This article is based on some of the findings from my APN-supported research in post-conflict oil producing communities of Nigeria’s Niger Delta. It focuses on women survivors of sexual violence in post-conflict communities and the various ways they cope with trauma and stigma. The research project relied on both primary data and secondary sources of information. For primary data, it made use of qualitative methods namely In-depth Interviews (IDI), Focus Group Discussion (FGD), and, in some cases, Participant Observation.
The Niger Delta has been (and is still) ridden with several violent conflicts. The drivers of conflict include abject poverty, underdevelopment, struggles for the control of oil, violent protests against oil pollution, and environmental degradation resulting in attacks on oil companies and installations.1United Nations Development Programme. Niger Delta Human Development Report (UNDP, 2006).Others include deep-seated grievances against government, resistance against human rights violations by security actors, high levels of youth unemployment, gang-related violence, election-related violence, disputes over land ownership, oil compensation and, chieftaincy/leadership tussles.
The complex conflicts in the Niger Delta impact both men and women and the effects are numerous and far reaching. Nevertheless, the effects on women differ greatly from those of their male counterparts. Women, especially poor and uneducated ones, are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence, particularly rape.
Sexual violence against women and girls tends to increase during conflict where perpetrators exploit the chaos to commit atrocities. For example, the communities where fieldwork for the project was conducted were those that had experienced intra and inter-communal conflicts, military invasion, gang-related violence, and conflict over resources. Perpetrators reportedly included military personnel, members of community-based militias, and some men engaged in domestic violence against women.
This article explores the coping mechanisms that women – who are largely illiterate and poor – adopt to cope with sexual violence in patriarchal post-conflict settings. Coping mechanisms are remedial actions undertaken by people whose survival and livelihood are compromised or threatened.2World Health Organization. “Manual for Emergency Health Training Program in Africa.” www.who.int/disasters/repo/5517.pdf (accessed February 1, 2020). Such threats include those of trauma, stigmatization, and spousal rejection which in turn influence the coping mechanisms that victims of violence adopt. The project found that many of the victims of sexual violence were coping with the traumatic effects of sexual violence without legal, medical, or social/welfare support. Responses to our questions led us to conclude that some of the coping strategies included silence, relocation, resorting to faith-based or spiritual solutions, or resorting to commercial sex work.
According to Onyido (2015), the post-conflict space is one where there is a culture of silence amongst most of the survivors of sexual violence.3Onyido, Onyinyechukwu N. “Experiences and Coping Mechanisms of Women in Post-Conflict Tiv/Jukun Communities of Benue and Taraba States, Nigeria.” PhD Dissertation, University of Ibadan, 2015. Many respondents told us they opt to conceal what has happened to them, rather than face the censure of their family and the larger community. Seeking solace in a culture of silence enables them to “survive” after society has branded them as “dishonorable” or “spoiled.” This is particularly the case for young and unmarried victims who tend to feel that silence is especially important to their family and community. The silence that surrounds crimes of sexual violence can be seen as a result of cultural factors where the “shame” of the crime is felt by the victim rather than the perpetrator. The communities involved often maintain their patriarchal and discriminatory social structure against women, imposing upon the victims of sexual violence a stigma of shame and loss of dignity. The women victims themselves feel helpless against such structural oppression and feed into a vicious cycle of painful self-preservation. As one recalled her traumatic experience:
During the crisis, I was raped by eight men. I was hospitalized for days. Nobody wanted to associate with me. People pointed fingers at me, insulting me, and using the rape case against me. I felt a lot of shame, and was not associating with people, but now I am trying to relate to them. I am a married woman. For my husband to accept me, I had to perform a sacrifice to our ancestral spirits. Even with that, he does not touch me again and his family is angry with him because I am still in his house.4This interview was conducted in Rumuekpe, Rivers State on August 8, 2019.
Relocation is another form of coping that many women are forced to adopt. Some victims were stigmatized and even rejected by their families and communities. Family rejection means that a woman is told she can no longer stay in the home of her husband or parents. In the case of community rejection, women are ostracized and feel forced to leave the community. As a result of the rejection most of these women leave their communities. According to a respondent whose niece was raped by a soldier:
My niece was raped by a soldier during the crisis. It was not her fault but people were treating her badly so we sent her to one of her aunt in the North to stay. At least nobody has heard about her story there.5This interview was conducted in Odi, Bayelsa State on September 11, 2019.
A respondent told us that the major reason they leave their homes is for a quest for anonymity.<ref>This interview was conducted in Rumuekpe, Rivers State on August 23, 2019.</ref> They seek refuge in places where they cannot be identified and have the chance to start over. This gives them the opportunity to make a clean break from a traumatic past and move on with their lives.
Sadly, women and girls who experienced sexual violence during conflict are probably the most vulnerable to further exploitation in post-conflict settings. In post-conflict contexts, without support to victims of sexual violence, resorting to commercial sex work is seen by some as an alternative survival strategy.6Rachel Brett. “Girl Soldiers: Challenging the Assumptions.” https://www.peacewomen.org/assets/file/Resources/NGO/ddr_girlsoldiers_yvonnekeairns_octo2002.pdf (accessed February 1, 2020). According to one such victim, she “lost her value” and was abandoned by her partner for fear of contracting HIV or other STIs, so she resorted to prostitution. Our findings indicate that most of those who resorted to the commercial sex trade were mainly unemployed, unskilled and uneducated women. For example, a respondent whose husband left her because she was raped, but who had a National Certificate in Education (NCE) decided to apply for a teaching job. Fortunately, she got it and was posted to a school in the nearby community:7This respondent relocated because of the stigma she faced as a result of rape she experienced during the crisis in Rumuekpe community. In that regard, her community cannot be disclosed. It was a respondent who gave us her contact and begged that we do not inform other people in the community. The interview was conducted outside Rumuekpe community. This interview was conducted on August 25, 2019.
When my husband left me because of the rape, I just went back to pick my NCE certificate from my institution. When Governor Amaechi was recruiting teachers, I applied, and I was selected so they sent me to the government school close to my village.
Another coping mechanism mentioned is to the resort to faith-based solutions or spirituality. Our research findings confirm that some of the victims were able to develop a sense of hope and optimism by relying on support provided by faith-based organizations or spiritually-related solutions. According to one of the respondents, resorting to a spiritual solution restored her sense of being loved and valued, despite the trauma she had suffered:
Since I joined the prayer group I belong to, I feel better. I know that God loves me and this thing happened for my good. I still thank Him because some people died as a result of the rape; some became pregnant and some even caught diseases, but nothing happened to me.8This interview was conducted in K’Dere, Rivers State on September 30, 2019.
While the research tried to get a sense of the effectiveness of interventions to either treat or compensate victims of gender-based violence by the government and Non-Governmental Organization in the Niger Delta, responses indicate that these had been few or largely ineffective. In Odi a community that was invaded by the military in November 1999, all the respondents informed the researcher that reparations in the form of monetary compensation had been paid by government to victims of the attack but mentioned no systematic treatment for the trauma suffered by victims of rape.9This interview was conducted during field work in Odi Community, Bayelsa State from September 9-13, 2019.
The study was able to establish that many victims have survived sexual violence by adopting a series of coping strategies that both reflect their agency and vulnerabilities. One of the useful insights provided is that women in the region have moved from the realm of victimhood, not because they have been integrated into post-conflict peace processes, but because they have been able to devise various means of coping with their traumatic experiences in the post-conflict period. More studies will need to be conducted on strategies needed to empower women victims by engendering post-conflict peacebuilding processes in Nigeria’s oil-rich but impoverished communities.
- 1United Nations Development Programme. Niger Delta Human Development Report (UNDP, 2006).
- 2World Health Organization. “Manual for Emergency Health Training Program in Africa.” www.who.int/disasters/repo/5517.pdf (accessed February 1, 2020).
- 4This interview was conducted in Rumuekpe, Rivers State on August 8, 2019.
- 5This interview was conducted in Odi, Bayelsa State on September 11, 2019.
- 6Rachel Brett. “Girl Soldiers: Challenging the Assumptions.” https://www.peacewomen.org/assets/file/Resources/NGO/ddr_girlsoldiers_yvonnekeairns_octo2002.pdf (accessed February 1, 2020).
- 7This respondent relocated because of the stigma she faced as a result of rape she experienced during the crisis in Rumuekpe community. In that regard, her community cannot be disclosed. It was a respondent who gave us her contact and begged that we do not inform other people in the community. The interview was conducted outside Rumuekpe community. This interview was conducted on August 25, 2019.
- 8This interview was conducted in K’Dere, Rivers State on September 30, 2019.
- 9This interview was conducted during field work in Odi Community, Bayelsa State from September 9-13, 2019.