By Yinka Salaam
Rape and forced marriages have been categorised as some of the worst forms of violence against women and girls, which must be condemned by the citizens and punished by the state.
This was the resolution of all activists and religious leaders who gathered in Lagos for a two-day capacity building and sensitization workshop for women’s rights defenders on effective engagement with religious leaders. They also work with women-based NGOs on the need to wage war against the scourge.
The Spotlight Initiative to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls under the auspices of Center for Women’s Health and Information noted that religious and community leaders are critical stakeholders in the fight, hence the need for them to be empowered.
Dr. Habibat Uthman-Oladosu of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Ibadan and Pastor Tope Fapounda of the Redeemed Christian Church of God bemoaned the high rate of sexual violence in the society and the culpability of some religious leaders in blaming the survivors (victims) and shielding the perpetrators.
Dr. Uthman-Oladosu who maintained that Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad was 18 and not 9 when she got married to the Prophet, condemned the situation where underaged are unduly and prematurely forced into marital life.
“It is quite disheartening to force vibrant and promising young ladies who are not emotionally, psychologically, socially and physically mature for marriages into it.. Contrary to erroneous belief that Aisha got married to the Prophet at age nine, Aisha actually became the wife the Prophet at eighteen, though she was betrothed to him at nine. This is the reality, considering the age of Aisha when the Prophet died.
“We also have had a situation where the supposed scholars or men of God use ladies like tissue paper that is used, shredded and thrashed – where women are hired and fired in marriages and where wives are married and divorced at the slightest opportunity just to pave way for other vulnerable ones to be used and dumped”.
Dr. Uthman-Oladosu described as ‘intellectual violence’, a situation where the education of a male child is prioritised over that of the females, or where a female child is denied formal education, saying women must be empowered to realize their mental, social and physical well-being .
In the same vein, Pastor Tope Fapounda frowned against the high prevalence of sexual violence against ladies by relatives, fathers, step-fathers, male friends or school mates. He also condemned forced marriages of young ladies under the guise of poverty, religion or cultural practices.
“For instance, we have a case in our Church where a Muslim girl whose mother was married out at the age twelve was equally about to be married out at the same age twelve for the same reason of religious practice. To resist this move by the father, the mother and the child ran out of home to seek shelter in the Church.”
While urging religious leaders to always expose criminals and evil minded people who commit violence against women and girls, Pastor Fapounda urged the government to strengthen the legal system to ensure criminals do not escape punishment.
Types of gender-based violence
Addressing the religious leaders, the Chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Lagos State Chapter, Dr Qasim Akinreti identified violence against women and girls to include: denial of economic support and sex, abandonment, frivolous divorce, child labor, sex slavery, early or forced marriage, female genital mutilation, violence in schools and madrasahs (whipping), violence against children on television and internet (cyber bully etc..
Others include children in armed or other conflicts, absence of family care and children living in the streets, domestic violence against women and girls (wife battery, rape etc) grooming a child (for drug abuse, sexual and financial benefits), and discrimination among children (especially in relation to education, health care and general well-being).
Dr Akinreti therefore enjoined the religious leaders to be partners in progress in protecting the rights of the vulnerable women and girls, particularly with the commendable effort being made by Lagos state government and the Police gender desk with its response team.
Basis for the workshop
According to Mrs Atinuke Odukoya, a director at the Centre for Women’s Health and Initiative (CEWHIN), organisers of the Spotlight Initiative (EU/UNDP supported) workshop for Women’s and Girls’ Right Defenders, it has been discovered that religious leaders are the first port of call for many whenever violence or infractions against women occur.
“It has thus become imperative to improve their capacities and engage them (religious leaders) towards elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls, to escalate the issues of Sexual and Gender Based Violence, as well as Harmful Practices. It is also to increase opportunities for the enjoyment of Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights by men and women in Nigeria.”
Odukoya said the training became imperative because Imams and Pastors could not be experts in all fields, hence, the need for interventions of gender-based experts and professional counsellors.
“Consequently, in creating partnerships with faith-based communities to end sexual violence, religious leaders were taken through the referral pathway for the Gender Based Violence in Lagos State and the issues involved, with a view to developing strategies for engaging and mobilizing them”.
The workshop explored the root causes of gender-based violence, just as it took the religious leaders and other stakeholders through the effective referral pathways and case management system that they can refer people to whenever cases of violence are reported to them.
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