On April 29th, 2021, a 21-year-old Iniubong Umoren left home in Uyo, Akwa-Ibom, Nigeria, for a job interview. She never returned alive. At 4:29 PM that day, Iniubong’s friend sent out the first of several distressed tweets calling for anyone to help her friend, who she believed was in trouble.
Devastatingly, Iniubong was later found in a shallow grave within the family compound of Uduak Akpan, the young man who was eventually convicted of raping and killing her. Sixteen months later, a judge sentenced Akpan to death by hanging.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence, mostly at the hands of an intimate partner. In sub-Saharan Africa, the prevalence of violence against women (VAW) by an intimate partner is about 33%, described as the highest in the world.
During the initial global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, this violence intensified to such an extent that experts began to speak of the “shadow pandemic”. For example, a study describing VAW across Africa in 2020 reported a 48% increase in East Africa during the lockdown. Similarly, according to the study, the Central African Republic saw an uptick of about 69% in reported injuries to women and a 27% increase in rape. Meanwhile, South African police also recorded a 37% increase in Gender-Based Violence (GBV) cases within the first week of April 2020. And in Nigeria, reported cases increased by 149%, a figure drawn from 23 out of 36 states.
A History of Violence
For 31 years, the world has marked the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign from November 25th to December 10th. The campaign has provided a platform for concerted efforts to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls. However, the origin of the movement goes farther back than is often mentioned. It was originally inspired by events in the Dominican Republic, when revolutionary sisters Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa Mirabal were killed on 25th November 1960 by the authoritarian regime they opposed.
Twenty years after their deaths, in 1980, the first International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in Latin America was declared. Then in June 1991, the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) and participants in the first Women’s Global Institute on Women, Violence and Human Rights called for a global effort against GBV and, in 1999, the United Nations formally declared November 25th the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women worldwide.
The Band-aid Treatment
More than 30 years after the first 16 Days of Activism, the world does not seem much safer for women and girls. According to the UN, crimes of Violence Against Women (VAW) are still the most under-reported, as well as being the least likely to end in convictions.
Nigeria’s conviction rate is evidence of this unfortunate phenomenon. In 2021, out of 5,204 reported cases of VAW, less than 1% of offenders (i.e. fewer than 52 perpetrators) were convicted. South Africa records a similarly low rate as 4,058 cases of GBV were reported in 2020, but only 130 convictions were made.
Needless to say, the speedy and decisive response in Iniubong Umoren’s case is not the norm. It was a rare victory spurred by the viral news of Ini’s disappearance, attracting attention from local and international press. This is not unusual; the more viral a case of VAW goes online, the quicker lawmakers and enforcers tend to act to lay the matter to rest. This trend also played out with the BBC Sex for Grades Documentary; less than a year after it premiered, the Nigerian Senate created and passed legislation against sexual harassment in institutions of higher education.
While these victories should be recognised, strategies for ending GBV need to go beyond reactionary approaches, which work only in rare cases. For example, it is known that GBV occurs due to gender-based inequalities, which often reflect an inherent power imbalance in favour of men, one that characterises many patriarchal cultures worldwide. Consequently, a reactionary approach to ending GBV tackles symptoms rather than the problem of inequality itself.
From Awareness to Accountability
The early years of the 16 Days campaign saw concerted efforts towards raising awareness about GBV. These efforts have proven successful, with the campaign now carried out across 180 countries worldwide, reaching 300 million people. After 27 years of raising awareness, in 2018, the founding organizations declared that subsequent 16 Days of Activism would focus on increasing accountability for VAW and eliminating all forms of discrimination underscoring gender-based violence.
A necessary step towards achieving this is ensuring that GBV is situated within the larger context of gender inequalities, thus providing a basis for a proactive stance. This intervention can look like providing support for the creation, implementation, and strengthening of legal and policy frameworks that address VAW while helping to bridge the gaps between law and practice through the creation of accountability mechanisms. Advocates and governments must strengthen the legal and policy frameworks which address VAW, and bridge the gaps between law and practice by enforcing accountability mechanisms.
Since causal factors of VAW are often interconnected, interventions must be multi-institutional and multi-sectoral in their approach. Actors from the health, justice, education and security sectors all have roles to play in creating and implementing prevention-focused interventions.
Such work is already being done on the continent. For example, the ‘1-in-9 Campaign’ demands legal accountability and sustainable structural change through lobbying for the transformation of legal frameworks so that women and girls who report GBV can access justice. In addition, the campaign rightly acknowledges that ending VAW must include ending all other forms of oppression that impact women’s access to equality because all gender-based inequalities come from the same belief that women are subordinate to men.
Similarly, the Kenya Sex Workers Alliance (KESWA) is demanding accountability via a multi-sectoral approach that centres the safety and rights of sex workers. KESWA supports universal access to health services, including HIV services, and raises awareness through focus group discussions, social media campaigns, sensitization meetings and themed talks on gender-based violence. Furthermore, they work with the Kenyan police to influence a change in attitudes and foster accountability within the institutions.
At a regional level, the South African Development Community (SADC) developed a Regional Strategy and Framework of Action for Addressing Gender-Based Violence in 2018. As part of its key strategic actions to prevent GBV and protect survivors, the SADC has agreed to pursue accountability by ensuring that perpetrators are prosecuted and maintaining a culture of zero impunity by strengthening the legal and judicial systems. Similarly, provisions have been made to equip security personnel and increase their accountability for conducting evidence-based investigations and providing quality service delivery in GBV prevention and responses.
Getting it Right
As we commemorate 16 Days of Activism this year, I long for a future where women do not have to take out a few days to campaign against violence. But until then, we must broaden our activism beyond reactionary strategies that achieve justice for specific victims while thousands of others remain silenced. We also must recognize that violence against women has a sociocultural basis. Thus, to make women and girls truly safe, we must create effective multi-pronged interventions that tackle inequality and oppression at the root.
This article was previously published by AWDF.
Martha Laraba Sambe is a writer, researcher and intersectional feminist who believes none of us is free until we are all free. This article was produced as part of the African Women’s Development Fund’s (AWDF) 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, themed ‘Empowered People Taking Strategic Action to End VAW.’