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Rape Culture: How it was promoted in Africa and the consequences today

By definition, rape culture is an environment in which rape is not only pervasive but also normalised (or trivialised) because of societal attitudes about gender and sexuality.

Although the term was generated recently, it reflects on an already existing custom that dates back to medieval times. Numerous ancient Greek and Roman mythologies talk of, and even romanticise coupling that is forced and violent. In Ancient Europe, stories abound of women put to death for being raped, compounding the aspect of victim blaming, which forms an essential part of rape culture.

As a largely patriarchal society, Africa has customs and traditions, since time immemorial, that have tolerated and promoted rape culture regardless of the community behind these cultures.  One such ritual is the marriage ritual called Ukuthwala in the Nguni community in South Africa. In this ritual, a young man of marriageable age would kidnap a girl or a young woman with the intention of compelling her family to approve the marriage and start negotiations.

Such a ritual is also practised in communities in Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. These communities have banned the ‘bridegrooms’ from having sexual intercourse with the kidnapped ‘brides’ but the ban is not always observed. In many cases, the women are raped as a way of forcing the hand of the bride and the family into accepting the marriage.

A young girl from Kenya’s Pokot tribe weeps as she’s led away from her home by her future husband’s family. Reuters/Siegfried Modola

In other communities, female rape survivors are considered adulterers and punished in various ways including marrying their rapist or even put to death. In Somaliland, a rape survivor would be forced to marry their rapist to avoid bringing shame and stigma to the family. This, however, changed in 2018 when the country passed a historic law that would see perpetrators spend at least 20 years in prison for such a crime. It also institutes punishment for anyone who fails to report such crimes.

In a recent report by the Human Rights Watch, the entrenched rape culture in Mauritania was highlighted. In the report, women and girls told of how they were subjected to sexual assault and how many obstacles they had to face in their quest for justice. Many of the women in the report have had to be courageous enough to speak out against sexual violence because of the shame, stigma and lack of justice.

One of the women, Rouhiya (not her real name), speaks of her escape from her sexually abusive father, only to end up with a sexually abusive lover who had promised to marry her.  However, instead of arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators, they arrested Rouhiya.

Soon after, she said, the man locked her up, drugged her, and gang-raped her with three other men. Rouhiya remained captive for two weeks until the police found her and returned her to the home from which she had tried to escape. In her report to the police, Rouhiya disclosed that she knew one of the perpetrators. Police arrested her and sent her to the national women’s prison on charges of engaging in sexual relations outside marriage (zina). “I asked them, ‘Why? What did I do?’,” Rouhiya said. “They told me to keep quiet and not to ask questions.”

In September 2019, South Africa lost a student because of rape culture, compounding cases in a country considered the ‘rape central’ of Africa.  There were protests across the country and at different times in history to protest gender-based violence including rape and sexual assault.

The rape and murder of South African teenager Uyinene Mrwetyana sparked an uprising of protests across the country. Photo / Instagram

In Egypt, rape is treated so casually that a renown lawyer called for women to be raped as a matter of ‘national duty’ on national TV. It took the outrage of women movements in the country and worldwide censure for the lawyer to apologise.  This says a lot in a country deemed one of the most dangerous for women in the world.

Not many African countries have laws against sexual assault, and if they do, the prosecutions are often few and far in between. As per the HRW report, Mauritania does not define nor criminalise rape in its laws. Additionally, the burden to prove that sex was nonconsensual rests on the survivor, failure to which women can be turned into the accused.

Aside from the lack of laws, not so many institutions are sensitised in dealing with rape cases. From healthcare service providers to police officers, there are still gaps to fill to ensure that sexual assault survivors not only get the right medical care but also access justice.

It is also not uncommon to find perpetrators receiving no jail term even with evidence and a history of sexual assault. With such incidences, it is no wonder that many African countries are prosecuting some of their first sexual assault cases in the 2010s.

In some cases, rape cases are withdrawn due to threats to the victims or resolution by parents and the perpetrator, without the victim’s knowledge. In Kenya, the fear of reporting rape cases has been countered by the use of SMSes and hotlines, including the SMS platform run by Wangu Kanja Foundation, a charity for rape survivors.  The platform provides a way for rape survivors to not only report cases but also access legal and medical help.

Other traditions prevalent in Africa such a female genital mutilation and child marriages have been linked to domestic violence, including rape and sexual assaults.  In Africa, the age of consent ranges between 12 and 18, yet even in the countries with 18 as the age of consent, child marriages still take place. The case of the 13-year old  Kenyan girl who was beaten to death for refusing to marry a 60-year-old man comes to mind. The incident happened in the country where child marriages have been banned and advocacy surrounding terrible consequences of child marriages have been ongoing for ages.

Child marriage

Once married, these underage girls are sexually assaulted and since not many countries have laws against spousal and marital rape, nothing is really done to save these girls. In many cases, it is considered against the fundamentals of marriage for one to take a spouse to court over rape. This is what a judge in Malawi said in 2001 when shutting down a marital rape bill by a women’s group. Although the law constituting marital rape was passed in 2016, the idea that couples cannot say no to sex in marriage is still held in many places in Africa.

Wars and conflicts have also seen some of the terrible cases of rape and the subsequent lack of prosecution contribute to rape culture.  It was only in 2008 that rape and sexual violence during war constituted “war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide,” after the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1820.

The resolution also noted that women and girls are particularly targeted by the use of sexual violence, including in some cases as “a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group”.  Stressing that such violence could significantly exacerbate conflicts and impede peace processes, the text affirmed the Council’s readiness to, where necessary, adopt steps to address systematic sexual violence deliberately targeting civilians, or as a part of a widespread campaign against civilian populations.

– Press release in 2008

Rape culture in Africa is also perpetrated using language and media. Catcalling, making rape jokes and even sex-shaming are just some ways this culture is sustained.  The sharing of nude images for laughs or for revenge on social media is one of the new ways Africa’s younger generation is promoting the old-age tradition.

While there have been improvements in addressing some of these issues, Africa still has a long way to go, especially now that there are new avenues to perpetuate rape culture and sufficient data to prove that sexual violence is still rampant and new strategies are needed to deal with it.

Few things unite Nigerians like the numerous stories of sexual abuse, intrenched in tradition and scattered across tribes and cultures, and perpetrated mostly against women. So endemic is this culture of sexual violence against women that it is woven into the very fabric of our existence. It cuts across all segments of society: the home, the education system, the workplace, the nation’s armed services, hospitals and even places of worship — places that over 40% of the nation’s populace consider a second home where many seek refuge. There is overwhelming statistical evidence to back up these claims.

Nothing exposes the backwardness of a country more than this prevalent rape culture, backed by religious and cultural sentiments of male supremacy and dominance.

The 2014 National Survey on Violence Against Children in Nigeria found that one in four women have experienced sexual violence in childhood, with over 70% of them reporting more than one incident. Of the 24.8% of women aged 18 to 24 who have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18, a dismal 5% sought help, and just 3.5% received any assistance.

Nigeria’s Criminal Code recommends life imprisonment for those convicted of rape and 14 years for attempted rape. Given that as few as two out of 40 rape cases are reported in Nigeria, it is difficult to estimate the number of rapes committed each year. Yet it is quite shocking that in the legal history of Nigeria, fewer than 40 persons have been convicted of the crime.

One major reason for this might be the fact that most rape perpetrators are known to the victim, and might even be family members. As Nigeria’s culture dictates protecting the family at all cost, the burden is left for the victim to bear, often causing major life-long trauma without any hope for justice. To understand why this is so, we have to delve into the cultural and religious factors that have enabled this menace to continue for so long, uncorrected, all across Nigeria.

Context of Rape

The Nigerian woman knows the possibility of rape is always high. She is reminded at every turn that, as a woman, any man who is physically strong enough can decide to demonstrate his supremacy by way of sexual violence.

In places of worship, whether mosques or churches, she is taught to keep her head bowed down and her voice low or, even better, inaudible, to not “distract the men” from going about their business of searching for God. A woman is, in short, a distraction strategically positioned to bring down a man.

This religious and cultural bias against women in Nigeria has a wide scope of consequences. The region most hardly hit, northern Nigeria, has female illiteracy rates of over 80%, with only 3% of women completing secondary education. (It is here that the #ArewaMeToo hashtag originated in response to the global #MeToo movement, arewa being the Hausa word for “north.”) Almost half of Nigerian girls become mothers before the age of 20 and, with a maternal mortality rate of 917 per 100,000 women compared to an average of 11 per 100,000 in high-income countries, there are significant health statistics stacked against the Nigerian woman.

In some parts of the country, women are denied legal rights to own property. Only 4% of the country’s land in northeastern Nigeria is owned by women, 10% in the southeast and the south. Certain customary laws state that only men can own land, and the only way a woman can get access to land is through marriage. This fosters a culture where women are desperate to marry, not for the sake of the marital union, but because of what she stands to gain from being joined to a male partner, further lending credence to a culture of male supremacy.

This view of women as mere addenda to the men increases a perception that she should be treated as lesser human beings and spikes an increased tolerance for sexual abuse by men who wield power over them. It also makes the people — men and women alike — generally uncomfortable with a single, successful woman without a husband. It is seen as an anomaly for a woman to achieve prominence without the mentorship and guidance of a strong male figure such as a husband, behind whose prowess she takes cover.

This cultural and religious context may be the underlying reason behind the societal pressure to remain silent and the strong element of shame around rape and rape victims. Spousal rape has absolutely no value at all, and the country’s penal code allows husbands to beat their wives — provided it does not lead to serious injury.

While it is true that male rape is also a problem, it won’t be solved by deemphasising violence against women. When we shift the spotlight from the women who bring up the subject of rape and instead concentrate on what is often referred to as “rarely discussed male rape,” we end up propagating rape culture, alongside attitudes like victim blaming and slut shaming. As a matter of fact, male rape gains more credence when we are open about female rape and the physical and mental damage it inflicts on women of all ages, influencing their attitudes and actions toward the men in their lives.

Women Owning Their Voices

Recently, women have been speaking out more freely about incidences of rape and sexual assault. The stories of policemen raping alleged prostitutes in the nation’s capital, Abuja, received media coverage. When a prominent pastor was accused by a former church member of rape, it sparked a conversation on social media, leading to more allegations against him and other figures of authority. The ensuing #ChurchToo movement protest saw the pastor step down from his pulpit. The victim went on to seek legal recourse, while other victims spoke out openly about similar experiences, owning their voices and their stories.

Vera Uwaila Omozuwa

Recently, Vera Uwaila Omozuwa, a 22-year-old microbiology student, sought the quiet of her empty church in Benin City, southern Nigeria, as a place to study. Hours later she was raped and killed in a crime that has sparked outrage across Nigeria.

Also, a young woman was murdered on Monday night, June 1, in her home in Ibadan and Twitter users are calling for justice for her. The hashtag #JusticeForBarakat began trending on Twitter following the murder of Barakat Bello in Akinyele, Ibadan, after she resisted being raped during a robbery. Report later emerged that she was forcefully raped before her murder. Barakat was a Science Laboratory Technology ND1 student of the Federal College of Animal Health and Production Technology Moore Plantation in Apata Ibadan, Oyo.

Barakat Bello

This is the first time Nigeria experienced such an open discussion about the subject of rape. Although the victims were faced with long-suppressed feelings of shame, anger and rage, the public acknowledgement of fact that there is a massive rape problem in Nigeria is the first step toward building a responsible society that protects its women.

However, much of the rape still goes unreported, especially among those who cannot speak up, like the child brides of northern Nigeria against whom statutory rape is being committed on a daily basis. Because women occupy few positions in the country’s public sector, and even fewer positions at the top where major decision-making occurs, the representation of those worst hit is still at an all-time low.

One thing is certain: Few men are aware of the immense power they have to influence and shape the lives of women, and very few of them truly understand the magnitude of the crime of sexual assault or rape on the victims. While male education and advocacy against rape is picking up momentum, it is still far from being adequate. For this reason, the need for women to take up positions of power and authority has never been as essential as it is now. There simply has to be a stronger representation of women in politics and policymaking if anything is to change.

What do you think?

Written by vozAfric

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