Living as a young woman in Lagos, Nigeria, I learned from a young age that the police are not always the best resort in cases of sexual and gender-based violence.
Most girls in Nigeria grow up with extensive knowledge of how the police’s negative attitude has done terrible harm to the women in our community. As a young girl in a society in which you are almost never seen as an independent person, girls grow up with the belief that they are owned by their parents through school and end up getting married to men that believe they are taking over the position of authority. Our society is biased against women. As a girl, having a mind of your own is deeply frowned upon and girls that rebel are labeled and ostracized.
This culture pervades the police force in Nigeria, which leads to systemic victim blaming. From rape to harrassment, the men who inflict harm on women and girls are most often not charged. Young girls like myself are terrified when bad things happen to us. Worse yet, the first thing that should be done, like reporting these crimes to the police, is mostly avoided.
I was well aware of several cases of wrongful conduct by the police against women, but I never understood the depth until I became a victim of the system myself. Many women in my community are suffering in their workplace, marriages, and relationships due to sexual harassment but can not get help due to stereotypes within the police force. Women are told by police officers to stay in marriages even if their lives are threatened – police officers that should be doing whatever they can to remedy the situation. Women and girls brave enough to file complaints to the police are sometimes accused of provoking the men and told to endure abuse even when they might have suffered physical harm.
If the police were more proactive and valued the lives of Nigerian women, many children would not be motherless today.
The justice system in Nigeria has allowed and contributed to the sexual exploitation of many young girls like myself. The first day I felt unsafe around the police was a particular night in February when my college roommates and I were heading back to a hostel after a night out partying. We were stopped on the road by the police for something they termed a routine check but all that I felt in my heart was fear. The police pointed flashlights in our faces and questioned why we were out so late.
I knew not to feel safe around them after the horrible experiences women and girls have reported going through in the hands of the police including extortion and bodily violation. Human Rights Watch, for example, has reported on cases of police themselves raping women and retaliating when complaints were. It’s terrible that the police that should serve as a channel of getting justice, more often than not, do the exact opposite.
I started to understand just how bad the system was when I got into an ugly situation with someone I was in a relationship with. When I ended the relationship, my partner could not comprehend why I wanted to end things and tried every means to keep me with him. He resorted to emotional blackmail, verbal abuse and threatened to release intimate pictures of me that he coerced me into sending while we were in the relationship. I went through the darkest period of my life and tried every way possible to find a solution to the situation I was in. After carrying out extensive research, I found agencies that were willing to take up the case.
After finding an agency that helps victims of domestic and sexual violence, I unfortunately realized that I could not go further with the agency without involving the police. I was given a letter to take to the police station by the agency to get them acquainted with all that had happened and to get justice. I held this letter and began my walk to the station and after getting there, all I could do was stand outside. After several minutes, I knew I wouldn’t go in. I turned back and went home. All that was going through my head outside the police station was the amount of victim blaming and condescension I would get from the officers. I know this because I have heard of the way they treat female victims like me. As if the blame we get from parents and relatives is not enough, we get blamed by people who should be enforcing the law against those who abuse and harass us.
I realized I needed to find other ways apart from the police to get my former partner to stop harassing me. I stayed up at night and cried my eyes sore for days and all I could think of at that moment was the number of girls in the same situation as me–girls with dashed hopes and futures as a result of the inefficiency of the police, girls that should have been helped but all they get is questions implying they themselves were to blame. This isn’t right.
In what society should women be forced to reach a compromise with offenders that should be punished by the law? I know for sure that if I had no other option aside from getting help from the police, I might still be trapped in a relationship that was harming my mental health. I likely would have had little options but to stay to prevent him from harming me–all because I was too scared of the possible slut-shaming I would suffer from the police.
The girls that carry on with reporting cases of sexual exploitation and harassment to the police in Nigeria are often extorted and made to go through a tumultuous process. Most give up the fight and often feel forced to stay in a relationship damaging to their physical and psychological well-being. A police force that is complacent in the sexual exploitation of women by looking down on us only does more damage to society as women are mostly unable to get out of life-threatening situations.
In Nigeria and elsewhere, women and girls need to have a system that prioritizes their safety. We owe this to the next generation. No one should have to fear asking for help when in trouble. A society free of sexual exploitation and abuse of women cannot have police condone that abuse. Unfortunately, however, police remain a key part of the process women must go through.
Omotoyosi David is a 20-year-old law student in Lagos, Nigeria. She believes that it’s possible to do great things from a small place and has a penchant for helping the less privileged. In 2021, she joined an organization that focuses on tackling malnutrition in children as a volunteer.
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