By Abimbola Abatta
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), millions of girls and boys around the world are subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation every year. In May 2021, Nigeria’s Minister for Women’s Affairs, Senator Pauline Tallen, said that 30 percent of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 experience some form of sexual abuse. Religious institutions are not left out as women and girls, even boys, are victims of sexual abuse at the hands of false religious leaders. Curbing the activities of religious institutions that commit sexual abuse is the first step in the right direction. There is also a need for ongoing advocacy and education to stem the spread of sexual abuse. There is also a need for ongoing advocacy and education to stem the spread of sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse in religious institutions transcends different religions. With ample evidence of the spread of sexual abuse in Nigeria, it is high time Nigeria took action to stem the abnormality of sexual abuse in religious institutions.
Social stigma aside, fear of threats can force victims of sexual abuse from religious leaders to wallow in silence. Research shows that abusers can brainwash their victims into seeing sexual interactions as a way to escape demonic possession.
Dismantling the ingrained culture of silence may seem impossible, but concerted efforts aimed at ending the threat of sexual abuse can yield positive results.
The government must enforce appropriate laws against criminals. For moral reasons, new laws should be enacted to introduce severe fines and penalties for perpetrators of sexual violence in religious institutions. For example, Section 360 of the Criminal Code provides that any person found guilty of unlawfully and indecently assaulting a woman or girl is punishable by two years imprisonment. This penalty could be doubled for religious leaders who abuse their authority. Religious institutions where leaders are found guilty of sexual abuse should also be closed.
Non-governmental organizations and human rights organizations must step up their campaigns against sexual abuse. Government agencies can work with NGOs to initiate awareness programs for women, girls and boys. Providing free and optimal legal support can also ensure justice for victims. Religious leaders need to be made aware of the dangers of sexual abuse, with an emphasis on the legal and moral ramifications.
Seminars could be organized in schools, worship centers, markets and offices to educate participants. Radio and television programs can also be designed to raise public awareness of the dangers of sex crimes. Most importantly, federal, state, and local government budget allocations must include intervention funds to provide medical and financial assistance to survivors of sexual abuse.
Media institutions also need to investigate stories of sexual abuse. It is not enough to report the incident from the start. News agencies must follow up on reported cases until justice is done. Such movements will not only raise citizens’ awareness of their basic human rights, but also encourage victims to speak up.
Solution-oriented initiatives to monitor, investigate and report rape and sex crimes to the appropriate authorities should extend their services to rural areas. To drastically reduce sexual abuse cases in Nigeria, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), Independent Corrupt Practices & Other Related Offenses Commission (ICPC), the Federal Ministry of Health, Federal Ministry of Women’s Affairs, security forces, NGOs and other citizens must come together to build a formidable unit to counter the threat.
Regardless of their position in society, criminals must be punished to act as a deterrent to others. Policy makers should formulate policies regarding abuses of authority by religious leaders.
Abimbola Abatta is a writer at African Liberty.