KADUNA, NIGERIA - One in four boys and one in 10 girls under age 18 are victims of sexual violence, the U.N. children’s fund has said. Health experts say more children and young women are coming forward to talk about the problem as the stigma attached to discussing it slowly subsides.
Three survivors and their caregivers spoke about their experiences recently at the Salama Sexual Assault Referral Center in Gwamna Awan General Hospital in the northern state of Kaduna. They insisted, however, on remaining anonymous.
One was a 3-year-old girl who was under the care of her grandmother when she was raped twice by a 44-year-old neighbor. The grandmother said she was reluctant to report the assault to police because she did not believe justice would be served and because "being a poor widow, no one would believe me." After the second attack, she fled to the Salama Center for help.
A second survivor, a woman in her late 30s, said she was kidnapped while sleeping with her husband and child. Her abductors took her to a dense forest where she was raped every day until a ransom was paid and she regained her freedom.
The third survivor, a 10-year-old girl, was reportedly raped by a 29-year-old man living in her neighborhood. He allegedly lured her, saying he wanted her to run an errand. Once they were out of sight, he allegedly stuffed her hijab into her mouth and raped her.
Juliana Joseph, the manager of the Salama Sexual Assault Referral Center, said 90 percent of all victims are sexually abused by people they know. The center has treated women and children who have been raped by their grandparents, fathers and uncles.
"You are going out and you entrust your child to the care of a neighbor, and by the time you're back, it's a different story," Joseph said, adding that poor investigations mean a good number of perpetrators move about freely.
Barrister Zainab Aminu Garba, the chairperson of the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Kaduna, said rape has become an epidemic in northwestern Nigeria. She said victims are not just women, but men and boys as well.
"Underaged boys are being defiled," she said. "Several cases [have been] reported to us. It's an epidemic, and I pray and hope that the government will do something very, very fast."
The Nigerian Criminal Code recommends life imprisonment for the perpetrators of rape and 14 years for attempted rape.
But Yakubu Sabo, the public relations officer for the police in Kaduna state, said many rape cases involving children are never investigated because parents want to protect their children from being stigmatized.
"Some families kill the evidence," he said, maintaining the belief that rape victims will not be able to find a suitor for marriage.
Sabo advised parents to watch their neighborhoods closely and to be mindful of whom they leave their children with.