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Home » Human rights » Nigeria: Reconsidering position on Rape.

IMG_2172A rights activist and the former Executive Director, Initiative for Equal Rights, Mr. Joseph Akoro, tells TOBI AWORINDE that the recent National Conference recommendation seeking life imprisonment for convicted rapists does not meet international standards

What is your opinion on the proposition by the National Conference that convicted rapists be sentenced to life imprisonment?

Rape is sexual violence, of which the potential victims have no gender limitation. While women and girls are empirically and mostly affected by this vice, men, especially the gender norm-conforming ones, are affected likewise. The concept of rape in Nigeria needs to be dismantled and reconsidered for a proper attempt to address sexual injustice. I will be careful also to address this issue from a pragmatic perspective, using a human rights lens in essence, considering mainly the sexual and reproductive health of victims rather than morality based on religious or traditional beliefs.

While I agree that it is important to institute measures to halt sexual violence in Nigeria, it is particularly not clear how delegates of the conference dish out penalties per crime. I am of the academic perspective that punishment for crimes are necessary to manage the society and cleanse it of its ills. But allocation of punishment in this manner, to me, seems rather subjective than objective. Truly, I am not privy to the proceedings of the conference but I am not sure if this should be the priority of the conference delegates. I would think that law-making should be the duty of the legislature. We have a clear system of governance in Nigeria and this should be respected. However, the results of the conference consultation may be useful as recommendations.

What is your take on the argument that rape sometimes lead to death of the victim and should be treated as a murder?

My point is that the issue of sexual violence needs to be understood from a human rights perspective. Generally in Nigeria, we cannot deny that the promotion and protection of human rights is lacking and little is done to achieve justice, where persons have had their fundamental human rights infringed upon. Albeit guaranteed in Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution, it is important to acknowledge the gravity of human rights violations in Nigeria.

Speaking on the issue of rape, my immediate reaction would be that perpetrators of rape should be brought to justice; they should be investigated and convicted, where found guilty beyond all reasonable doubts. I also need to allude to the fact that the definition of rape in Nigeria is limited. Women and girls are the only victim of rape, in the Nigerian context, and there is no provision for marital rape. We ignore the fact that men and boys also suffer rape, either perpetrated by other men or even women. And persons in marriage may also be raped by their spouse. Thus, I would be very quick to recommend the redefinition of rape so that all potential victims can be protected. Of course, where rape leads to death, it is a murder case and should be treated as such. There are examples all over the world on how to address such cases.

Considering the extent of mental damage that the crime can cause the victim, especially in cases involving minors, don’t you think that the recommended penalty will go a long way in protecting victims?

I am not in the position to recommend penalty for any crime, nor would I attempt a penalty for rape, regardless of my passion for human rights and my sympathy for rape victims. Nevertheless, while I agree that a penalty for rape perpetrators is in place, I will also suggest to appropriate authorities to deal with the root cause of this social vice.

Given the poor state of our correctional facilities, what is the guarantee that, if given lesser punishments, convicted rapists would not simply return to their old ways?

The way I can’t guarantee that keeping all rapists in jail for life will reduce the incidence of rape is the same way I can’t guarantee that a lesser punishment for convicted rapists would make perpetrators commit the same crime after serving their jail term. What is important, if I may reiterate, is to institute social services that would target rape victims as well as aim at providing psychological support for rapists.

What, specifically, would you suggest as the appropriate parameters for criminalising rape, apart from the heavy penalties currently prescribed?

It is important to acknowledge that there are degrees of rape. Thus, different degrees should attract different types of punishment. For instance, in France, a rapist is punished for a maximum of 15 years criminal imprisonment. Where an incident of rape involves a victim under the age of 15, the rapist is punished for a maximum of 20 years criminal imprisonment. When it is preceded, accompanied or followed by torture leading to death, maybe it is punishable for a maximum of imprisonment for life.

In Russia, rape or coercive sexual actions without any ‘aggravating circumstances’ are punishable, with three to six years of imprisonment. If the crime is perpetrated by a group of persons, including torture, it is punished with four to 10 years of imprisonment and with a possibility of being restrained of liberty for up to two years. If the crime is committed against minors-relative to the age of consent and resulting in a grave health implication, for instance, HIV infection – it is punishable, with eight to 15 years of imprisonment followed by mandatory restraint of liberty for up to two years and a ban from the labour market of up to 20 years. Where the crime leads to death, it is punishable with 12 to 20 years. In Russia, there is no life imprisonment. These are not my prescriptions but existing measures for lawmakers to learn from in order to deal with the social vice.

It is also important to note that there are international guidelines and recommendation on how to deal with rape; this I expect Nigerian lawmakers to consider. They include, first and most importantly, defining sexual assault as a violation of bodily integrity and sexual autonomy; then replacing existing offences of rape and ‘indecent’ assault with a broad offence of sexual assault graded based on harm; providing for aggravating circumstances, including but not limited to the age of the survivor, the relationship of the perpetrator and survivor, the use or threat of violence, the presence of multiple perpetrators, and grave physical or mental consequences of the attack on the victim.

Other guidelines include removing any requirement that sexual assault be committed by force or violence, and any requirement of proof of penetration; minimising secondary victimisation of the complainant or survivor in proceedings by enacting a definition of sexual assault that either (i) requires the existence of ‘unequivocal and voluntary agreement’ and requiring proof by the accused of steps taken to ascertain whether the complainant or survivor was consenting, or (ii) requires that the act take place in ‘coercive circumstances’ and includes a broad range of coercive circumstances; and specifically, criminalising sexual assault within a relationship that is, ‘marital rape,’ either by (i) providing that sexual assault provisions apply ‘irrespective of the nature of the relationship’ between the perpetrator and complainant, or (ii) stating that ‘no marriage or other relationship shall constitute a defence to a charge of sexual assault under the legislation.’

Does it mean that such recommended severe penalties are not what our society needs to instill fear in potential and unrepentant sexual offenders?

Indeed, laws are promulgated to deter potential perpetrators of crime. It is, for a fact, a measure to manage human excesses. Punishments for rape are important and in place. I would feel better if this were a conversation engaged in by Nigerian lawmakers and not just conference delegates. It is important to take the discussion of rape seriously, involving members of the civil society in regular consultation and establish a sustainable programme that would contribute to reducing the incidence of rape in the Nigerian society. All of these are important than just instilling fear.

In the case of Boko Haram’s abductions in the North and the reports that the girls held hostage are being sexually violated, are their parents not right to have considered death penalty for such crime?

Before the Boko Haram abduction of the Chibok girls, there have been several incidents of child rape in Nigeria. Child sexual molestation is a grave crime and many lead to everlasting health consequences, if not death. As I have mentioned earlier, there are degrees of rape. Where it involves a gruesome experience, the onus is on the judge in the court of law to prescribe the appropriate sentence. Ensuring that there are laws in place for the protection of Nigerian children should not only be to ease the parents but also to ensure that the children themselves feel protected in their country.

Interview originally published at:

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