When reporting, investigating and prosecuting cases of grooming, child sexual exploitation (CSE) and sexual abuse and violence, Nigeria must look to other nations for inspiration.

Has the penny or kobo finally dropped?

The hurricane that has taken the world by the lapels in the last two years has finally made it’s way to the doorsteps of Nigerian churches, it would seem. A few weeks ago, a crowd whose gusto was fuelled by the anger and frustration that mirrors the sentiments shared by the larger citizenry, I would hope, demanded that the lead pastor of the COZA Church, Biodun Fatoyinbo, step-down after allegations of abuse and assault resurfaced, following Busola Dakolo’s interview that detailed her disclosure of experience of grooming and repeated sexual abuse by Pastor Fatoyinbo, during her time in his church as a chorister. She was 17 years old at the time.

Dakolo recounted how, after reporting the alleged abuse to her older siblings and to church elders, she was asked to forgive the pastor, without deference to her safety and wellbeing. No doubt, she was summarily failed by all who had a duty of care towards her. Her disclosure of grooming and repeated sexual abuse by someone in a position of authority, and whose role it was to provide pastoral care and support to her is one in common with many others in Nigeria.

UNICEF reports that one in four girls have been groomed, sexually molested or raped in Nigeria and the figures for boys is not so different. This is alarming, even more so because current efforts within the ambit of the law, to nip this trend in the bud does not match the prevalence and atrociousness of these horrendous acts.

Nigerian Legislation and Child Sexual Exploitation/Abuse

Part III, Sections 31 and 32 of the Nigerian Child Rights Act 2003 (CRA 2003) provides ample protection for the rights of every child. This act supersedes other Acts with regards to ensuring that children are safeguarded. The Act defines a child as someone who has not attained their 18th birthday. It further acknowledges that any sexual intercourse with a child is deemed as statutory rape as the child is not deemed capable of giving consent. Raping a child is punishable by a full life prison sentence.

There are impediments to the implementation of this law. One barrier to executing this act is that only 15 of the 36 states in Nigeria have ratified it, resulting in a discrepancy in the definition of a child across the country. Then there is poor implementation and monitoring in the states where this federal law has been ratified making it difficult to be both a protection for children and deterrent for perpetrators.

While the CRA 2003 outlines safeguarding guidelines where a child is deemed to be in need or where it is suspected that a child has suffered or will suffer significant harm unless care proceedings, by way of protection orders, is initiated through court orders, it is evident from Dakolo’s narration that all who had a duty of care and protection towards her failed her, no doubt reinforcing the power and control her alleged abuser had over her.

A culture of victim shaming, silence and child endangerment

Some of the cases that haunted me most from my years as a social worker with children and families in deprived communities in Nigeria are those where the name or reputation of the family, community, religious body, and school, has been put ahead of the need to safeguard the welfare and wellbeing of the child.

And, without the necessary legal backing, there is only so much that Charities such as Projectasha.org can achieve. Families who were once keen on seeking redress through the criminal justice system were often bullied and even threatened by perpetrators to withdrew criminal charges, in some cases the girl child is married off to her abuser or rapist or worst still ostracised and forced to move out of the area. Peradventure it became common knowledge that a child, especially a girl has been raped or to put it colloquially ‘defiled’, her future stakes in life are almost certainly damaged.

The woman, irrespective that she is the victim or the child, was always blamed for whatever that has happened to her. It would appear that women and girls were held up to a different set of standards. The onus always rested on them to look the part of the victim, to be believable, to not tempt men, to not get raped.

You will understand why charities were jubilant when in 2015, the then Governor of Lagos State of Nigeria, Gov Batunde Fashola signed an executive order establishing a mandatory sex offender register for people who have been convicted of crimes of a sexual nature. It also stipulates mandatory reporting of all sexual crimes against a child,

The way forward

In a landmark ruling in May 2019, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) established in the UK in 2015, to investigate Institutions which failed to protect children from sexual abuse, found that the Church of England put the outward-facing reputation of the church ahead of the protection and safeguarding of children and vulnerable persons in its care.

The report went further to state that one in every ten survivors of child sexual abuse who contacted the Inquiry’s Truth Project reported sexual abuse in a religious institution. In its recommendation, IICSA announced that it is widening its probe to investigate Jehovah’s Witnesses, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other non-conformist Christian denominations.

No doubt, Nigeria can borrow a leaf from this by strengthening existing laws, this is a government approach. The child rights Acts of 2003 has adequate provision for safeguarding and protecting children, however, noncompliance by the majority of the states of the federation means there is no uniformity in the definition of a child, creating a legal loophole through which perpetrators can evade justice.

The Nigerian government and individual states cannot say they are committed to ending child sexual abuse without showing a genuine commitment to the nationwide ratification of the CRA 2003 and follow through all the way to its implementation and monitoring. The country requires a national mandatory reporting law-making failure to report any sexual abuse against a child a criminal offence.

There is a need to establish an independent inquiry into the reporting, investigation, and rehabilitation of victims of child sexual exploitation within religious organizations and bodies who have a statutory role towards children to ensure they are in keeping with the guidelines set out in the law.

Churches, schools and all bodies entrusted with children and vulnerable people must be made subject to the checks and balances of the independent competent inquiry into the organizations’ reporting, handling, investigating and support of victims of grooming and sexual abuse.

Any organisation that fails to open itself up to such an external independent inquiry into its handling of sexual abuse allegations is suspect and may face sanctions and fines.

Impactful public awareness campaigns

This is a third sector/community-led solution. Laws that serve to protect and safeguard children would not be of much use if the people it exists to protect do not know about the redress they are entitled to under the law. Nationwide sensitization programmes should be carried out within schools and communities especially those in deprived communities, ensuring they are aware of the safeguarding guidelines outlined in Part IV of the CRA 2003.

Direct citizen action

The power of a people united by a common cause was evident in how swiftly the COZA Church removed its head pastor, Biodun Fatoyinbo. More direct actions could no doubt call for better accountability, review and/or creation of new laws to strengthen existing ones that are no longer fit for purpose.

Professionally trained dedicated law enforcement officers sensitive to the plight of victims and survivors of sexual abuse: One of the challenges I faced as a social worker back in Nigeria was the lack of sensitivity and professional training apparent in some members of the Police Force. This deficit was exhibited during assessments and care proceedings in the way they were investigating sexual abuse allegations. If the recent press conference by the Dakolo’s is anything to go by, the Nigeria Police force hasn’t skipped a bit. Victims and survivors need to know that they will be given the adequate support they need from reporting through to the prosecution of cases involving sexual abuse.

The cultural undertones prevalent in Nigeria must be taken into account when training officers of the force, ensuring the factors mitigating against the reporting, investigating and prosecuting of crimes of a sexual nature are thoroughly analyzed, and where they exist, unconscious bias are dealt with.

Through joined-up action, the Nigerian society must not allow a culture of child sexual exploitation to fester, and an environment conducive for the breading of paedophiles to thrive, and certainly not within religious organizations. Duty of care in safeguarding the children within our communities should be everybody’s business. The society must not sacrifice the innocence and wellbeing of its children on the altar of religious dogma or harmful cultural traditions.

Vweta Chadwick is a Social Worker who has dedicated the last 15 years towards finding solutions to some of the most pertinent problems confronting women and girls in Africa, through Project ASHA.

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