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Hopes That New Nigeria DNA Lab Will Embolden Rape Victims

FILE - A woman carries a placard as she shouts a slogan during the "walk against rape'" procession organized by "Project Alert", a Lagos-based NGO focusing on women's issues, in Lagos, Oct. 5, 2011.

The launch of Nigeria's first state-owned DNA lab will speed up rape cases and should encourage more victims to seek justice, prosecutors and rights groups have said.

The Lagos State DNA Forensics Centre (LSDFC) was commissioned last month by the state governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, to cut the time and cost of sending samples abroad for analysis.

A 2013 report by NOI Polls showed that 30 percent of Nigerians know someone who has been raped, with most of the assaults going unreported due to stigma and a lack of confidence in the justice system.

"The way some of these things were done before [didn't] conform to global best practice," Adeniji Kazeem, the state's attorney general and commissioner for justice, said in a telephone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"In the past, a rape kit was used when a person made a report. But, in certain cases, the samples would be flown abroad."

With the prospect of swifter prosecutions, more victims are likely to report sex crimes, Kazeem said.

Previously, prosecutors depended largely on testimony, police investigations, and sometimes medical evidence, all of which were less accurate.

Easy access to accurate evidence would also serve as a deterrent to rapists, said Itoro Ezeanaba, founder of Mirabel Rape Crisis Centre, where seven in 10 victims are minors.

"It will no longer be a case of trying to determine if the child identified the right abuser," she said.

"It sends the right message to perpetrators and would-be perpetrators that rape and sexual abuse is a serious violation of the rights of the survivor, and the state will no longer turn a blind eye to these incidents," said Ezeanaba.

"It also provides vulnerable ones the basis for confidence in the system as being protective of their rights."

Spread the word

Key to the lab's success is raising awareness, so that victims report quickly and their attackers fear prosecution.

"Perpetrators may not be as likely to [commit crimes] or they will devise other means of doing it. It will not be as easy as it appears at the moment," said Titilola Vivour-Adeniyi, coordinator of the Lagos Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSRVT).

Her team has seen a 100 percent increase in the reporting of rape cases between last year and this.

"The DNA lab will expedite the process of investigation of sexual violence cases, especially if survivors are able to present themselves immediately," she said.

The DSRVT recently launched a short code letting people report sexual violence free of charge from local mobile phones.

Within 48 hours, the short code was used by 156 people, although some callers simply wanted to see if it worked.

However, Ezeanaba, of the rape crisis center, believes it will take far more than DNA testing to speed up what are often labyrinthine processes within Nigeria's criminal justice system.

"It takes time for the police to send the case file to the office of the public prosecutor for advice, and it also takes time for the case to be properly charged to court. There is need for a special unit from investigation to prosecution for speedy prosecution of these cases," she said.