Putting economic Abuse on the GBV agenda
A SPECIAL REPORT by Emiene Erameh
Gender-Based Violence (GBV), according to the UNHCR, can include sexual, physical, mental and economic harm inflicted in public or in private. It also includes threats of violence, coercion and manipulation. Gender-based violence can take many forms, such as intimate partner violence, sexual violence, child marriage, female genital mutilation and so-called "honour crimes".
In Nigeria, emphasis is usually on intimate partner violence and sexual violence, as it causes visible injuries. Rarely discussed is gender-based violence that causes economic harm, even though it intersects closely with sexual and intimate partner violence. Economic violence makes women vulnerable to other more physically violent forms of abuse.
Dr Olusegun Shoyombo, a Consultant Psychiatrist with the National Hospital, Abuja, supports this position, saying this is a pattern that abusive people follow in one way or the other.
Azeezat Aremu (not her real name), an accountant, was married for 16 years, but her husband refused to let her work for the first six years.
She said, "He had initially stopped me from working, saying I needed to stay in the house to raise the kids. He said he did not want house helps around his kids."
Azeezat said the abuse did not stop him from asking her to stop work but also extended to physical and emotional abuse. He would often hit and abuse her verbally, saying she was useless.
She had to get a job to augment the family's finances when her husband lost his job. Their children's school fee payments were always late as he could no longer meet the family's financial needs.
But by then, she had lost precious time and had to start at the bottom as she had no job experience, having never worked since she graduated. Azeezat had to start at entry-level. Her mates who began working after completing their National Youth Service were at inter-mediate or management level.
However, her husband was unimpressed with her new role in the family.
"He said I was a disobedient wife, and I would surely end up in hellfire. This systematic abuse started and progressed to the point where I could hardly speak my mind for fear of it getting out of hand. He once said I was completely useless, and I was useless to him and had no use whatsoever," she narrated.
The physical violence extended to kids as well. He would beat them for the flimsiest reason with sticks and electrical wires, which made the children very afraid of him. The physical violence meted out on Azeezat, climaxed with a fracture on her leg. She said when that happened, she knew it was time to leave.
Azeezat said her husband's abuse affected her so severely that she often felt her opinion could not possibly count for anything. She was always afraid of talking so it would not earn her a beating.
Dr Shoyombo said this kind of abuse could lead to a sense of unfulfillment and depression which can even lead to a victim having suicidal thoughts. In some severe cases, this could lead to resentment towards the children and drug abuse.
Ella Onche, a law school graduate, said she initially thought love made her husband forbid her from working. He took control of everything, including handling money, like giving her money for something as basic as shopping for the family. She said this affected her badly because she had no money to attend to her own needs since she could not work and earn a living.
"Be wary of a man who doesn't let you work, who doesn't let you do anything, and he doesn't let you handle any money. He did everything from shopping for groceries to buying toiletries, everything." Ella said.
She continued: "I later realised that it was just a ploy to keep me perpetually under his wings. He did it so well that I became dependent on him. The psychological and verbal abuse started when he had me where he wanted me.
"' Can't you do anything for yourself?" he would ask. Can't you go to the market on your own, he would always ask."
Ella said they got married when she was still in Law school, and she had never had a chance to put her degree to any use. The only time she did any work related to her degree was during her Court and Chambers attachment. "I had no money to meet my basic needs. My husband often told me I was no good at managing money, so he hardly gave me money to do anything since he took care of the shopping.
"When I decided to leave, I left with my kids and nothing else. That is where an abuser wants you, totally dependent on him for everything," she said.
Another victim, Vivian, got married to her husband when she was in her first year at the University of Jos. At the time, he was based in Spain.
She joined him in Spain when she was due to start her second year at University. He complained that he did not marry her so that they could live apart. "And so I moved and joined him," Vivian said.
The move meant sacrificing her education and learning first to speak Spanish if she wanted to continue with school and hopefully get a decent job there. She had to resort to petty trading.
In July 2021, Amnesty International visited the Nyanya community in Abuja and had a question-and-answer session with women in the community to make human rights education accessible to all.
One of the participants' questions was whether it was illegal for a husband to deprive his wife of the right to work and not provide for her and their children. One of the women, Yaya Ahmed (real name withheld), talked of how her husband did not let her make a living, beat her up at will and barely provided for the family.
Narrating her ordeal, she said, "My husband did not care for our four children. It was normal for us to go hungry to bed with no food and our children dressed in rags. They were often sent out of school for lack of fees. I decided to start frying Akara to enable me to provide for my children. This angered him to the point of beating me up in the presence of my children. My relatives and his said I should have done as I was told l had no business trying to play the role of a man."
This form of abuse is usually silent and reported to relatives first. When that fails, the victims must go the formal route by filing a complaint with law enforcement agents.
But why the silence?
According to UNICEF, traditionally, in Nigeria, the beating of wives and children is widely sanctioned as a form of discipline in many other African countries. In instances where women earn more than their husbands or partners, they are encouraged to be "humble" and guard against pride. Men are hardly ever given such admonitions.
Dr Irowari James, a psychologist, said it answers an abusive man's need to subjugate his victim and make her dependent on him.
"A man marries a woman earning higher and is told that the woman is doing better. He comes back with an over-bloated and useless ego and wants to subjugate the woman, even if he may not be earning enough," Dr James noted.
And so, given this background, women are usually reluctant to report when their husbands forbid them from working or want to assume control of their finances. Women brave enough to resist this kind of control are advised to be submissive for peace to reign. Women rarely seek legal redress for this kind of economic abuse. Instead, they rely on solutions offered by family members,
The Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team, in its 2021 annual report, listed 1,329 cases of Domestic Violence cases. While physical and sexual assault had high numbers, economic violence incidents were not mentioned but classified under other forms of violence.
In Australia, it is called Financial Abuse and the list of likely perpetrators is expanded to include parents and siblings. With many people ignorant of or reluctant to talk about this form of abuse, is there any hope of getting justice through legal means for survivors?
Position of the law
The Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act defines Economic Abuse as "(a)forced financial dependence; (b)denial of inheritance or succession rights; (c)the unreasonable deprivation of economic or financial resources to which a person is entitled or which any person requires out of necessity including (i)household necessities, (ii)mortgage bond repayments, or payment of rent in respect of a shared residence or (d)the unreasonable disposal or destruction of household effects or other property in which any person has an interest."
While the VAPP Act criminalises economic abuse, this form of data is usually not listed among those presented for cases of GBV.
Lagos State is at the forefront of combating GBV. Aside from the domestication of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) Act, the state also has the Protection Against Domestic Violence Law, which was passed in 2007 and is only applicable in the state. It is the only state that has enacted legislation explicitly targeting domestic violence.
The VAPP Act is domesticated in 18 states and the FCT. Seven state governments are yet to consent to this law, and ten other states are yet to enact the law. However, it will take more than these laws to end the culture of silence and encourage women to speak out.
No economic abuse cases were reported by September 2021, said the Lagos State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr Moyosore Onigbanjo, at an event to commemorate the September 2021 Domestic and Sexual Violence Awareness Month.
He said the state had noted a steady increase in reports of domestic violence cases of over 150 incidents daily. There was, however, no documentation of cases of economic abuse.
Kelechi Ofim, a communication officer and teacher at a women's learning and support hub, said more action was needed to translate the available data into actionable plans, such as awareness campaigns about economic abuse. A fund that abused women can access if and when they need to leave abusive unions was also necessary.
What is the available data?
A public opinion poll conducted by NOIPolls in March 2021 revealed that 61 per cent of Nigerians nationwide think that there is discrimination against women in the country.
The survey showed that in terms of gender discrimination in politics, family, workplace and education, there is vast gender disparity in all areas.
Education was the only area where the poll showed women to have an edge, with 60 per cent of Nigerians believing that women in the country enjoy better inclusion.
Mr Ofim said poverty keeps women in abusive relationships as they do not have the resources to leave.
However, this inclusion does not translate into better lives and jobs for women. Fifty-five per cent of Nigerians polled nationwide, according to the poll, believe that women are not currently given the same opportunities as men in their respective families.
Women who report economic abuse are considered 'stubborn', which accounts for the low number of cases. Many Nigerians agree that it is okay to seek help in the case of physical abuse. Still, many are not so forgiving when it comes to complaints about economic abuse.
According to the National Demographic Health Survey 2018, 40 per cent of women are more likely to file complaints if they have experienced physical and sexual violence. Women who suffer only physical violence are unlikely to report these incidents. Such incidents are resolved within the family without the involvement of law enforcement agents.
It usually takes a combination of all these forms of abuse before a woman feels confident enough to file a complaint as they are afraid of social stigma.
Mr Ofim called for sustained public education about the cultural practices that led to GBV incidents. He said re-orienting boys to understand that all humans being male and female, are born free and equal can help reduce such incidents.
This cultural shift would allow the men who are usually the perpetrators to change their attitudes, thereby improving society and reducing the incidence of GBV.
Elizabeth Olamide-Obayomi survived domestic violence and is now at the forefront of fighting for justice for girls and women in the Ikorodu community in Lagos State. Stories like Elizabeth's can help inspire other women suffering similar plights to leave their abusive relationships.
The support of the African Women Journalism Project (AWJP), in partnership with the International Centre for Journalism (ICFJ) and funding from Ford Foundation, contributed to the production of this article. The article was first published by 365Daily