TACOM, Washington — In 2017, the #MeToo movement swept across America as survivors of sexual assault used the hashtag in millions of social media posts to remind other victims that they were not alone. A similar movement moved across Nigeria as countless women turned to social media with the hashtag #ArewaMeToo or #WeAreTired with a similar motive: to draw attention to the terrifying amount of women who have been sexually assaulted. Levels of sexual assault in Nigeria are astonishingly high.
According to UNICEF, one in four Nigerian girls are sexually assaulted with one in three by the age of 25. Despite those high numbers and a population of 206 million people, there have only been “32 rape convictions between 2019 and 2020, according to data from Nigeria’s national anti-trafficking agency.” To make this low conviction rate even more alarming, in the four-month span of January to May of 2020, there were more than 700 cases of rape reported to the police. Needless to say, sexual assault in Nigeria is a serious issue, ignored by corrupt police and victim-blaming, leaving Nigerian women unsafe.
The Role of Police and Courts
Nigeria’s low conviction rate speaks to the fact that sexual assault in Nigeria is not taken seriously by the Nigerian police. Not only that, but the police make an active effort to silence women who have spoken up about their rapes. For example, Nigerian photographer Busola Dakolo came forward about celebrity pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo of “raping her twice, before she turned 18” in June of 2019. She sued the pastor for the horrible act. However, instead of getting justice, Dakolo ended up having to pay Fatoyinbo one million nairas, more than $2,500, in damages for defamation.
Police are often accused of raping women themselves, blaming the victims on their clothing or lifestyle and dismissing cases altogether. Even if survivors get their cases to court, Nigeria’s complex legal system can make cases drag on for years. This puts victims through extensive legal fees and forces them to relive their trauma. These actions and examples have made it clear to Nigerian women that the legal system isn’t a good resource.
The Formation of #ArewaMeToo
Because the legal system has failed these Nigerian survivors, they have instead turned to the internet, using the hashtags #ArewaMeToo (Arewa refers to the North in the Hausa language) and #WeAreTired to publicly shame their abusers. Much like the American #MeToo movement, these posts have caused protests. Yet they have been one of the only ways Nigerian women were able to expose their rapists.
While there was some support, women who spoke out on social media received serious backlash and even police investigations for their posts. Many high-profile accused rapists started filing defamation cases against women who called them out online. This only pushed other victims further into silence in fear of what might happen if they speak up.
In February of 2019, the police went as far as to arrest #ArewaMeToo movement leader, Maryam Awaisu. She had shared posts publicizing accused rapists by name. Released after a day, Awaisu later tweeted, “We will come for you creeps and all you value. Your nonexistent reputations. Your jobs [and]your unabashed ways. Satans in human form, put on your running shoes. Cause the #ArewaMeToo tornado is JUST beginning.”
State of Emergency
In legislation, politicians openly speak out against sexual assault in Nigeria, but it does not curb the country’s high rates of rape. However, a series of especially horrifying incidents pushed the Nigerian government to declare a state of emergency on rape in June 2020.
It all started when 22-year-old student Vera Uwaila Omozuwa bled to death after being brutally raped in a church. Days later, 18-year-old Barakat Bello was gang-raped and stabbed to death in her own home. On June 4, four masked men raped a 12-year-old girl in her home in Lagos. These incidents sparked outrage both in the streets and online, creating a real motivation for politicians to pass tougher laws. On June 12, the president asked all 36 Nigerian states to adopt a 14-year prison sentence and sex offender list. In the region of Kaduna, laws went into effect in September 2020 to castrate child rapists.
The state of emergency and harsher laws imply that the police would take sexual assault reports more seriously. However, Nigerian women continue to recount the same instances of police victim-blaming, dismissing cases or assaulting their legal help. Even with new laws, Nigerian women are forced to turn to protest and social media call-outs. They put themselves more at risk for what happens when they speak up.
Even social media and lawmakers cannot protect Nigerian women from the shaming and stigmatization they receive when they come forward about their sexual assault. Nigerian survivors are heavily victim-blamed and their assault is often considered their fault. The culture is centered around not believing women and protecting men. It puts victims of sexual assault in Nigeria at a disadvantage in court and discourages them from ever coming forward.
Poverty and Sexual Assault
Globally, violence and sexual assault disproportionately affect women in low-income and developing nations. According to U.N. Women, “37% of women aged 15 to 49 in the least developed countries “have been subject to physical and/or sexual” violence. This is much higher than the global average of 13%. Additionally, in Nigeria, more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. While legal reform can make a difference, Nigeria’s high sexual assault rate also stems from the global issue of poverty. Through alleviating global poverty, women all over the world become safer and less likely to face sexual violence.
Sexual assault is horribly prevalent in the lives of Nigerian women and leaves them fearing for their safety and lives. NGOs such as “Stand to End Rape,” “Hands Off Initiative” and “Women at Risk International Foundation” work tirelessly to end and lower the staggering amount of rape in Nigeria and the state of emergency represents governmental incentive to help these women. Yet, Nigerian women still face extreme scrutiny and are forced to deal with corrupt police and an inefficient court system.
While sexual assault in Nigeria rages on, there is hope in the #ArewaMeToo movement and the powerful women behind it. The passion of these women is summed up in Maryam Awaisu’s tweet: “If it’s the last thing we do, we will make this hypocritical society safe for Women and Girls and so help us God.”
– Georgia Bynum