What is novel about the Sexual Offences Bill 2015? Does it fully protect women’s rights? The recently-passed Sexual Offences Bill and the extent of legal protection it affords the girl-child was the focus of the June 11, 2015 one-hour radio discussion on The Woman Show aired on Nigeria-Info Radio 99.3 FM Lagos, featuring Spaces for Change’s Victoria Ohaeri as the Special Guest.
The Sexual Offences Bill makes a bold attempt to consolidate the gender-specific offences codified in the Criminal Code that operates in the Southern part of Nigeria, and the Penal Code, that operates in the northern part. Among other things, the Bill, sponsored by Senator Chris Anyanwu from Imo State, criminalizes gang rape, incest, child pornography, sex tourism, sexual harassment, and prohibits sexual intercourse with children under 11. Because of the way, particularly the language used in framing certain provisions of the Bill, it appeared as though 11 years has been legitimized as the new legal age for consensual sex, contrary to the Child Rights Act and the 1999 Nigerian Constitution. Not only that, the compartmentalization of sexual offences against girls aged 11- 18 created confusion, fueling anger among the population. Commentary in public and online spaces frowned at the development. The major public concern was that age 11 is too low, and reminiscent of the #ChildBride furore that trailed the decision of a northern senator to marry a 13 year old bride. Many therefore viewed the Bill as an attempt to revise the legal age of consensual sex through the back door, considering the public opprobrium that greeted the initial attempt through constitutional amendment.
Ms. Ohaeri praised the bold efforts that have been made to secure the Bill’s passage and increase legal protection for the girl-child. However, she joined other Nigerians to express deep concerns regarding some of the Bill’s provisions that limit legal protections for women, and the girl-child in particular. She observed that the public angst which this Bill generated would have been avoidable if there has been qualitative and broad-based consultations with women and stakeholder groups prior to its passage. The gaps in the bill underline the importance of public consultation and participation in public policy development. She also discussed the dichotomy between the legal provisions in the Criminal Code and the Penal Code, highlighting how the cultural practices and religious diversity in the country have continued to make the goal of establishing a uniform legislation on women’s rights protection unrealizable.
Ms. Ohaeri was also one of the speakers at the media forum hosted by the Media Concern Initiative for Women and Children on June 25, 2015. She was concerned that laws and policies protecting women and girls against sexual vieolnce were scattered in a maze of legal frameworks and therefore difficult to locate and deploy to fully protect women from sexual violence. Some of these laws include the 1999 Constitution, the Child Rights Acts, the amended Persons (Prohibition) Law Enforcement and Administration Act, including various state legislative initiatives against domestic violence. She emphasized the need for greater coordination and harmonization of these laws. “This is not the time to throw away the baby with the baby. Therefore, the Sexual Offences Bill presents us with another another chance to synthesize all of these laws, and bring stakeholders together to take a harder and collective look at the concerning provisions, with a view to addressing the inherent defects’, she said.