Silent screams: Epidemic of violence against girls

Clarion O. Olusegun

In Lagos State, as is the case in many states across Nigeria, women and girls are suffering from sexual violence. Like Jane Afenibaye Ilu, for fear of being ridiculed, judged, and shamed by peers and relatives victims of sexual violence often choose silence.

Jane is one of the countless girls who were either raped or molested at a very tender age in a country where records have it that one out of three girls suffer from one form of sexual and gender-based violence in their lifetime.

“I was sexually molested at ages 11 and 14. I was scared of what people would say. This had a serious emotional and psychological effect on me while growing up”, said Jane.

Jane’s disclosure that her silence allowed the perpetrator to repeat the act reveals the agonies, contempt, and discrimination suffered by the victims of rape, abuse, and assault daily.

*Molested at five, scarred for life*

Based on recent statistics from the United Nations’ International Children’s Emergency Fund, at least 14,200 children in Nigeria suffer gender-based violence, and a whooping 97 percent of these figures are female-related cases.

The prevailing culture of silence has emerged as a significant factor contributing to the psychological effects on victims and the alarming increase in cases of girl child abuse and molestation.

Victims and their families, associates, or relatives often choose silence, resorting to covering up SGBV, even when responsible authorities are willing to intervene. 

Ada (real name withheld) was molested at age five. Instead of being sent on an errand, she was asked to perform a sexual act.

According to Ada, “When my dad was sick, my mother had to stay with him to take care of him in the hospital for over three months, leaving me at home.

During that period, a much older neighbour, at least 18 years old, invited me to his house and I was for the first time introduced to oral sex.

“He warned me not to tell anyone otherwise; he would do something drastic to me. I had to live with that intimidation, fear, and shame for years and couldn’t speak up.”

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This shows the extent to which perpetrators instill fear in vulnerable young girls to remain in pain without letting out their wounds.

*How the Culture of Silence is Affecting the Implementation and Potentials of the VAPP Act*

According to the United Nations, violence against women and girls is an act that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, or mental harm and suffering among young girls. The forms of Girl Based Violence include rape, child neglect, teen pregnancy, early or forced marriage, domestic violence, child labour, female genital mutilation, girl child molestation, and abuse.

The Executive Secretary of the Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Agency, Titilayo Vivour Adeniyi, disclosed that the Domestic and Sexual Violence Office has recorded over 10,000 sexual violence cases involving girls under Governor Babajide Sanwo Olu’s administration.

She asserted that violence doesn’t stop unless it is checked, adding that “the agency can only assess cases we know about, but children victims and their families rarely come clean.”

Perpetual Oseni, a recent graduate of Political Science Education, is an active bystander. She had witnessed a scenario of girl child molestation and abuse by her friend and attested to the pain and shame of sexual abuse suffered by young girls and how her friend’s silence worsened the case.

The Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act of 2015 is a remarkable piece of legislation that seeks to eliminate violence in private and public life and provide maximum protection and effective remedies for victims and punishment of offenders and related matters.

However, a legal practitioner, Sunday Ojigbo, said Nigerians need to take full advantage of the VAPP Act, noting that many Nigerians ignore their rights and privileges despite having such a law in effect.

He, therefore, advised Nigerians to always take adequate measures and report violent cases to the appropriate authorities for the sake of justice and to avoid continuous abuse.

He cited a recent rape case which, according to him, “is still pending in court because the victim is not opening up, trying to save her cousin. Now, the same cousin has been accused  of another sexual offense”, said Barr Ojibo.

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*The mental health impact of keeping silent*

On his part, the Monitoring and Evaluation Officer at Hacey Health Initiative, a non-governmental organization, Akinmayowa Shobowa, attributed the primary cause of violence against girls to the culture of silence.

In his words, “From research and data available, girls’ molestation and abuse, teenage pregnancy, and rape persist due to the embraced culture of silence.”

“In Lagos, we currently have a situation where even when services are available, the victims and their families are, in most cases, given money to kill the cases. So how will the responsible authority take necessary actions?“ he asked.”

Decrying the consequences of violence against girls and the culture of silence, Shobowa said mental problems on the part of survivors often lead to uncontrollable aftermath traumatic experiences. “It usually becomes a lifetime burden ”, he added.

He further stressed the need to alleviate the menace through advocacy, empowerment, community awareness, protection of rights, and proper identification of the problems.

*Families drop charges against perpetrators*

Judith Omereonye, a secondary school teacher at Abule-Egba, Lagos state, confirmed a case where one of her students spoke to her concerning her uncle’s constant abuse at home sexually.

She said: “All my efforts to take legal action proved abortive since the mother of the girl did not allow us to take necessary legal steps, claiming it was a family matter and would be taken as such and resolved accordingly, in their family way.”

Similarly, the Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer, Benjamin Hundeyin, pointed out that victims’ relatives often come to drop charges and, if forced, run away from their immediate neighbourhood to avoid getting caught.

Recalling a case of a police officer who championed victims’ silence after collaborating with the perpetrators, he said that “ a case that occurred last year where the police were the one who decided for them to settle the case and pay compensation. However, the police officer got punished by the State CID.”

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Empowering voices, demanding justice

Sharing her experience, Abimbola Williams, Deputy Superintendent of Police and the Gender Lagos State Police Command, revealed that girl children are always the target of most abusers, which has been on the increase recently, noting that between January 2023 and January 2024, over 95 cases of child sexual abuse were reported.

She stated that research has shown that the number of victims has heightened because young girls are seen as vulnerable and then persuaded to stay silent to avoid stigmatization or risk dying.

“They tell the girls people will not believe you, especially when the perpetrator is in a position of power, that gives them more advantage over the little girls who they scare and intimidated into silence.”

“There was a case where the father allegedly slept with his three daughters, and the mother of the children begged us not to prosecute her husband, saying that if her husband goes to jail, nobody will take care of them.”

She assured that the police officers are implementing efforts to eradicate sexual violence against young girls in Lagos, and one of the ways is the establishment of a gender desk unit, which trains and houses officers to advocate against sexual violence and handle sexual-related cases.

This particular unit also embarks on empowerment programs and establishes partnerships with relevant stakeholders, thereby creating community awareness and sensitization, especially at the grassroots level.

Healing from sexual abuse is a battle to overcome to live life at its best. The act has a way of leaving a lifelong scar that never heals, and it has the power to keep one bitter and angry for a long time.

Many believe that breaking the culture of silence is the best way to make the world a haven for all and allow justice to take its course—a clarion call from experts to eliminate violence against women and girls and campaign against the culture of silence.

Clarion Olusegun is a recent graduate of Mass Communication at Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State.

Silent screams: Epidemic of violence against girls

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