Two events last week underscored the scourge of violence against women and girls and the denial of the rights of women. On Wednesday, Oxfam Nigeria screened three documentaries it produced, highlighting the economic plight of women and their struggle to escape poverty and achieve economic empowerment. One of the documentaries highlighted the plight of female farmers and their challenge with land ownership in traditional and cultural Nigerian settings.
But on Thursday, the health challenges women face became the focal point of discussions when Nollywood came together with international development partners to produce and premiere DRY; a movie produced by Stephanie Linus, to draw national and global attention to the prevalence and dangers of Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) or obstetric fistula on Nigerian women.
DRY narrates the story of Zara Robbins who suffered the challenged of unprotected childhood; including early orphanage and teenage rape. The product of that sexual violence was ‘sold’ to a childless couple while Zara was adopted by a Foreigner who visits her community yearly to render health care assistance. She went on to become an accomplished Physician in the UK but was constantly haunted by the ghost of her past and the situation of her child. Meanwhile, Halima, Zara’s daughter was married off by her adopted family at age 11, to a man five times his age, and with three other wives. Halima was not just raped by her husband, she lost the baby at childbirth and developed VVF. She was ostracised by her adopted and marital family.
By a twist of fate, Dr Zara returns to Nigeria to continue the health care assistance her adopted mother used to run. She had to use the opportunity to trace the whereabouts of her daughter. Sadly a badly emaciated Halima was rushed to Zara to save, due to complications from VVF. She died in her hands.
Halima’s story above, though fiction, mirrors the plight numerous girls and female teenagers in Nigeria.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Vesico Vaginal Fistula (VVF) also known as Obstetric Fistula is one of the most serious and tragic childbirth injuries and a form of violence perpetrated against women. Fistula, is a hole between the birth canal and bladder or rectum caused by prolonged, obstructed labour without treatment. It leaves women leaking either urine or faeces or both. This often leads to chronic medical problems, depression, social isolation and deepening poverty.
More than two million women in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Arab region, Latin America and the Caribbean are estimated to be living with fistula, and some 50,000 to 100,000 new cases develop annually. According to reports, Nigeria may be accounting for 40 per cent global prevalence rate of Obstetric Fistula.
It remains a plague in Northern Nigeria with 76 percent of adolescent girls in marriages in the North-west, 68 percent in the Northeast, and 35 percent in the North-central (Source: Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) 2008). An online report quoted the former Minister for Health Prof Onyebuchi Chukwu as saying that, between 400,000- 800,000 women are living with obstetric fistula, with about 20,000 new cases reported annually in Nigeria.
Yet it is almost entirely preventable. VVF is not a medical disorder, but a condition brought about by our social behaviour and a poor understanding of how traditional practices are putting our young girls and women in harm’s way. By marrying off girls before they reach womanhood or become fully matured, we are exposing them to VVF.
It is often caused by childbirth (in which case it is known as an obstetric fistula), when prolonged labour presses the unborn child tightly against the pelvis. This cuts off blood flow to the vesicovaginal wall. The affected tissue may die, leaving a hole. Vaginal fistulas can also result from violent rape.
In his foreword in a UNFPA report named, ‘Marrying too Young’, Prof Babatunde Osotimehin identified child marriage as a human rights abuse which constitutes a grave threat to young girls’ lives, health and future prospects. Marriage for girls can lead to complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, and in developing countries these are the main causes of death among 15–19-year-old girls. Girls who are married are also exposed to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. For a girl, marriage can mean the end of her education, can set aside her chances of a vocation or career, and can steal from her foundational life choices.
The persistence of child marriage is a sign that legal systems are failing to protect the health and human rights of the most vulnerable women and girls. It highlights some aspects of VAWG that continue to pervade the domestic and traditional space in Nigeria.
As of 2006, 15-20% of school dropouts in Nigeria were the result of child marriage. In 2013, as a result of public outcry, the national assembly attempted to change Section 29, subsection 4 of the Nigerian constitution and thereby prohibit child marriages. This was opposed by key Islamic figures, who called any attempts to prohibit child marriages as un-Islamic. Meanwhile, Islam and Christianity are practiced by roughly 50-50 of Nigeria’s population respectively, and the country continues with laws from the British colonial era laws, where child marriages are forbidden for its Christians and allowed for its Muslims.
The issue remains a divisive topic in Nigeria and widely practiced especially in predominantly muslim northern states, where over 50 percent of the girls marry before the age of 15. It is part of teir local tradition with parents believing it safeguards their daughters’ future. Poverty or conflict propels it. But more often than not, and as highlighted in DRY, child marriage is the outcome of fewer choices. Girls who miss out or drop out of school are especially vulnerable to it.
DRY showed challenges women face in developing and underdeveloped nations. It showed that complications arising from communal violence renders a young girl vulnerable to the vagaries of life. It lands her in the hands of an ‘uncle’ who rather than protect her, exploits her vulnerability to rape her.
It also showed that because the woman is not economically empowered, her child is also exposed to vulnerabilities and becomes also a victim of domestic violence. This underscores the assertion that perpetrators of VAWG seek out unprotected and vulnerable targets. Perpetrators exploit the poor economic cover women lack to carry out their dastardly acts. Why then is Nigeria paying lip service to empowering women and the girl child? Because the more exposure the girl child has to formal education and the better-off her family is, the more likely marriage is to be postponed. Hence, the more she is assured a secure future.
This hits at the heart of the matter; when women and girls have a choice, they marry later. The best for girls is the product of education, good health, including sexual and reproductive health, and broad choices that are to be freely made, not only in regards to marriage, but in all aspects of her life.
Investing and developing the social and economic assets of women and girls, ensuring they have access to education and health services, and ensuring that they can postpone marriage until they are ready implies greater dignity for women. It also means healthier families and higher levels of gender equality. This in turn makes for stronger societies and more vibrant economies.
Hence, more efforts will need to go in to see that the prevalence of VVF reduces. Very few girls will have the sort of privilege that Zara Robbins had as a child in DRY; being adopted by a foreigner and taken abroad. Therefore, we need to find more sustainable ways to ensure that the girl child is adequately protected and given the opportunity to thrive.
Harmful religious and cultural practices will need to start taking a back seat. A way of life or religion that impinges on the well-being of the human person is not what God has destined for mankind; religious inclination notwithstanding. This can be achieved with increased advocacy to religious and cultural gatekeepers and providing them with information. The truth remains that stopping any of these practices will in no way, have any negative impact on spirituality neither will it remove any value from existing cultures and belief systems. It is my strong belief that a number of these practices came to be as a result of misinterpretation or poor understanding of the tenets of a law. They need to stop NOW!
The safe space initiative being championed by international organisations like Girl Hub, the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme, UNFPA etc, will help in empowering young women with life skills and the sort of information they need to be able to make useful choices that will positively impact their lives. More efforts need to go into prosecuting and convicting perpetrators of VAWG including rape, paedophilia and molestation.
In the end, Nigeria will be better for it with more talents available to it, to improve the value of its economy.
Chinedu Anarado a development practitioner writes from Abuja. He tweets with @ChineduAnarado