Department of Pathology, University College Hospital, Ibadan, Nigeria.
Sexual assault occurs commonly worldwide and is particularly pervasive in the developing world. The background to sexual violence is important in the understanding of the ramifications of the problem. Some elements that offer the means to the prevention of sexual assault in the community are important highlights especially where the means – expertise and facilities – for managing cases of sexual assault is grossly inadequate. These concepts, though are applicable universally, are however discussed in the context of the developing world and with particular emphasis on the Nigerian situation. Their applicability in sexual assault prevention is derived from previous studies in different parts of the world that highlight the viability of these interventions. Therefore if one posits that sexual assault can be prevented, certain responsibilities are imperative; some challenges must be anticipated; and special needs/circumstances should be catered for.
Keywords: Sexual Assault, Prevention, Nigeria
Dr. Uwom O. Eze
Consultant in Pathology & Forensic Medicine
Department of Pathology
University College Hospital
Queen Elizabeth Road
P.M.B 5116, Ibadan, Nigeria
Sexual violence is a common phenomenon and occurs worldwide. Data available suggests that in some countries one in five women report sexual violence by an intimate partner and up to a third of girls report forced sexual initiation.1 Sexual assault encompasses a range of acts, including coerced sex in marriage and dating relationships, rape by strangers, organized rape in war, sexual harassment (including demands of sex for jobs or school grades), and rape of children, trafficking of women and girls, female genital mutilation, and forced exposure to pornography.
It is important to understand the ramifications of sexual assault, as not only a physical act, but also could be verbal or visual sexual abuse or any act that forces a person to join in unwanted sexual contact or attention2. Sexual assault is also not discriminatory to sex; both males and females are affected but studies have shown that the number of female sexual assault victims (and assault perpetrated by males) is far greater than male victims3. Studies have also documented female offenders of sexual assault whose victims may be of male or female gender including children, adolescents and adults; the motivation for the female offender being the same as that of their male counterparts: power and control.4 It could be that “disbelief ” attitude by the society and even of health professionals to the occurrence of male sexual assault and the unlikelihood of the male victims themselves to disclose sexual abuse make the subject and research into male sexual assault to lag behind that of the female.5
It can be inferred that sexual assault, like other medical, social or legal anomalies could be amenable to preventive measures. I have therefore highlighted in the subsequent paragraphs that follow, some elements that could offer the means to prevention of sexual assault in the community. These concepts, though are applicable universally, are however discussed in the context of the developing world and with particular emphasis on the Nigerian situation. Their applicability in sexual assault prevention is derived from previous studies in different parts of the world that highlight the viability of these interventions. Therefore if one posits that sexual assault can be prevented, certain responsibilities are imperative; some challenges must be anticipated; and special needs/circumstances should be catered for. All these will be addressed in a limited scope subsequently.
Public enlightenment has been shown to be a critical tool in changing behaviour, attitude, beliefs and value system of people.6 Therefore there should be intense public enlightenment and education at schools, social clubs, cultural group gatherings, churches, mosques and through the media, to first of all, demystify the myths about sexual assault. These myths inform the way many people think about sexual assault, and because they are in the background unconsciously influencing people’s thoughts, the false assumptions may be seen as being true. For example, when we read in the newspaper that a young girl has been raped, perhaps near a nightclub, we often instinctively search for a cause other than the real one (that she was raped because a man with the power to do so decided to rape her). Perhaps we proffer the reason for the rape as tied to the place she was raped, or the time of the day, or the clothes she was wearing, or the fact that she was alone. This way of thinking deflects blame from where it rightly belongs with the perpetrator of the crime. Details of these myths are the subject of a well researched publication.7, 8 It is this kind of community disposition and ignorance that detracts from tackling the real cause of sexual assault, without which preventive efforts will be futile.
To champion the public enlightenment crusade, the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and the media occupy a major role in this respect. Recently in Nigeria, the president of African Civil Society against Rape, a Civil Society Organization, called upon Nigerians during a media parley, to join forces with the CSOs in order to heighten public enlightenment in the fight against rape and sexual violence in the country.9 The role of the CSOs would include sponsoring relevant bills at the national assembly that would toughen current legislature on sexual violence. This may include making rape, a capital offence with protracted prison terms as advocated by the African Civil Society against Rape in Nigeria. The whole idea is to make the prospect of sexual assault to a would-be perpetrator, as unattractive as possible. The myriads of physical and psychosocial impediments on the victims/survivors of sexual assault in particular and the society in general, would justify any tough legislative measures to curb this monstrous abuse on the integrity of individuals and by extension the entire society.10
It is important the advocacy community in its attempt to provide victim safety and offender accountability, and more importantly in prevention of sexual assault, should not isolate itself from other relevant stakeholders but rather take into account the criminal justice and treatment efforts to also address sexual offending behaviour.11 Furthermore a coalition of organizations, including women’s groups, religious bodies, businesses , and trade unions that are speaking out against all forms of sexual violence in a manner reminiscent of the “Take a Stand” movement in South Africa which commemorated an International Day Against Violence Against Women, could be replicated in every community with active support of the news media12. These enlightenment programmes paid off for the intended goals in the affected community in the past, and optimism in this important tool for public change cannot be misplaced if applied persistently in sexual assault prevention.