THE recent disclosure by the Lagos State Government of domestic violence cases state-wide showing that 2,588 minors were sexually and emotionally abused between August 2022 and July 2023 is disturbing. It reflects how sexual defilement generally, but especially of minors, is assuming epidemic proportions in the country. This barbaric behaviour must be curbed with stronger actionable policies, including legislation, tougher law enforcement and social intervention schemes to protect minors, women and other vulnerable groups from sexual predators.
While rape crimes across ages are rising, sexual defilement of children appears to be rising even faster as reports of child rape surface with alarming frequency in the mass media. In August, news outlets reported how a four-year-old pupil of a private school in Ajah, Lagos, was allegedly raped by one James, a security guard of the school. Earlier, a 37-year-old year old farmer, Joseph Agbomu, who had defiled his neighbour’s six-year-old daughter in Ondo State, was sentenced to life imprisonment in July 2023 by an Akure High Court.
In April, a 70-year-old man, Usman Ibrahim, was reported to have raped two minors, aged four and seven, in Jimeta, Yola North Local Government Area, Adamawa State. Ibrahim reportedly lured the girls into his room and abused them while on their way to their extra lesson class.
In November 2022, Musa Gambo, aged 75,was arrested by Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps operatives for allegedly raping his six-year-old grandniece in Gandun Sarki Quarters, Malam Madori LGA, Jigawa State.
UNICEF explains that sexual violence has long-lasting damaging effects on the victim. Victims can resort to substance abuse and other debilitating behaviour to numb the trauma. It adds, “And as child victims reach adulthood, sexual violence can reduce their ability to take care of themselves and others.” Also, the World Health Organisation said sexual abuse may impair the physical and mental health of a child.
Increasingly, Nigerian children are plagued by multiple adversities. According to UNICEF, six out of every 10 children experience some form of violence, and one in four girls and 10 percent of boys have been sexually abused. Only five in 100 abused children receive support and counselling, it adds.
The Nigerian child also lacks the basic child healthcare, including vaccinations, adequate nutrition, education, and protection from violent non-state actors. Many children are languishing in refugee camps, displaced by floods, Fulani herdsmen attacks, and Islamic terrorists.
UNICEF disclosed that 852,298 under-five children died in Nigeria in 2021. Similarly, 64 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 23 months lacked access to prescribed vaccines, stated the WHO. Another report says six million of Nigeria’s 17 million food-insecure persons are children aged under five, and living mostly in Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, Sokoto, Katsina and Zamfara states. About 20.5 million children are out-of-school nationwide, with the highest prevalence in the North-East and North-West. A 2021 report by the United Nations stated that 60 percent of internally displaced persons in the country are children.
Nigeria’s federal, states, and LGs, as well as communities, social groups, and organisations, must pull together to protect children. Culturally, children are considered blessings to the communities, and nurtured by the entire community. This culture of collective nurturing appears to be breaking down.
The primitive and harmful practice of child marriage, which negates their potential, distorts their psyche, destroys the anatomy, and reduces the enrolment of the girl-child in schools, and is most pronounced in the North, must be stamped out. Culture is not static, such practices must be jettisoned. Girls not Brides, an NGO, revealed that 43 percent of Nigerian girls are married before their 18th birthday, and 16percent before their 15th. This legitimises sex with minors.
Another report by Musawah, an Islamic family-oriented NGO, stated that child marriage is outdated, based on the contested interpretations of religious laws. Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt have all banned child marriages; Nigeria should follow suit.
Parents/guardians should prioritise the protection of their children and take extra efforts to shield them. Counsellors strongly advise parents to avoid leaving their children in the care of neighbours, relatives, and family members. Mothers should also monitor the relations between fathers and young daughters. Often, sexual abusers are familiar family members, and neighbours. Women should also begin to acquire skills that would allow them to work from home and monitor their children’s activities.
States and LGAs must create robust social monitoring systems, like Lagos and Ekiti states have pioneered. The Federal Government, states, LGs should collaborate and jointly fund a national data bank of convicted paedophiles and rapists. Strict regulatory frameworks must be emplaced for schools, NGOs, faith-based organisations that run day care centres or nurseries to prevent and detect sexual predation.
In response to the spike in sexual abuse, national and state laws should be reviewed to impose harsher penalties on child rapists, their accomplices, and parents, guardians, care-givers, other individuals and organisations whose negligence or actions facilitate commission of the crime. Serial offenders should on conviction, be put away for decades or for life.
Like in the United States, where the legal statute of limitations for sex offenders ranges from 10 to unlimited depending on the state, it should be very long in Nigeria to ensure that rapists and paedophiles pay for their crimes even if it takes decades for the victims to come forward. A famous actor, Danny Masterson, has just bagged a 30-year jail sentence for raping two women in 2003, 20 years ago.
In the US, sexual offenders face criminal prosecution, and listing on the sex offender registration data bank, where their photographs and other details are made available to all law enforcement agencies. There is also sex offender treatment and counselling, confinement and federal prosecution for crimes across state, and child pornography among others. In Indonesia, South Korea, Ukraine and Russia, chemical castration methods are sometimes applied on serial sex offenders.
Women’s groups should mobilise and play a pivotal role in protecting and ensuring justice for rape victims. They should advance the rights of the child and be active in advocating for reporting systems put in place in the LGAs and states. Communities must cooperate, rise against the scourge and ensure the protection of the girl-child.
State police commands should each have a functional and publicly available rape helpdesk, handled by trained police counsellors, and private experts and volunteers. This emergency number system should be devolved to the police divisions. There should be swift response to such calls.
In fairness to the police and other law enforcement agencies, many arrests have been made in recent times, but more needs to be done in terms of responsiveness and prosecution. Telecommunication companies can help with toll-free lines.
The menace of child sexual abuse must be stamped out.