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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

(Opinion) Rethinking the punishment for sexual assault

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By Talemoh Wycliffe Dah, MD

The lock-down occasioned by the Covid 19 pandemic, March 2020 till now, has unveiled sexual assault as potentially more monstrous in magnitude than it has always seemed to be. It has also proven established facts about sexual assault, like the fact that perpetrators are mostly people known to the victims and indeed often close, like family, neighbours, friends, etc. These have heightened anger and led to hurried legislations, most of which are soothing to the angst but not so kind to reason.

In Liberia, for instance, the social pandemic had a state of emergency declared on it, with the harshest possible sentence awaiting convicted offenders. In sister Nigeria, various states got busy, with some coming out with death sentence while others preferred castration of offenders. While awaiting legislation from the National Assembly and other states, a cursory look at the offence and the punishments must punctuate our already (mis) directed reasoning and speed at making those laws.

Sexual assault is obnoxious, to say the least. The psychological scar, like that left by a machete cut on the head, lasts forever if the victim survives. Incest, the breaking of divine trust for safe nurturing, often of a child, may render survivors frigid and make them lose trust in society. Sometimes pregnancy ensues, birthing afresh a new social dilemma. Forced sex can bring on all these, with the added effect of the force (trauma and sometimes death). If the society knows that someone has been raped, the stigma spares no pity for the victim. If the victim is female, she is looked at in ways she can feel and she hardly finds any suitor from that environment. And that is if she escapes the alternative hypothesis that she asked for and even enjoyed it.

Some perpetrators carry out this dastardly acts under the influence of drugs or alcohol. For some, it is a social deviance directed at sex. Whether it was hormones or whatever the cause, before the lock down, it appears that, I think, they had a place in brothels and call girls to vent. With the absence of these during the lockdown, the desire is held down till it builds to a level they have to vent it on any available female, if they are males. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable, minors, who hitherto would have been in school, are also around and provide easy targets.

The Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) (VAPP) Act 2015, variously describes different forms of the offences and prescribes appropriate punishment. Crafted by experts from all over the country and pruned and adjusted in several parliaments over more than a decade, it is certainly a thought-out document devoid of the tyranny of just hearing of or seeing a horrendous act of sexual assault. The prescribed punishments, in my opinion, are appropriate, sensible and workable for sexual assault, domestic violence, spousal abandonement, incest, etc. A detailed discussion on it will not be appropriate here so the readers is kindly referred to it at https://lawpavilion.com/blog/the-violence-against-persons-prohibition-act-2015/

Surgical castration, the removal of the gonads (testicles), is both unworkable and senseless. It does not always completely remove libido (sex drive) partly because the first step in arousal is psychic and not gonadal. Besides, the testosterone so removed can be bought in the market where aphrodisiacs are also available. The unworkability is starker. In a country where it is increasingly difficult to provide healthcare, who will bear the cost of this intermediate surgical procedure? When it is difficult to pay for suturing a cut, is it an operation that can be paid for? If the offender is responsible for the cost, how long will it take someone who earns and survives on less than two dollars a day in this poverty world capital? Since it is the two testicles that have to be removed to have even the little effect, what do you do to a second, third and multiple times offender? Will you go and promulgate another law?

We are all witnesses to how our prisons are all having convicts on death row (now that those centres are correctional centres it is a misnomer to have them there). Successive governors have refused assent to the death sentences and prefer to serve their tenures without carrying out this morally unpleasant obligation. Even during the years of the Sharia turmoil, governors were hesitant to assent to amputation of the limbs of thieves. It is likely that the present governors will sign to castrate sexual offenders, especially those who happen to be the in vanguard for those laws but those coming behind may not.
One reason for refusing to sign may be the possibility of the innocence of convicted offenders because, like any human system, our legal system is not perfect. We know that many people can be framed up with enough ‘facts’ to convict them. After castration and then knowing later that they were innocent, how do you put back their testicles and compensate them? A related possibility to this is that offenders will go to any extent to avoid conviction. Bribery of officials and disappearance of witnesses will be expected.

Disproportionate, senseless and unworkable laws will damage our society and are diversionary in that they channel our energy and zeal towards the wrong directions. We should spend more energy preventing rape from taking place. This is paradoxically why the punishment were made to be so. Armed robbery is on the increase and although it carries death sentence which most robbers know, it still takes place. We should address drug abuse, deviant tendencies and social factors that potentiate these, like poverty, unemployment, lack of infrastructure, inequity in society, etc. We should work towards a sane society. Just a mention or association of a sane person to rape or any amoral out of wedlock relationship can be punitive and embarrassing enough to him.

Knowing that perpetrators are close or in-house, eternal vigilance is necessary. This will not eliminate rape but will reduce it. If you are rich enough to send your child to school with a driver, go together with him/her always. Use crèches at your working place or do Kangaroo nursing. Give rules for engagement of strangers and let your children avoid keeping late or going places alone. Let everybody in the house know that you suspect perpetrators could be in the house. Lesson teachers can teach under your watch. If the issue we are considering is important, let go some things like working too late and abandoning the very children you said you are toiling for.

Our recent laws against sexual assault are made in the height of the social epidemic out of emotions of anger which have made them both not useful and out of proportion. Although they serve to assuage our turbulent emotions, we must agree that they help us tow our laid back escapist routes of avoiding the building of a sane society. Talking about good upbringing will hurt us, discussions about our many unpatriotic acts of omission and commission are not palatable, mentioning our failure to curb societal ills point the fingers our direction and we will not love that. As it is now, the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act 2015 suffices but we must agree to do our part.

Dah, a consultant gynecologist works and lives in Abuja, and sent this via talemohwdah@yahoo.com

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