Early in July this year, the Sokoto State House of Assembly passed a bill for a law to supplement the provisions of the Penal code law, 2019 and provide for the punishment of offences relating to Gender-Based Violence (GBV).
The bill was passed following the consideration of the report of the House Committee on Judiciary, Justice and Human Rights report
The Committee had recommended that an interpretation section be created in the Bill on all phrases relating to violence against a person that includes abandonment of women, children, circumcision of a girl or women, domestic relationship and violence among others.
According to him, a provision for compensation of victims should be created and the court shall in addition to penalties provided for the offences, award appropriate compensation to the victim as it may deem fit in the circumstance.
The new law also provided that a finding of guilt in rape will be punished with imprisonment for life or for a term of not less than 21 years. It also made various crimes out of female circumcision and wife or children abandonment.
It is yet to be seen how these provisions are enforced. The governor of Sokoto State, Aminu Tambuwal said that his government in the past two years has sent half the 1.2 million school-age children roaming the streets of the state back to the classroom.
With so many deficiencies in human development indicators, one wonders if the large families and the low uptake of family planning services in the state is a credit. Sokoto faces a situation of high fertility and low contraceptive use, driven in large part by high-fertility norms, pro-natal cultural and religious beliefs, misconceptions about contraceptive methods, and gender inequalities.
Available data shows that thousands of women in Sokoto State would prefer to avoid becoming pregnant either right away or space the time period between each pregnancy but are not using any contraception. These women are said to have an “unmet need” for family planning.
The 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) indicated that the total fertility rate in the northwest of the country where Sokoto sits comfortably as a leader was 6.6 live births per woman, and that women aged 40 to 49 years averaged 8.3 births in their reproductive lifetimes.
This high-fertility situation places women at greater risk of birth complications and maternal mortality. Nigeria currently has more maternal deaths annually than any other country in the world and the fourth highest maternal mortality ratio.
Contraceptive use to limit or space births is not the norm in this region. In the 2018 NDHS, only 6.2 per cent of married women in the northwest were currently using any form of modern contraception, and the majority of married women – 68.7 per cent – reported no need for family planning for either spacing or limiting.
Apart from certain overt reasons such as the need for family preservation, misconceptions around contraceptives and religion, covertly, gender inequality sits at the heart of unmet demand for family planning services in Sokoto State.
Children in this part of the world are driven by gender power imbalances, fostered by patriarchal social structures in which women have limited autonomy over most decisions, including those affecting marriage, health and fertility. Men are often the final decision-makers on important household matters, including those related to household purchases, health of family members, timing of pregnancies, family size, and education of children. As the decision-makers on family size, men ultimately determine contraceptive use through their fertility desires and approval or disapproval of contraception.
The woman’s limited education chiefly blamed on a culture of early marriage puts her even in a more disadvantaged position.
The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) Nigeria recently published data from a review of Sexual and Gender Based Violence and the Budget in Sokoto State between 2016-2019 wherein it was found that in 2013, less than 1 per cent of women in Sokoto were using traditional or modern methods of contraception (0.30% and 0.7% respectively) while only 7.5 per cent had unmet need for family planning. In the same year, the national average indicates that 5.40 per cent and 9.8 per cent of women were using traditional and modern contraceptives respectively while the unmet need was 16.1 per cent. This shows that more women were using contraceptives of any type across the nation when compared to the Sokoto percentages.
Also, in 2018, 0.20 and 2.3 per cent were using traditional and modern contraceptives respectively in Sokoto State while the national average was 4.6 and 12 per cent for traditional and modern methods of contraception respectively. Again, this indicates that more women were using contraceptives of any type at the national level when compared with Sokoto State.
A 2021 study published in the BMC Public Health journal found that in the northwest, Sokoto state inclusive, nearly two thirds of adult women have no formal education, and only 29 per cent are considered literate. Forced and early child marriage are common and many girls are married as young as 12. The median age at first marriage is approximately 15.9 years. The median age for men, in contrast, is 25.3 years, revealing considerable age differences, and hence power differentials. In this context, women are valued largely for their reproductive functions.
From a woman’s perspective, fertility is one mechanism by which women can impart some control over marital situations that are largely beyond their control. Wives often see having many children as a way to discourage husbands from taking on other wives, which can affect a wife’s standing within the polygynous familial structure.
In polygynous marriages common in this region, resources and wealth are generally distributed to wives based on the number of children they have, both on a daily basis and at the husband’s death, thereby limiting incentives to use contraception. Researchers have identified conjugal relationship dynamics as explaining 11 per cent of the variation in contraceptive use between northern Nigerian states and southern Nigerian states.
In fact, low fertility can have dire consequences for women as husbands may cite limited childbearing as an excuse to marry additional women and to divorce their existing wives.
Right to health to which women in Sokoto State are entitled to requires that all sexually active women, whether married or not, need accurate information pregnancy and about the full range of contraceptive options so that they can choose the method that best meets their needs.
Manifestations of gender inequality and sexual violence do not stand on their own but are products of discrimination outlawed in international standards, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – being products of patriarchy and unequal power relations.
The prevalent patriarchal practices in different Nigerian cultures continue to predispose women and girls to violence, resulting in poor reproductive and sexual health outcomes, poor access to and control over resources, higher vulnerability to poverty at certain ages in life, poor access to education, lack of inheritance rights, lack of voice and minimal participation in decision making processes at different levels.
The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa makes elaborate provisions on freedom from violence for women and girls.
The Protocol mandates State Parties to enact and enforce laws to prohibit all forms of violence against women including unwanted sex, whether the violence takes place in private or public as well as identifying the causes and consequences of violence against women and take appropriate measures to prevent and eliminate such violence.
The Sokoto State Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2019 has some interesting provisions. In Section 190, there is a remedy for a married woman against her husband and others in respect of her person and property. It states that a woman who has contracted a valid marriage shall have in her own name against all persons whatsoever including the husband of the marriage the same remedies or redress by way of criminal proceedings for the protection and security of her person or her own separate property as if such property belonged to her as an unmarried woman. The key interesting words for gender rights relate to the protection and security of her person which reinforces the constitutional protection of human dignity.
It is time the Sokoto State House of Assembly enacted the Child Rights Law, Gender and Equal Opportunity Law, Violence Against Persons Prohibition Law and Sexual and Gender Based Violence Response Team in the state.
Equally important is the need to target the male population in gender-based programming against violence and unequal treatment. This is important because improving contraceptive knowledge among women alone will not increase modern contraceptive use. Women do not make family planning decisions in a vacuum, there are social influences from husbands, family members, and health care providers.
While at that, more emphasis should be given to the dissemination of reproductive and contraceptive information through the mass media in order to get a wider circulation.