If there was anytime Nigeria needed to review her laws against rape, that time is now. There has been an exponential rise in rape cases and the weak laws have been found to be an alibi offenders use to get off the hook. Cases of rape, especially of infants and other minors mostly by people they know, love and trust have unfortunately become an unusual occurrence in the society.
Rape causes physical and psychological pain and could also have severe physical, psychological, emotional and reproductive consequences for the victims, including death, unwanted pregnancies, complications in childbirth, and sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDS. Despite the grave consequences the act has on victims, only few cases are reported. A nationwide survey undertaken in 2005 by the CLEEN Foundation, a Nigerian NGO that promotes public safety, security and justice, found that only 18.1 per cent, that is less than one in five of some 10,000 respondents who had been raped had reported the offence to the police. The reason for this is not farfetched. Rape carries a heavy social stigma, sometimes resulting in rejection by families and communities.
Rape is a serious crime and even the Nigerian law sees it as such. The Penal Code (Nigerian Laws Cap 89), which is applicable in the northern part of the country, criminalises both rape and defilement, which is rape of a girl before she attains the age of consent. Rape is also an offence, punishable under Section 357 of the Criminal Code Act (Nigerian Laws Cap 38), applicable in the southern part of the country. Under Section 358, rape is punishable by life imprisonment, with the possible addition of caning. The criminal offence of rape is punishable by imprisonment of up to 14 years, which can be combined with a fine.
Weak laws and stipulated penalties against rape have, however, been cited as one of the reasons why the crime still goes on unabated. According to experts, the definitions of rape in our laws do not conform to the principles underlying the Rome Statute definition and as such, do not provide sufficient protection for women and girls who have been raped.
Also, the burden the law places on a victim to prove a case of rape is overwhelming. The criminal procedure codes, for instance, do not specify what kind of medical reports are admissible as forensic evidence in cases of rape. However, in practice, according to stakeholders, only medical reports issued by a medical practitioner in a government-run hospital are accepted by courts as admissible evidence. This is not fair especially as the law does not stipulate that all cases of rape brought to private health institutions should be referred to government owned ones. Consequently, it is common place that many perpetrators of the crime take advantage of the lacuna in the law to wriggle themselves out of cases.
There is, therefore, a need for the laws to be amended to the extent that it prescribes stiffer punishment for the crime. Governments, at all levels, must also ensure that all women who have been raped have access to redress in the form of access to justice and to reparations including rehabilitation. Agents and agencies of the government must also see to it that due diligence is exercised in bringing perpetrators to justice.
Until this is done, we may yet continue to see our children stripped of their sexual innocence at a very tender age, which leaves them with grave psychological scars that may make them become psychopaths in future. Nobody wants that.