Sexual Abuse: Road to Justice Fraught with Hurdles for Women with Disabilities
By Blessing Oladunjoye
In Nigeria, justice is hard to come by for women who have reported being sexually abused, but the situation is worse for women with disabilities (WWDs), BLESSING OLADUNJOYE writes
One night after a hard day’s work, 42-year-old deaf beautician, Beatrice Abimbola, was fast asleep when her husband’s friend identified as Wole, sneaked into her room and raped her on her matrimonial bed.
Abimbola’s husband first met Wole at a programme, and they later became friends. The perpetrator was a sign language interpreter who lived in Ibadan and usually slept at Abimbola’s house whenever he visited Lagos.
On the night of the incident, Abimbola initially thought it was her husband who entered their bedroom.
“It was difficult for me to tell that it was someone else because I was deeply asleep. When I found out it was not my husband, I wrestled with him and tore his shirt but he overpowered me and raped me. There was no way I could shout to draw the attention of people for help because I am deaf. ,” the mother of two said, with the help of a sign language interpreter.
When the beautician narrated the ordeal to her husband, he found it hard to believe — not even the evidence of the perpetrator’s torn shirt was enough to convince him.
“My husband left the house for days and I wondered why he wouldn’t believe me as his wife. That was why it was difficult for me to seek justice at first because if my husband doesn’t believe me, how will others believe me?” the beautician said.
The incident involving her husband’s friend happened in her late 30s. That was the second time Abimbola would be raped. Previously, she was raped by a close relative a few years before she married. But she did not get justice.
The spate of sexual violence against WWE
According to the University of Michigan, it is estimated that four out of every 10 WWDs experience sexual assault or physical violence in their lifetimes and that more than 90 per cent of all people with developmental and intellectual disabilities will experience sexual abuse.
Corroborating this, the Human Rights Watch reported that WWDs are three times as likely to be raped, physically abused, or sexually assaulted than a woman without a disability.
While there is a paucity of credible evidence regarding the sexual violence experiences of women with disabilities, especially in developing countries like Nigeria, research shows that women between the ages of 20-and 29 are the highest victims of physical or sexual or emotional abuse violence.
Sexual abusers see WWDs as easy targets
Abimbola was 21 when she was first sexually violated. Her parents were separated, and her father had relocated to Finland, leaving her with his close friend in Lagos.
“My guardian’s son raped me and when I reported to his mother, she said it was a lie, asking how on earth he would rape me,” the beautician recalled bitterly.
Abimbola added that she was subjected to further abuse by the perpetrator’s mother.
“Since then, she started maltreating me — won’t give me food, made me do too many chores, and even tore my school certificate. It is so funny that I was sexually abused by the son, and the mother decided to make my life more miserable.”
The truth, however, came out when the family found out she was pregnant a few weeks after she reported the incident.
“It was then that the woman queried her son, and he finally confessed to the crime. My pregnancy was aborted afterwards. After the abortion, my guardian blamed me for being raped by her son, saying if I didn’t want it, there was nothing he would be doing with an ‘imbecile’ like me,” Abimbola said.
She said seeking justice was out of the question as family members felt “there was no reason to pursue the case because we are family friends,” and the matter died a natural death.
“Anyone can be raped but I believe that my guardian’s son took advantage of my disability. He raped me because I am Deaf,” she added.
Maureen Ogbebulu (not her real name) was repeatedly raped by her then-husband, who also turned her into a punching bag and a sex object. He always boasted that he did her a favour by marrying her as an amputee.
She said being an African; it was difficult sharing her ordeal with people as many opined that she was her husband’s property and could not have been raped.
Her mother didn’t help either, as she believed that marriage was supposed to be endured and whatever the husband did should be disregarded because he was brave to have married her amputee daughter.
“After one of the beating sessions, which had become the order of the day since we got married, I was sleeping in bed one day when he came and started beating me again. He then shouted, ‘Open your legs,’ and forced his way. It was not an act I consented to or was happy about nor did I enjoy. So, I consider it as a rape. After that time, he was always aggressive and continually raped me till I left the marriage. Despite the various forms of violence I was subjected to, I stayed in the marriage for that long because I was made to believe that I was lucky to have got married as an amputee,” Ogbebulu said.
Another Deaf woman, Kehinde Hakeem, was sexually abused when she was 20 by a neighbour in her family’s residence in Mushin, Lagos. Her mother stood her ground to ensure that the police arrested the perpetrator.
Although she was glad that the culprit was arrested, she did not know what happened afterwards, saying, “The road to justice is not an easy one.”
Crooked road to justice for sexually abused WWDs
Although their stories of being sexually violated are often doubted, some WWDs usually take the bold step of reporting the cases. But they are faced with several hurdles that prevent them from accessing justice.
Undeterred by her husband’s disbelief about the occurrence of the rape by his friend, Abimbola reported the case at a police station and the church where the perpetrator worked as a sign language interpreter.
“When the police were going to arrest Mr Wole, he absconded to Ibadan and we didn’t know where exactly he lived in the city or his family members,” she said.
She sought the help of her former teacher, who assisted her by reporting the case to an NGO for a follow-up and to ensure that justice was served.
“But my father said he doesn’t want the case to escalate. Since Mr Wole had also absconded and there was no way to pursue the case further, we dropped the matter. However, we later heard through some sign language interpreters that Mr Wole had died, and I believe it is God’s way of punishing him,” Abimbola added.
Barriers to WWDs’ access to justice
Stressing that WWDs are significant victims of sexual abuse because they might not report the case, Tracy Onabis, programmes officer at Inclusive Friends Association (IFA), an organisation for persons with disabilities (OPD), said violators carefully select the type of disability their victims have to ensure they are helpless and unable to seek support.
Categorising the level of vulnerability among WWDs, Onabis said, “Women and girls with disabilities who are blind are often easy prey as it would be difficult to prove they know the assailant unless there is the testimony of another witness to corroborate what they are saying.”
She said Deaf women would quickly identify who violated them and might be able to defend themselves.
She notes that women with physical disabilities can see, hear, and identify their violators, but they are also easy prey because of the difficulty in moving.
Onabis said some women with albinism had also reported cases of sexual violence, with the offenders being acquaintances. The worst hit, according to her, are women with mental health issues who have no knowledge that they are being defiled.
“There is no way to prove if they consented to the act or not as they have no mental capacity to do so. For these categories of women, the crime is in carrying out the act, knowing full well the state of their mental and physical health,” she added.
Onabis highlighted the barriers WWDs who are survivors of sexual violence face in accessing justice.
According to her, they include the physical structures of police stations and court facilities, attitudinal barriers of law enforcement officers, poverty, and illiteracy.
“The lackadaisical attitude of judicial officers and security agencies towards cases of sexual violence against WWDs and the almost non-existent report of a conviction of an offender is another reason why they do not get justice,” she said.
Onabis believes it is essential to educate all women with disabilities on the practical, preventive, and responsive measures to tackle sexual violence, such as self-defence techniques or preservation of evidence.
On her part, Dr Irene Patrick-Ogbogu, executive director of the Disability Rights Advocacy Center (DRAC), decried the low chances of getting justice for WWDs survivors of sexual abuse.
According to Patrick-Ogbogu, their chances of getting justice are very slim because judicial facilities may not be easily accessible to survivors, and they may consider it stressful to report abuse.
“Also, the negative attitude of service providers deters WWDs who have reported pursuing the case as they’re further stigmatised and ridiculed,” she added.
Recalling an event she witnessed, the DRAC ED said, “I have seen an instance where a service provider asked a WWD, ‘Didn’t you enjoy it? After all, you don’t have a lover and you should be excited that someone finds you attractive.’ In that case, you would know that the case is dead on arrival because the service provider does not see anything wrong in the rape of a WWD.”
She added that some WWD survivors of sexual abuse avoid reporting because, most times, their stories are not believed.
Existing legislation for survivors to seek justice
While laws in Nigeria criminalise rape, getting justice for survivors is challenging. Research shows that there were 65 rape convictions in Nigeria between 1973 and 2019, despite many reported cases over the years.
The data on the 65 rape convictions did not reveal a ruling in favour of a woman with a disability that was raped.
Some of the existing laws through which rape survivors can get justice include the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act, 2015, the Criminal Code (functional in Southern states), and the Penal Code (functional in Northern states) and the Criminal Law of Lagos.
The penalty for rape across all the laws is life imprisonment; however, this is not a mandatory sentence.
Ending the menace of sexual abuse of WWDs
To reduce the cases of sexual abuse of WWDs and enhance justice for survivors, it is imperative to set up a holistic approach to address the numerous factors that contribute to the lack of justice.
The judicial system, which is the last hope of the ordinary person, should be strengthened to meet stringent punishment for those found guilty of rape.
“There is a need to engage in more strategic advocacy to all relevant stakeholders, especially the security agents and judicial officers. A community sensitisation to break the culture of silence and allow victims to seek redress is also expedient,” Onabis of IFA said.
According to her, livelihood training and empowerment will go a long way in making it possible for some women and girls with disabilities to get justice once they have the means.
“Capacity strengthening for women and girls with disabilities will also enable them to understand what advances border on sexual violence, what to do in such circumstances, and how to channel their reports to the right quarters so that justice is served,” she added.
FACP Disability Plus, an OPD, published in 2021 multi-stakeholder guidelines for mainstreaming WWDs into gender-based violence interventions, highlighting the community, family, media, OPDs, civil society organisations, and other relevant stakeholders in addressing violence against WWDs.
With the numerous recommendations provided, the guidelines can be used by OPDs and WWDs as a tool for advocacy, sensitisation, and capacity strengthening for any or all of the targeted stakeholders.
Note: According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, people who cannot speak and hear are referred to as Deaf; people who cannot hear but speak are also referred to as Deaf. It is wrong to refer to them as deaf and dumb or deaf-mute. Hence, Beatrice Abimbola and Kehinde Hakeem are referred to as ‘Deaf’ in the story.
This article was produced with the support of the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and through the support of the Ford Foundation.