsened by the greater physical proximity of family members caused by the Covid-19 restrictions. SGBV in general and Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) in particular have become a widely reported issue of public concern. According to Barrister Fatima Makintami, the programme officer for FIDA in Yobe state, all those were possible through the European Union (EU)-funded Managing Conflict in North-east Nigeria (MCN) programme and how the British Council strengthened the efforts of stakeholders to reduce the menace in the state.
According to United Nation’s (UN) report on gender-based violence (GBV) in Nigeria during the COVID 19 crisis, there is a general increase in GBV across all six geopolitical zones and service providers have reported sharp increases in cases of intimate partner violence and domestic violence.Data on reported incidents of GBV cases in the country based on preliminary information from 24 states show that in March 2020, the total number of GBV incidents reported were 346, while in the first part of April, incident reports spiked to 794, depicting a 56 per cent increase in just two weeks of lockdown. Some of these incidents of violence have tragically resulted in the death of victims, rape of children, including incestual rape and tenant–landlord assault.
Globally, it is estimated that one in three women experience either physical or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. These figures are mirrored in Nigeria with 30 per cent of girls and women aged between 15 and 49 reported to have experienced sexual abuse. Insurgency and protracted conflict have only served to exacerbate the occurrence of GBV in the North-east. Harmful practices such as child marriage are prevalent in Nigeria with 43 per cent of girls married before the age of 18 while 20 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM. Once girls in Nigeria are married, only 1.2 per cent of those aged 15 to 19 have their contraception needs met, leading to high levels of early and teenage pregnancy.
Addressing SGBV in Yobe In response to the prevalence of sexual and gender-based violence, the European Union (EU) funded Managing Conflict in North-eastern Nigeria (MCN) programme has been supporting communities in Yobe state to find solutions. The MCN programme, implemented by the British Council, seeks to enhance state and community levels conflict management capability to prevent the escalation of conflict into violence in the three states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe. This includes providing wholesale support for survivors of SGBV in the three affected states.
MCN also supports other related conflict management initiatives such as the capacity building of traditional rulers and the establishment of community peace and safety partnerships.
At the commencement of the programme in Yobe 2016, it took over support for the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) which had been established through partnership between the DFID Funded Justice for All (J4A) Programme, implemented by the British Council and Yobe Justice Reform Team (JRT).
The centre is located at the Women and Children Hospital formerly known as Maryam Abacha Maternity Clinic along Gashua road in Damaturu. The facility’s objectives include providing multi- response services through a layered approach where survivors and their families can access medical, psychosocial as well as legal supports in a systematic and coordinated manner.
The Yobe SARC, which has been renamed SHIFA CENTRE, is managed through a steering committee called the SARC Yobe Steering Committee, comprising key institutions and agencies of government, civil society organisations as well as community representatives, to ensure a coordinated response to sexual and gender-based violence. The committee engages in advocacies on issues of sexual violence and seeks to ensure that relevant legal framework and policies are put in place that guarantee safety and justice for survivors and their families and the prosecution of offenders. The committee also sensitises communities against harmful practices and the stigmatisation of survivors.
Response to SGBV
The Shifa Centre has treated a total number of 395 reported cases of SGBV from October 2016 to July 2020. This includes cases of rape, defilement and domestic violence. In support of the services that the centre has been delivering, the Presidential Committee on North-east Initiatives (PCNI) donated a brand new ambulance to the centre for timely transportation of victims and their families and to facilitate police investigation. The imposition of Covid-19 restrictions to control spread of the pandemic threatened to slow down the services of the centre. In response, the steering committee made it a priority to ensure services were sustained notwithstanding the restrictions, while taking all the necessary measures to keep victims and their families safe from infection.
Yobe state government’s response
As parts of its responsibilities, SARC steering committee engages with various stakeholders to respond effectively to cases of SGBV following increasing demand for the services of the centre during the period of the pandemic especially in in security-prone and major towns within the state. As a result of the intensive advocacy of the committee, Yobe state government, through the Ministry of Health and the Hospitals Management Board, established five additional satellite SARCs one in each of the general hospitals in Potiskum, Gujba, Geidam, and Gashua and the fifth at the Federal Medical Centre Nguru.
The responsibility for ensuring regular delivery of services in these centres is shared among the partner organisations. The Hospital Management Board provided facilities, personnel and supporting equipment while the MCN programme facilitates the training of personnel as well as the provision of necessary drugs and consumables. In addition, MCN has facilitated the training of investigators and prosecutors of SGBV in the state through which a Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) was developed to serve as standard guide for the investigation and prosecution of SGBV offenders and other related cases.
MCN has supported the establishment of Family Support Units (FSU), a specialised gender desk at four police divisions and the State Criminal Investigation Department (SCID). There is effective coordination between the SARC Steering Committee, Justice Reform Team and Civil Society Organisation including FIDA to ensure thorough investigation and case follow-up of SGBV incidents. To ensure that the centre continue to operate during the Covid-19 restrictions, MCN supplied PPEs to the SARC centres, the FSUs. The MCN programme also supported the drafting and adoption of protocol for safe delivery of their services in SARCs.
The Yobe Justice Reform Team has continued its efforts to create an enabling environment for SARC steering committee and other stakeholders with the aim of improving access to justice for victims of sexual violence and facilitating the investigation and prosecution of offenders. These efforts include the review of existing laws such as the Penal Code which was amended in 2018 to prescribe life imprisonment for a rape offender where the victim is a minor and a jail term of 25 years where the victim is an adult.
The Administration of Criminal Justice Bill was also recently passed into law by the state House of Assembly and assented to by Governor Mai Mala Buni while the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Bill was recently adopted by stakeholders in the state with a draft bill finalised to be submitted to the state House of assembly for consideration.
The SARC steering committee has been engaging with various stakeholders at the state and community levels through sensitisation, awareness creation, advocacies and strengthening of partnership with relevant institutions and associations. Traditional rulers and religious leaders were targeted on right messaging on SGBV, traditional birth attendants, teachers and principals of some selected secondary schools and members of NURTW on identification, reporting as well as transportation of SGBV clients and their families to SARCs or nearest health facilities. Security agents, nurses and midwives were also trained on case management and referrals. The public is now aware that rape is a serious offence with stern punishment while parents are now taking up the responsibility of enlightening their wards on the dangers of committing rape. Civil Society Organisations have also been reawakened to their responsibilities of saying no to rape and pushing government to live up to its responsibilities.
The MCN programme, managed by the British Council and funded by EU has no doubt made a substantial contribution in mitigating violence against women in Yobe through its support for sexual assault referral centres and the sensitisation and advocacy work of SARC steering committee. The successful implementation of the programme has been made possible because of the favorable response of the state government and civil society partners.
The SHIFA centre, SARC steering committee and other Yobe state partners of the MCN have assumed ownership of the EU-supported initiative and helped to ensure that it is sustained beyond the lifespan of the MCN programme.