Sexual violence against women with disabilities is an “unchecked phenomenon” in northern Nigeria, an official of an NGO says.

By Kabir Yusuf,

Nearly eight years ago, on a rainy April night in Katsina, Fadeelah Mohammed was forced to strip and lie on a filthy surface as her father’s confidant attempted to rape her.

“He is our neighbour and my dad’s friend. His house is just two buildings away from ours,” began Ms Mohammed as she recalled her ordeal to PREMIUM TIMES. “He asked where I was coming from and I told him that I went to a wedding dinner.”

The man, Baba Salisu, grabbed the hairstylist from behind, thrust his hand between her legs and covered her mouth with a cloth. She has a right leg disability. Her underwear was the only barrier between her and the hand that would not let go.

“He was merciless,” she said in Hausa. “My fingernails dug into his skin but he kept asking me to help him. He saw how innocent I was and informed me that he wanted to take my innocence ‘with love.’

“I kept shouting ‘No! Stop!’ but he didn’t. I felt trapped in my body, unable to move,” said Ms Mohammed, now 27.

She was not raped that day as she had feared. But that severely distressing experience left her with a trauma that required help to deal with at a private hospital in the state.

“I was lucky to get help before the worst happened,” she told PREMIUM TIMES in October, her voice breaking slightly. It was a passerby that rescued the young woman.

Later that night, a distraught Ms Mohammed reported the incident to family members. Her relatives reported it to the police. The investigation lasted weeks, she said, “but his people begged for forgiveness and asked that he be pardoned.”

“Please, don’t allow this matter to go public. It will bring shame to his daughters when they grow up,” Ms Mohammed recalled Mr Salisu’s wife saying.

“So, the issue was settled there and then,” Ms Mohammed said. “Police asked him to reimburse my medical bills and my dad forgave him.”

The mental health problem Ms Mohammed suffered from that incident is called “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), said Nasir Baffa, a mental health expert. “It’s an extremely debilitating disorder occurring after a disturbing traumatic event.”

He said almost all rape victims develop PTSD sometime during their lifetime and that many live with the disorder for an extended time afterwards.

Caregivers assaulting women with disabilities

In August 2019, a year before Nabeelah Shehu graduated from Sa’adatu Rimi College of Education, she was sexually harassed by her brother-in-law, Bashir Sadiq, who had supported her financially since she got admission to the institution.

“He was very supportive and encouraging,” she said, “but he was up to something else.”

Ms Shehu, 25, is paraplegic and unable to walk without sticks or a machine. She said her condition was what enabled her brother-in-law to take advantage of her.

“One afternoon, I paid a visit to my sister in Kano. But she was not at home and her husband (Mr Sadiq) was the only one around. He told me to sit down and wait for her.”TEXEM

After an exchange of long pleasantries, she said, “He came behind the couch where I was seated as if he was heading out, but he nuzzled my hair and then my ear.

“What are you trying to do?” I asked.

“I beg you in the name of God, don’t do this to me,” Ms Shehu remembered saying, noting that her brother-in-law pulled her up from the chair and pushed her onto a two-seater.

‘Run, if you have the legs’

Ignoring her pleas, Mr Sadiq reportedly told his victim: “Run, if you have the legs.”

“He squeezed me hard and soft at the same time,” she recalled. “He dragged my clothes in a bid to remove them. I shouted amidst struggling but there was no way anyone could hear me, because we were alone in the house.”

Ms Shehu would not allow her brother-in-law to take away what she described as her “sacred gift.”

“I really didn’t know how I gathered the strength to push him off me. He was a bit fat and when he fell down, his head hit the coffee table,” she added, her face unforgiving.

Humiliated and dejected, Ms Shehu was still crying when she got home. Her father, a retired military officer, was determined to get justice for his daughter; so, he took the case to the police. He later proceeded to court and forced Mr Sadiq to divorce Ms Shehu’s sister.

Mr Sadiq’s mother, however, disputed the petition against her son as “unfounded and malicious,” saying that “all these were contrived to tarnish my son’s reputation.”

After months-long court sittings and investigation, the court sentenced Mr Sadiq to six months in prison.

Unchecked phenomenon

Under Nigerian laws as well as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), Ms Mohammed and Ms Shehu should be protected and the state “must promote respect for their inherent dignity.”

A similar law by the Kano State Government supports this position.

Also, the Kano State Government had set up a “Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC)” in 2016 to check the “rampant cases of rape in the state and assist victims to access justice in a court by using the medical reports issued by the centre.”

Since its establishment, the centre has treated and counselled over 4,000 victims of rape and sexual assault, including women with disabilities.

Sexual violence against women with disabilities is an “unchecked phenomenon” in northern Nigeria, said Usaina Umar, the Director of Kanawa Foundation for the Disabled (KAFAD).

“It is a serious problem. You know, women with disabilities are not only repressed but are raped and routinely assaulted by male caregivers without consequences,” Ms Umar said.

The poor treatment of sexual assault survivors, according to her, when combined with the statistics of only a few perpetrators being convicted and perception of lenient sentencing, could tacitly signal to the society a “decriminalisation of rape.”

PREMIUM TIMES’ findings show that the first challenge survivors face is that most of the perpetrators of the assault are caregivers. A significant number of survivors never report their experiences to the police.

The reasons for this are often rooted in fear, Ms Umar said. “Fear of disbelief, of unjustified blame, of retribution, of re-traumatisation, of the impact on their family and community and of being let down by the system.

“Such terrible propositions plague the minds of some rape survivors that they would prefer to forego any prospect of justice rather than engage with it.”

Untold stories

Sadiya Suleiman (a pseudonym she adopted for this story) was 16 when her uncle raped her in 2001. He picked her up from her boarding school but, instead of taking her home, he took her to an isolated location she described as a “guest house.”

Ms Suleiman, whose left leg is prosthetic, said the guest house was quiet and therefore asked why they were there. “I just want you to relax and feel refreshed before we get home,” she remembered her uncle saying in response. “Since he is my uncle and I was so close to him, I didn’t expect anything untoward,” she said.

That Friday noon was the first of many times the uncle raped Ms Suleiman. She remembered trying to stop him from having sex with her, closing her legs and saying it hurts. She said she went into a “dissociative state” afterwards.

“When he took off his clothes and came on top of me, he penetrated me forcefully and painfully. His face was really evil, like a devil. That’s the only way I can explain it,” Ms Suleiman said.

Ms Suleiman told no one of that experience, too scared to talk to anyone about it and too anxious to say no for the second and subsequent times, she told PREMIUM TIMES, a story she has kept for 20 years.

Same-sex abuse

Like Ms Suleiman, if there was any day that Asmau Idris will not forget, it is June 2004, the month she had a harrowing and near-death experience. The night before she was discharged from Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital where she had been on admission for an ailment, she was with an aunt named Maimuna, who had stayed for a “sizable part of the time I was on admission.”

Although Ms Maimuna is dead now, Ms Idris described her as a “miserable woman” who introduced her to lesbianism and masturbation.

She recalled how her aunt used stories to lure her into ‘something’ she had no knowledge of. “She told me different stories and at some point, she lost the ability to speak coherently. Her thoughts started to fade along with her control over her body.”

Ms Idris, who has a locomotive disability, recalled being forced to suck her aunt’s breasts at midnight. “Do it. You will like it,” Ms Idris quoted aunt Maimuna as saying while she drove one finger in-between her legs. “I tried to repress it,” she said of the memory that plagued her when she went home the next day. “I pretended it was a bad dream.”

“For many years, we continued doing that until my aunt got married. But because both of us were female, nobody suspected anything,” she said, adding, “it got to the point that I would be the one requesting her to suck my breasts and if she was not around, I would masturbate till I got satisfaction,” said Ms Idris, now 33.

“That effect (of masturbation) is still with me. It is even affecting my marriage because I can go three to four months without sex. I just prefer to masturbate and that’s all.

“I don’t like it. It’s affecting me mentally,” she added, wistfully. “However, because my husband is very understanding, he doesn’t really push me to the wall and up till this moment, he has no idea that I masturbate.”

‘No definitive statistics’

According to the World Health Organization’s 2011 World Disability Report, about 15 per cent of Nigeria’s population, or at least 25 million people, have a disability. This number is believed to have risen now. Many of them face a number of human rights abuses, including stigma, discrimination, violence, and lack of access to healthcare, housing, and education.

In its fact sheet, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Disability (UN DESA) pointed out that girls and women of all ages with any form of disability experience sexual harassment at higher rates than women without disabilities.

UNFPA also estimates that girls and young women with disabilities may face up to 10 times more violence than women and girls without disabilities.

It is against this background that Nigeria ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2007 and its Optional Protocol in 2010. In 2016, the National Assembly passed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Bill which President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law in January 2019.

The enactment gave birth to the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, which is “empowered to receive complaints of rights violations and support victims to seek legal redress, amongst other duties.”

Officials at the commission told PREMIUM TIMES that “definitive statistics are not readily available in order to determine how many women with disabilities have been abused.”

Fear of stigma

Commenting on this report, Huwaila Muhammed, the chairperson of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Kano State Chapter, said over 80 per cent of sexual harassment and rape cases are perpetrated by caregivers. “It is not peculiar to women with disabilities,” she said.

When asked about the data of sexual assault on women with disabilities, she said: “I am not going to talk about numbers. But I can tell you that it’s very rampant.”

She noted that the only way out “is to continue sensitisation of women with disabilities, motivating them to speak out and teach them how to take care of themselves and how to avoid such kinds of cases from happening to them.”

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