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Nigeria’s Poisonous Patriarchy

Many in Nigeria believe that familial and even societal honor depends on women’s complicity, purity, and silence. Such norms severely constrain women's opportunities and leave them highly vulnerable to violence.

IBADAN, NIGERIA – Nearly every country has some way to go to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030, in line with United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5. But for a country like Nigeria – where toxic masculinity pervades politics, the economy, and society – the challenge is particularly formidable.

Toxic masculinity describes adherence to norms of “manly” behavior, such as suppressing emotions (other than, say, anger) and asserting dominance over others. Such norms hurt the men who are socialized to conform to them, by preventing them from exploring the full spectrum of human emotion, behavior, and identity. But it is women who suffer the most: their subordinate, submissive role severely constrains their opportunities and leaves them highly vulnerable to violence.

It is no revelation that when people who never learn to deal with their emotions are endowed with disproportionate cultural, legal, and often physical power, they are likely to take their frustrations and fears out on the less powerful. For example, not long ago, a woman in Gboko, Benue state, North-central Nigeria was killed by her drunken husband, who flew into a rage after deciding that her previous late arrival from work and recent relocation from his house to her sister’s house confirmed his suspicions that she had been unfaithful. Since becoming unemployed, the husband’s sense of self-worth – based crucially on his “manly” role as the breadwinner and head of the household – had been damaged. So, when he felt that his wife was threatening his “honor,” he did what men are “supposed” to do: he “taught her a lesson” by beating her mercilessly for hours, as he did publicly three years ago.

This time, he went further, killing his wife instantly with an axe. The woman’s two daughters are now dependent on their dead mother’s sister, who lives below the poverty line, and their grandfather for food and shelter. The man who killed his wife has since been on the run and yet to be captured by law enforcement officers.

This story is hardly an anomaly. Estimates published by the World Health Organization indicate that about one in three women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate-partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. As many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner.

In Nigeria, such violence is particularly widespread. According to one recent study, 28% of women aged 25-29 have experienced some form of physical violence since age 15. But the violence often starts even younger than that: 18% of Nigerian girls are married by the age of 15, leaving them vulnerable to marital abuse, and, despite a 2015 ban, female genital mutilation is still carried out with impunity, most commonly on very young girls.

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Impunity should not be surprising, given that women are usually unable to fight even the most brutal injustices in court. In part, this is an issue of money: given constraints on their education and employment prospects, women in Nigeria tend to be economically dependent on others – potentially even the man committing the violence – and thus unable to pay for legal proceedings.

Even if a woman can afford to go to court, the odds are stacked against her, because men dominate the legal profession and patriarchy is baked into Nigerian law. For example, a rape trial can move forward only with eye-witness testimony.

But the problem is more fundamental. Many in Nigeria believe that familial and even societal honor depends on women’s complicity, purity, and silence. Women who speak out about violence, let alone try to prosecute attackers, face stigma. Some rape survivors are even expelled from their communities for being adulterers, and marital rape is not recognized, because a wife may not deny sex to her husband. Similarly, marital abuse is dismissed, because a man must “discipline” his wife. Likewise, genital mutilation is thought to preserve a woman’s purity and her family’s dignity. Among some ethnic groups, young girls are used as loan collateral.

All of this contributes to significant under-reporting of violence. It does not help that women lack adequate support from overwhelmingly male civic, religious, and political leaders. Only five of Nigeria’s 24 cabinet ministers are women, and none of the country’s 36 states has a female governor.

If Nigeria is to have any chance of achieving SDG5, its government must strengthen laws on gender-based violence and discrimination – including the myriad cultural practices that damage, disempower, and diminish women – and improve enforcement significantly. Moreover, it should provide rehabilitation for victims, while supporting female participation at all levels of decision-making. Judicial activism will be needed to translate policies into action.

At the same time, to shift cultural attitudes, a large-scale campaign is needed to promote female participation in pre- and post-marital decisions, electoral processes, and family decision-making. And a national panel should be established to enable women to share their experiences publicly and safely, thereby raising awareness of the real-world consequences of toxic masculinity on Nigerian women. Religious, media, and educational institutions and civil-society organizations all have a role to play in these efforts.

All people have been suffering under the yoke of toxic masculinity for too long. The time has come for a new era of positive masculinity – one that is liberating for men and life-saving for women.

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