‘Make punishment for child rights’ offenders strict, definite’

Hauwa Shekarau

Hauwa Shekarau

Despite the existence of several laws including: Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, the Child’s Rights Act and Abortion Prohibition Act, rape, violence against girl-child and women as well as constant abductions and kidnappings of this vulnerable group, are on the increase, perhaps, because offenders hardly get definite punishments. In this interview granted by the immediate past president of International Federation of Women Lawyers, (FIDA) and Country director of IPAS Nigeria, Mrs. Hauwa Shekarau, she speaks on the legal implications involved in the non enforcement of the laws and less punishments given to offenders when convicted, adding that unless stringent conditions are imposed on willing culprits, it will not deter others from attempting the same heinous crimes. IBE UWALEKE reports:

What are the efforts of FIDA (International Federation of Women Lawyers) in ensuring the domestication of Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act, (VAPP) in other states of the federation, beyond the FCT?

Most people already know, that I concluded my tenure as President of FIDA in December 2015. During the AGM that held in Port-Harcourt, a new president was elected. She is Mrs. Inime Aguma, who is the president and is in the position to say all that FIDA is doing from now henceforth. I am an ex-officio member of the executive but I don’t think I have the authority to speak on behalf of FIDA. I want to speak in my capacity as the Country Director of IPAS, which is an international non-governmental organisation that has also been engaged in the legislative advocacy coalition on violence against women and we’ve also supported the process of pushing of the enactment of the VAPP Act. We are also supporting partners that are working to ensure that the VAPP Act is adopted in other states so that women and the Nigerian citizens and other people living in Nigeria can benefit from this very important law that has been passed in the FCT.

At IPAS, we work with FIDA, National Council for Women Societies, NCWS, and so many other women groups, including professional groups like Medical Women Association, Nigerian Medical Association, (NMA), to promote women’s health. So I know as a fact that efforts are being made to ensure that all the states adopt the VAPP Act. I think that it is not something that will happen over-night. It is something that requires a lot of resources, time, efforts, planning and synergising to be able to ensure that this law is passed in the states. Hopefully, in the next one or two years, we should be able to celebrate some successes of some states having adopted and passed the VAPP Act.

Has justice been done in the sharing formula of appointments to women in President Buhari’s administration?

Certainly, justice has not been done. And I know that as President of FIDA, we had harped on this issue during my tenure and I know that we will continue to harp on it until it happens. I recall that on January 1, this year, the Women in Politics forum met with Mr. President in Aso Villa and he made a commitment that he was going to honour his pledge of carrying women along and giving them the rightful positions in the scheme of things in this country. We are still holding him to that promise, and we are calling on him to do the needful and ensure that women are embedded in governance in this country. Not just at the federal level, including the state and local government levels. I know that Mr. President can encourage the state governors to ensure that they give women their pride of place in governance.

There is the call for a review of restrictive abortion laws in Nigeria, a secular state and very religious society while others still look at abortion as infringement on the right of life of the foetus. Why is it necessary to uphold laws in favour of abortion?

When people say that we are a very religious country, I find it very cynical in the sense that when we say we are religious, we are very good at breaking those religious laws that are suitable to us. Our religious inclination is so hypocritical that the same thing we accuse other people of, we ourselves are guilty of them. So at the end of the day, I wonder, what kind of religious nation is this. A religious nation where people would steal from the treasury and even take it to the place of worship and it will be collected. And we call ourselves a religious nation. I think we are rather a very hypocritical nation if I must say the truth without fear of being contradicted. The review of abortion laws is an issue that is indeed, very controversial, very emotive. Let me tell you the truth, a lot of studies have been conducted. A very recent study that was conducted last year in this country by the Goodmarker Institute in collaboration with the University of Ibadan found out that 1.5 million abortions take place in this country every year. Yet, we have a law that does not allow for abortion, ‘except where the life of the mother is in danger’. There are different situations you find yourself that can make a woman want to abort a pregnancy. We follow, we are talking about the health of the woman. We are talking about a human being that you can see, that moves, and has a being and a right to her bodily integrity. Now, situations such as rape and incest, they happen on a daily basis. Yet, society is not protecting these women from these kinds of situations. Society, and indeed, some of our religious institutions do not even encourage women to go for contraception that will help them to regulate their fertility so that they don’t get pregnant when they don’t want to. And yet we expect that every pregnancy that occurs, irrespective of the situation must be carried to term and delivered even when the woman carrying the pregnancy is not ready for whatever reason or the other, to have that pregnancy. And it is because that law is very obsolete, and not responsive to the changing society that we find ourselves in, it will continue to be observed in the breach. Whether we like it or not, irrespective of whatever we believe, this is the fact. If you look at the abortion law, the way it is drafted, it makes it almost impossible for somebody to be prosecuted for it. There are so many issues that come into play. Now, are we just interested in having that law in place? I recall meeting somebody at a meeting and the person was saying that ‘yes we know that the abortions are taking place every day. Let it continue like that but let the law remain’. And I wonder what kind of society that will still allow a law that is no longer responsive to the yearnings of the people, the changing society and the changing dynamics of the society and we just allow it be. For me as a person and even for my organisation as IPAS, our major focus is that women should be given the opportunity to make their choices. That is a right-based issue that nobody should be in the position to determine for someone else, what should happen to their lives because human right is God-given. God gives you that right because He created you human. So by reason of being born into the world, you begin to have rights. So the right of the unborn child and a human being that is already born, which one takes precedence? One will certainly be higher than the other. So however we look at it, like I said, it’s a controversial issue. It’s how you look at it.

Cases of abduction of females, especially girls is becoming one too many. What legislation can government put in place to secure this vulnerable group?

The abduction of ‘Ese’ is one too many. There are so many Eses out there who we are not hearing anything about them because they’ve not been able to speak up, or because there is nobody to speak up for them. I recall, about a year or two ago when a similar issue happened in Bida and it was in the news and truly I don’t remember how that matter was eventually resolved. Now, here we have Ese, and as I said, there are a thousand and one of them out there. Looking at this case of Ese, you can see that the matter started late last year, and it was reported to the police who did nothing until the outcry was high through the use of the social media. And that was how the law enforcement agents were practically compelled to act. I think our government, the law enforcement agencies and social workers need to be very proactive. We need to see a very serious commitment on the part of government to protect the lives and the rights of citizens. No matter how young or old, every human being has rights and those rights are already enshrined in our law books and they need to be protected. I think the issue of some of the law enforcement officers dropping the ball over very serious infringement of other peoples’ rights needs much to be desired. That’s why I am so happy that the Inspector-General of Police has given an order that this Ese’s matter be investigated and any police officer found complicit in the entire saga be brought to book. When that is done, it will serve as a deterrent to other officers who, when cases come before them, they turn the blind eye instead of following the due processes of law and bringing perpetrators to book. Some of the police officers are more interested in monetary gratification. Perpetrators bribe their way and wriggle out of justice. We cannot continue in this manner.

Now when this new government came into power, it came with the ‘change’ slogan. And it appears to me that ‘change’ slogan is just a slogan. There is clearly no evidence of change. I was thinking that the ‘change’ mantra was going to ensure that even the way we do things, the way law enforcements carry out their work, the way government officials’ work is going to be galvanized by this theory of ‘change’. Things cannot continue the way they are.

Look at the case of sexual assault or defilement of our young girls, infants, toddlers. We read in the papers of how infants, toddlers, small girls of six, seven years old being sexually defiled on a daily basis. It appears that because there is no corresponding conviction for perpetrators of such offences, people are of the view that you can actually do it and get away with it. It is important that we come out and show a complete intolerance for sexual violence against our young ones and also send a clear message that our young girls cannot be turned into sexual objects.

nigerian_childrenWe should allow our young ones to grow and reach that age where they are ripe for marriage and they can be married off. For goodness sake, you just pick up a 13 year old and you just go and keep her and say ‘it was her choice, she wanted to go’. The law says in section 39 of the Penal Code, any person who is under 14 years is not capable of giving consent. So long as that person is under-aged, the only person who can give consent on behalf of that person is either that person’s parents or guardian. And I think this Ese’s case is a test case. We want to see how the law enforcement agents will ensure that the Yunusa of a man is brought to book and made to face the wrath of the law. I will also want to see, those who were accomplices, those who aided and abetted the commission of this crime also being brought to book. It is when we are able to do that successfully, that we will then begin to change the way things are being done in this country. The impunity in this country is too much. Everyday on social media, you see pictures of people taking minors and dismembering their vital parts. And these things are posted on the social media. It is so much so that we have lost our sense of humanity. It is such a shame and the only way we can deal with this situation is by ensuring that we enforce our laws to the later, without fearing whose ox is gored, without treating offenders with any differential treatment. For instance if in the investigation, it is found that the Kano emir aided and abetted the kidnapping of this young girl called Ese, he should be brought to book. He is not above the law. The rule of law says that ‘nobody no matter how highly place, is above the law’.

A recent WHO report states that 98, 000 women and girls die annually from smoke emanating from using dirty fuel, (firewood) for cooking. How does this constitute a public health concern, looking at women’s role in reproduction?

I haven’t read about that report, so I am not sure I am competent to make a comment regarding it. For me as a non medic or environmentalist, I wonder what to make of this. Before the advancement in technology, our fore-grandparents basically used the traditional ways of cooking which is firewood and they enjoyed good life. Some of them lived till old age. Infact, life expectancy during their time was quite higher than what it is for us today. So really, I am not trying to impeach the veracity of the correctness of that report. Having said that, regarding the health of women; indeed, there are so many things that impinge on women’s health. Right from the time they are born, as young girls, toddlers and infants, and up to the time they reach teenage age, they enter into the reproductive age bracket and even get into the post menopausal stage, women’s health continues to be an issue of concern. So aside from the issue of use of smoke that some of them inhale from domestic work associated with their gender, there are other issues that continue to impinge on women’s health in Nigeria. Some of these things are infrastructural issues. Sometimes the health facilities are not readily accessible to the women or they are so far away from them that you will have to take a very tortuous journey to get to a health-care facility. Of course, we also have situations where these facilities do not have the requisite manpower to meet the challenges of women’s health so there is a whole gamut of issues. That should also concern us, and not just the issue of dirty fuel. Let me also add, that as much as the inhalation of bad smoke is injurious to women’s health, what alternative do we have for them? For women who are living in rural areas, below one Dollar per day, what alternatives can we provide for them in-order to prevent them from using firewood? This is the challenge but the major thing for us to look at is how do we address the situation?

But there is the alternative in clean fuel which is solar energy to explore in place of firewood…?

Look, it is a good suggestion. But today in Nigeria, the use of solar energy is not cheap. Are we saying that they will just carry their pots and put under the sun and it cooks their food? There is a technology that has to be deployed so that you can enjoy the benefit of that solar energy. It costs money. Would government fund that? Would government make it available to the rural people out there who are practically, just merely surviving? That is the question for such a very populous country where more than 70 percent live below one Dollar per day.

Another International Day for Women has been celebrated with various proclamations. What is there for the Nigerian woman?

The International Women’s Day is a day that is globally set aside and marked and this year, the theme is: Pledge for Parity. There is no doubt that women the world over are still going through different aspects of discrimination, inequality in their societies. Even the Nordic countries like Sweden, Norway that are said to be the countries that have almost achieved gender equality in terms of women participation in decision making, it is still not 100 percent, come to talk of developing countries like Nigeria, there is still a lot to be done. For us in Nigeria, women still continue to face different discriminations. They continue to face challenges such as issues regarding their health and gender-based violence. Women continue to face harassment, some of them, in their work-places because of their gender and they find themselves not being carried along in terms of decision making. Even in governance, in fact, the lot of Nigerian women has, rather than improve, is actually going down. During the last administration, women in decision-making particularly at the federal level were almost as high as 33 percent. Today, women in decision-making at the federal government level are below 20 percent and that is not good enough. This is not an issue that affects only Nigeria. It is an issue that is in focus all over the world. We have signed and ratified international and regional instruments that say women should be part and parcel of decision making, be encouraged to participate in politics and in governance and that women should be carried along in every step of the way as we take decisions that affect their lives. Yet, our governments are paying lip service to these commitments. So in commemoration of the International Women’s Day, women the world over, are calling on their governments, policy makers, legislators and all the people that are in key decision making in this country to do something to honour their pledge for parity. I think it is not out of place for women to insist that they be carried along. Democracy is a game of numbers and if women constitute 50 percent of the population of this country, democracy demands that they be carried along whenever issues that affect them are being decided or being discussed. We are sick and tired of people thinking for us, deciding for us and even acting for us. We have women who can think for themselves, act for themselves and can carry out things that are able to take care of the female gender, and we are asking government to give them that opportunity.


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