July 14, 2024

INTERVIEW: Akwa Ibom recorded 1,467 SGBV cases in three years – Emem Ette

Following the rising cases of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) in Nigeria vis a vis Akwa Ibom State, the Secretary, Gender Based Violence Management Committee in the State, Barrister Emem Ette has called for establishment of specialized courts, as well as appointment of more judges that would focus on cases of SGBV for speedy trials and justice delivery.

In this interview with DAILY POST, she reveals some achievements of the Committee since its inauguration, as well as the challenges faced. She made some recommendations for reduction of SGBV cases in the state. Excerpts:

What is the response level of this Committee on SGBV issues since its inauguration?

First of all, when we started having unnatural offences or cases of a man raping a man or a woman raping a fellow woman or man, which were not covered by the Criminal Code or the Child Rights law 2008, we knew there was need to have a law to deal with such cases.

We already at that time had the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (VAPP) at the Federal level so there was a need for Akwa Ibom State to adopt that Act as a law to deal with those cases enumerated above. So in 2020, Akwa Ibom State enacted the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Law.

Empowered by the Law, the Committee, through the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Response Department in the Ministry of Justice, has attended to a total of 1,467 cases of SGBV from 2021 when it was established till date.

From the number, rape is 401, attempted rape is 118, harmful widowhood practice is 53, abandonment of dependents 65. What we mean here is people who abandon either their children or spouses.

Recently, we are getting to hear that children also abandon their old parents who depend on them for sustenance. I believe the VAPP Law is against such acts. We are open to receiving such complaints. For now though, we have not received complaints from parents about their children abandoning them.

Then, forceful ejection from home 32, intimidation 54, stalking 21, incest 35, spousal battery 520, physical abuse is 165. Cases that are going through investigations right now are 210, cold cases 120. Cold cases arise for example where someone is gang raped and cannot recognise or identify the perpetrators, or the perpetrator cannot be found or we can’t find witnesses, so we keep such cases in view. We have 53 convictions, cases that have been withdrawn are 302, cases settled through alternative dispute resolution- 240. Pending cases 425. We have done a lot of rehabilitation and have given about 350 survivors shelter and skill acquisition training in our GBV shelter.

We also want to provide a witness protection scheme so that if a witness is being threatened, we will be able to protect them or take the person out of the environment of threat.

From the statistics, spousal battery tops the list with over 500 reported cases, so how many convictions has your Committee recorded?

The truth is that we have not had any conviction in spousal battery. The 53 convictions I mentioned is purely for rape. Spousal battery happens between a husband and the wife and the law is not just to punish but to correct, restore and rehabilitate people and help retain relationships. The law sees how it can as much as possible maintain and repair a relationship especially if the couple have children, that is why in our SGBV Department, we have skilled lawyers in mediation, negotiation and conciliation, who filter cases, and identify cases we can take to court and cases we can use alternative dispute resolution.

As I said, we don’t have any conviction in spousal battery, there was one we almost did but the victim got employed and preferred to let her spouse off the hook, though she left the marriage. This case must be distinguished from the celebrated case of the lawyer, who assaulted his wife publicly in the state. The crime was committed in public glare and the danger of not prosecuting that case is that it will enable other perpetrators, and so the state’s decision to continue prosecution. Justice is a three-way-traffic, justice for the suspect, justice for the victim and justice for the society. The society deserves justice, most of us who saw that debacle may have been traumatized by it and need the assurance of the State that it is able to protect its citizens and hold perpetrators accountable.

To have conviction, there must be steps taken like availability of quality evidence and witnesses. The standard of proof in criminal matters remains beyond every reasonable doubt.

You didn’t mention prosecuting any case on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) despite its practice in some communities?

Yes, if you look through our register, you’ll not find a single case on FGM and if there is no report, what are we going to prosecute? Without any report, there is nothing we can do. We are even encouraging people to bring up cases. We are calling on people, if you know any person suffering this inhuman practices please let the person come out as it is a crime, punishable by law and the state is ready to prosecute.

It seems that the committee has not secured conviction of high profile persons or is it targeting only the poor and powerless in the society?

Not at all, please. Let people bring complaints/reports against the rich and see if we will not prosecute and the court will not convict them. What you should understand is that the court does not act on nothing, you can’t put something on nothing. The Honourable Attorney General is very firm and will prosecute irrespective of social standing.

In fact, we want those celebrated cases and high profile ones so that we will use it as an example to others. The law is no respecter of persons and we won’t start it now.

What are the challenges the Committee faces in going about its mandate?

We have the challenge of lack of expertise in handling GBV cases from law enforcement agents, village heads and other responders. How they can ask questions and not re-traumatize victims is a concern. Due to lack of expertise, some victims withdraw, some may not want to pursue their cases anymore, it’s a huge problem and we are looking for how to hold training for our law enforcement agents and other first responders.

Our Committee is working hard to support the Family Support Unit of the police at Ikot Akpan Abia to be able to respond to cases of GBV and we resolved that every rape case should not be handled at the divisional police stations, but transferred to the Family Unit of the Police Headquarters for proper investigation and attention.

Another challenge is the unwillingness of victims to follow through cases as a result of unavailability of a witness protection scheme, threats or inducements by the perpetrators. Also, we have the problem of witnesses unwilling to come to court to testify especially if it’s a vital witness and we don’t have other evidence. This can delay the case.

On the other hand, some victims, if the suspect offers them money or the family, they will withdraw and even relocate out of jurisdiction. We also have a problem of long delays in our judicial system as we do not have enough judges. We need a specialized court mainly for hearing GBV cases. The Criminal courts are totally understaffed and their dockets heavily loaded. Delays in justice delivery creates apathy and makes the victims lose interest, especially when it has to do with those victims paying their way to court. Also shame and stigma will make some families not to pursue a case because they feel that their child will be known as someone that has been raped.

Lack of funding of law enforcement agencies also impedes arrest, which sometimes makes the victims bear the cost of arrest. This may make them lose interest in following up cases. The officers need response vehicles so that when they are called upon even at 1:00 am or 3:00 am, they can respond immediately without any delay.

Also settlement of rape cases by village heads and some law enforcement agents is a huge problem to us. We’ve had cases where a village head said we can’t bring in police into their community. We have Investigating Police Officers trying to tell rape victims to settle outside the court. We are saying no to this because the danger of settling rape cases is that it will enable the perpetrators to continue in their act, so we encourage everybody to report and ensure that a perpetrator is prosecuted.

Let it not be that the court will set the perpetrator free because if they come home, they may rape another person. In fact we had a case like that where a perpetrator was granted bail and in the next two weeks he raped a five year old girl.

With the level of incest in the state, at what point do you draw a line between culture and the law?

When you talk about culture, incest is not our culture. But even if it is, the law is that any custom or norm that is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience is null and void. The law has come to proscribe such a culture and If the person continues, the person will be prosecuted. That is why we are going round the villages to create bye laws because there are still those cultures that are good.

For example, when you abuse someone verbally, there is a traditional way of resolving such an issue. They will tell you to buy soap and bath the person, if it’s a wife that verbally abused the husband, the wife has to kill a fowl and prepare a meal for the husband, these are good cultures and we are trying to see how we can revive those ones and by the time our villages are able to settle those cases they won’t bug down the judicial system with many cases because the bye laws we are trying to create will sort out those issues.

But the one that is done when someone steals, where the person is stripped naked, rubbed with charcoal and a bell is tied round the person’s waist and made to dance round the village is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience and a breach of the fundamental rights of the person. We say no to such cultures.

When it has to do with incest, it is ten years imprisonment as the law frowns at it. A doctor even said that it is not just about the act but that a child born out of that union may have rare deformities, down syndrome and other abnormalities, which will put more pressure on both the family and the society.

What are your recommendations to tackle the issues of GBV in the state?

There is a need for more training of medical personnel and law enforcement agencies on evidence gathering and reporting when it has to do with SGBV. Government should keep empowering victims with skill acquisitions and training and there should be intensive campaigns against GBV as the Committee is currently doing. We need adequate counsellors in our Sexual Assault Referral Centres and schools, as well as specialized courts and judges that would concentrate on GBV cases.

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