As an academic and activist, engaging in frank and uncomfortable discussions about topical issues is a part of my everyday existence. Yet no political issue has been the source of sustained frustration, anger, and emotional upheaval as much as the crisis of sexual violence and rape in Nigerian society.
Often while exchanging thoughts and opinions with my Nigerian sisters and brothers on this problem, I find myself too overwhelmed with anger and thus forced, uncharacteristically, into silence. Or I may become so frustrated with the dismissive way that rape and sexual violence is treated, that the conversation invariably ends up being unhelpful in the building of awareness and consciousness. What usually follows then is anger at the unconstructive nature of the dialogue and my inability to persuade the other individual to reflect more critically on the issue.
But as the famous human rights activist and educator Audre Lorde reminds us, not all anger is unproductive, in fact, there are “uses” of anger (Lorde, 1984/2007**). As she puts it, “anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification” (p. 127).
To be sure, when it comes to the crisis of rape in Nigeria, there are numerous reasons to be angry. There is the matter of those Nigerians who readily dismiss rape as a non-issue despite piles of evidence to the contrary. The resistance that is put up by those who undermine its significance in relation to the structural inequality, corruption, and massive unemployment that plague the daily lives of most Nigerians. And then there is this overwhelming tendency amongst many of us to individualize the problem of rape and to separate it from the broader devaluation and oppression of women in Nigerian society.
Oftentimes in these discussions, the perpetration of rape and sexual violence against women is not of paramount significance. The issue that is deemed important is the regulation and control of women’s bodies and sexualities by the dictates of the state, men and by religious authorities. And so it becomes not unusual to hear those who place the onus of responsibility on women, urging them to morally discipline themselves and pursue more “righteous” paths to avoid being sexually violated by uncles, fathers, husbands, armed robbers, and so on.
And so, reflecting on the current state of affairs, it is no wonder that anger emerges as the overpowering emotion. However, unlike before, I now believe that this anger can become the impetus for concerted political organizing and mobilization for those discerning Nigerians who are outraged at the scourge of sexual violence that threatens the everyday lives of our sisters in the country. Following in Audre Lorde’s footsteps I have resolved that this anger need not be incapacitating. It need not drive one into silence and inaction.
It can be redirected as the energy and motivational force that inspires us to plant our feet firmly on the battleground over women’s right to their own bodies and sexualities. My continued anger is thus a testament to my commitment toward the eradication of this social plague. Until all women in Nigeria are granted the human right to determine their sexual and bodily autonomy, I choose to remain angry. And these are three reasons why you should be too!
Firstly, the issue of rape and sexual violence is not removed from Nigeria’s broader socio-economic issues but is a part of it. Studies have shown that rape is more prevalent where women have relatively low economic autonomy. This means that Nigeria’s rising poverty rate of over 61% (and women make up a large proportion of the poor), would aid the further entrenchment of sexual violence in Nigerian society.
Moreover, it is becoming impossible to divorce Nigeria’s culture of corruption from its culture of sexual violence and this is true of all Nigerian institutions. Within Nigeria’s corrupt educational system, women’s sexual autonomy is daily trampled upon by administrators, instructors and by students themselves. Within the criminal justice system, women are at risk by a legal system that continues to sanction marital rape; that fails to effectively prosecute sexual violence against women; and by political and legal representatives that readily blame the victims of rape. In Nigeria women are unsafe even while in police custody!
What does this all mean? It means that the oppression of women in Nigerian society must be understood as being compatible with the systemic oppression of all of Nigeria’s working-class and peasantry by the political and economic elite. It also means that those who call for radical changes in the current political and economic status quo must adopt a holistic understanding of oppression in which women’s gendered oppression is a significant part.
Secondly women’s rights are human rights. So if you are truly angry at the gross human rights violations so characteristic of Nigerian society then you should also add the violation of women’s bodies and sexual autonomy to your list. If you are angered by the denial of our rights as citizens to freely elect representatives without coercion; the militaristic restrictions on our freedom of speech and expression; and the class warfare which leaves the majority of Nigerians vulnerable to exploitation by the kleptocrats then you should be angered by Nigeria’s failure to take women’s rights seriously.
If you are angry at the disregard for the human rights of the poor by the corrupt law enforcement, judicial and political systems, then you should raise your voice stridently in anger at those who would deny women the human right to engage only in consented sexual activity.
A third reason to be angry is the absence of comprehensive and accessible statistical data on rape and sexual violence in the country which doubly injures survivors of rape. Further, the sparse statistics on reported sexual violence renders the suffering of so many women and girls across the country invisible.
While the gathering of statistics is not something that Nigerian authorities do well, this negligence becomes especially criminal with respect to the issue of rape. This state of affairs is perhaps why so many Nigerians remain ignorant of this crisis and are startled when instances of rape, like the Abia State University incident, are exposed in the open. Yet despite this denial, and its accompanying institutional erasure, Nigerian women know that it exists.
We know this from our individual and collective experiences. We know that the culture of shaming, aided by religious moralizing, which holds victims of rape and sexual violence responsible for their suffering, silences those who would come forward with their stories.
We know that Nigerian society is one where women are socially and economically prosecuted and punished for being victims of rape. And we know that our government’s silence and failures on this issue, despite reports by Amnesty International and other international organizations which attest to its existence, speak to the state’s complicity in the continued sexual oppression of women.
So if your mother, aunt, sister, friend, wife or daughter has been a victim of sexual violence and has seen her experiences of trauma denied and erased by the state, then you too should be angry!
Yet our anger is just the beginning. As Audre Lorde reminds us, we should also “tap that anger as an important source of empowerment” (p. 130), to aid us in envisioning a different future society. This would be a society in which women’s bodies are not sites of masculine displays of power, objectification and dehumanization. It would be a just national community in which women are recognized as human beings.
The question that remains is, how will you and I tap into our anger?
***Lorde, A. (2007). Sister outsider. New York, NY: Crossing Press Berkeley. (Original work published in 1984)
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Ijeoma Ekoh is a doctoral student at York University. She previously received a masters of arts degree from the University of Toronto in education and is a member of the Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity, a political organization dedicated to the emancipation of Afrikan peoples across the globe from all forms of exploitation.