Thought Leadership

Building Evidence to Combat Sexual Violence and Unsafe Abortions in Nigeria

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At this very moment, somewhere around the world, a woman or girl is experiencing some form of sexual violence. This devastating infringement on human rights can have dire consequences on the health and well-being of these women and girls regardless of their age and socio-economic backgrounds.
Such health consequences can be acute, chronic and sometimes deadly with even more grim outcomes like unintended/unwanted pregnancy, and abortions/unsafe abortions.

Panel discussion at the Ipas Nigeria Health Foundation’s event.
Image credit: Ipas Nigeria

Understanding the scope of the problem

According to recent studies, one in four Nigerian women have experienced some form of sexual abuse. Despite these alarming statistics, many cases go unreported due to stigma, fear of retaliation and lack of trust in the justice system in the country. Inconsistent data collection and resource constraints further hinder understanding, highlighting the need for improved surveillance systems and supportive environments for reliable data to fully understand the extent of sexual violence and unsafe abortions in Nigeria.

In Nigeria, abortion is illegal carrying a heavy jail term of up to fourteen years imprisonment, except when it carried out to save the life of a pregnant woman. Despite the criminalisation of abortion, more than half of all unintended pregnancies in Nigeria are resolved using abortion. In most cases such abortion practices are unsafe and often require treatment for complications.

Barr. Dede speaking during the panel session at the Ipas Nigeria Health Foundation’s event.
Image credit: Ipas Nigeria

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that unsafe abortions contribute significantly to maternal mortality in Nigeria. Legal restrictions, socio-cultural barriers and inadequate healthcare infrastructure exacerbate the problem, leaving many women with no safe options.
Ipas Study Highlights Sexual Violence Impact

Ipas Nigeria Health Foundation commissioned two nationwide research studies in collaboration with Academy for Health Development (AHEAD) and Centre for Research and Preventive Health Care (CERPHEC) to uncover the linkages between sexual violence and unsafe abortions in Nigeria as well as evaluate the efficacy of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act in addressing sexual violence in thirteen (13) states including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Based on findings from the study, over 75% of the respondents were survivors of sexual violence and an estimated 12% of them got pregnant as a result of sexual abuse. Of the 12% who got pregnant from the sexual abuse, approximately 33% induced abortion for diverse reasons including the survivor being too young to birth a child, the survivor’s disinterest in having more children, the partner or perpetrator’s decision on the survivor’s behalf, and socio-economic considerations.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

The study also revealed that perpetrators of sexual violence were often close relatives or armed gangs, particularly in security-compromised states. Some of the drivers of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) were similar in all the states evaluated and they included cultural values that emphasise dominance and encourage the culture of silence, patriarchal societies that limit women’s independence and gender stereotypes that promote gender inequality.

Although the government and non-state players have a good level of awareness of the VAPP Act, the study revealed that its implementation is faced with systemic and cultural challenges that affects its domestication and full implementation.

Prof Brian Adimma speaking at the Ipas Nigeria Health Foundation’s event.
Image credit: Ipas Nigeria

Addressing Unsafe Abortions in Nigeria

Abortion has long been a contentious issue, historically debated, and subject to ongoing controversy. In settings where abortion is illegal, it persists underground, predominantly unsafe and perilous. This situation significantly increases maternal mortality rates, especially when intertwined with cases of sexual violence. Addressing unsafe abortion can be pivotal in tackling maternal mortality in Nigeria, further highlighting the urgent need to confront its complex connections with sexual violence.

Thus, in May 2024, Ipas Nigeria Health Foundation convened multi-stakeholders including representatives from Ministries in the states evaluated, implementing partners in the sexual and reproductive health sectors, the Nigerian police, research organisations and representatives of Embassies to disseminate findings from the study and offer recommendations to address the issue of sexual violence and unsafe abortions in the country.

Image credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Sexual violence shows consistent prevalence across regions, frequently culminating in unwanted pregnancies for many survivors of SGBV. The approval of the VAPP Act at the national level represents a significant step in combating SGBV. However, challenges in implementing the law at the state level include financial constraints, societal norms, patriarchal attitudes, and a pervasive shaming culture.

Emphasizing the importance of advocating for the domestication of the VAPP Act at the state level, influential figures such as state First Ladies play a crucial role in this effort. It is essential to engage communities and religious leaders in discussions about sexual violence and unsafe abortions. Initiatives like Ipas’ creation of sermon notes for Islamic and Christian leaders in various states aim to shift perceptions and foster dialogue on these critical issues.

An overview of the attendees of the Ipas Nigeria Health Foundation’s event.
Image credit: Ipas Nigeria

While there has been an increase in reporting SGBV cases through the establishment of support structures, there remains a need for improved enforcement and training. According to WHO 55% of unintended pregnancies in among adolescent girls aged 15–19 years in LMICs end in unsafe abortions. Hence, there is an urgent call to empower adolescent girls with comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education and support. This is crucial not only for their education and future aspirations but also to address the risks of unsafe abortions among survivors of SGBV. Addressing the root causes of SGBV is emphasized as crucial to effectively reducing its prevalence.

A group photo of the panellists at the Ipas Nigeria Health Foundation’s event.
Image credit: Ipas Nigeria

Walking the Talk

Addressing sexual violence and its linkages to unsafe abortion is vital for reducing maternal mortality. However, based on recommendations from the IPAS study, increasing community engagement, targeting advocacy to influential figures and expanding collaboration with gatekeepers to shift cultural attitudes are required to address this menace.

The government must commit to assisting victims in recovering from trauma and work towards the ultimate elimination of sexual assault through community education and prevention programmes. Increased support and targeted initiatives are crucial for creating a safer environment and addressing the root causes of sexual violence and unsafe abortions in Nigeria.

Click here to read more about the Ipas “Building Evidence to Address the Menace of Sexual Violence and Unsafe Abortions” study.

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