A few weeks ago, I read an absolutely harrowing story of abuse in Akwuke, near Enugu City, Nigeria, and it has been on my mind ever since. I am consumed by the fact that its graphic nature and intimate impact were entirely preventable, if only the right systems were in place.
Early in June, a wife and mother of two young boys—we will call her Mrs. K—asked her husband for money to prepare food for the family. He had a history of violence, and he lashed out about the inquiry: when she proceeded to make pap for her 3-month-old baby, he doused her breasts in boiling water. She reacted in the throes of excruciating pain, and also unable to breastfeed her baby. The Women’s Aid Collective (WACOL) posted the story on Twitter, including graphic photos that I am choosing not to continue to publicise. WACOL has confirmed that the husband is now in police custody, but the psychological, emotional and physical damage to Mrs. K and her children has been done, and it is on us to use this case as a calling to rethink how we are handling the scourge of domestic violence in Nigeria.
The story is the horrific climax of a pattern that we know to be true when it comes to domestic violence: notable triggering factors for the husband’s actions in this case are concerns about money, food, and the fact that Mrs. K was exercising her personal autonomy—through breastfeeding the baby. We know firstly that domestic violence is rising due to pressures about money amidst the pandemic; secondly, research also shows that male partners who are inclined to violence increase aggression during pregnancy and after birth, and thirdly, we know that jealousy (in this case, about feeding the baby) can be a trigger for men inclined to violence.
While the global community is aware of these factors, limited access to reporting pathways means local organisations weren’t able to shield Mrs. K before the abuse was so great that it required extreme intervention. Her case makes evident that the reporting of incidents of intimate nature, such as sexual assault and domestic violence, necessitates the transfer of Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARC) from police stations to hospitals.
The Nigerian police force is culturally hyper-masculine and male-dominated, and Nigerians are 20 times more likely to be killed by the police than by terrorists. It is obvious that an aggressive and masculine environment in a conservative cultural setting is not a safe space for vulnerable women to share intimate stories about private parts of their body. In fact, a police station in Nigeria could be the worst place I could think of for a woman to go to seek relief. That’s why I’ve begun reaching out to call for a timely policy shift, nationally, to shift SARCs to hospitals: the hospitals would assume locus as expert witnesses, and bear the formal responsibility for reporting and advising the police on sexual and domestic violence cases. In turn, the idea is that injured women, or women in danger would feel more comfortable seeking treatment about intimate issues than in a police station. They would be treated for their ailments, and hospital staff would assume the responsibility for translating actionable items to the police. Like any crime, the prospect of swift justice, would also serve as a deterrent, and thus a very timely tool in the strategy to effect preventive social behavioural change.
This call to action is about ensuring we have the right systems in place to safeguard and ultimately empower vulnerable women with the public resources we have available. It is said that sexual and gender based violence is within the lived experience of almost half of our women and girls; equipping health personnel with specialist SGBV SARC and mental health training is both prerequisite, and an imperative.
At the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, we have long offered women attending our health facility based Mamacare antenatal and postnatal sessions a safe space, and a curriculum to discuss concerns, and if needed, report their worries. Nigeria’s updated National Gender Policy should take a whole-family, socio-economic and mental health approach to tackling the scourge of domestic violence; and one way we can start is by ensuring the safe haven of refuge, of a kind of solace: a comfortable environment for vulnerable women to give forensic evidence, find relief, and heal. We must do it for Mrs. K.