Are Protests Effective? Examining the Impact of Protests Against Gender-Based Violence on Legislation in Nigeria

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This piece was published in the Acheson Issue, Volume 11


On May 28, 2020, Vera Uwalia Omosuwa, a 22-year-old college student in Edo State, Nigeria was raped and sexually assaulted while studying in a church. Two days later, she succumbed to the injuries she sustained during the assault. Shortly after Vera’s death, the case of an unnamed 12-year-old girl who was gang-raped by eleven men in Jigawa State was reported. The suddenness of these two cases of gender-based violence caused an uproar in Nigeria (Ewang, 2020). These two cases represent only a fraction of the reported cases of gender violence in Nigeria, which in turn  pale in comparison to the number of unreported cases. Many cases are not reported because victims and their families fear stigmatization and they do not trust the judicial process (Orjinmo, 2020).

After these two cases became public, many activists organized protests in various Nigerian states and the federal capital of Abuja including a protest of over 200 people outside the federal police headquarters on June 4, 2020 (France-Presse, 2020). In the past decade, civil society organizations and civilians have felt that the Nigerian government is not doing enough to fight gender-based violence. Violence has continued despite the National Assembly’s[1] passage of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act in 2015, a piece of legislation seeking to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. The protests that occurred in 2020 have highlighted the Nigerian government’s failure in enforcing this national legislation as well as the lack of response from state governments.  What remains to be determined is whether these protests can or will have any effect in compelling the government to enforce this law.

This research discusses whether protests can influence legislation enforcement in Nigeria and other governments with similar political systems on the issue of gender-based violence. This research also addresses an important gap in the literature because the topic of protests on gender-based violence has not received much attention in Nigeria and other African countries. It will inform Nigerian civil society organizations and NGOs about how to overcome obstacles needed for real political change on gender-based violence.

Previous literature focused on the influence of political movements in the development of legislation on gender-based violence (Htun & Weldon, 2012; Anyidoho, Crawford & Medie, 2020). Existing literature also highlighted how movements can successfully help in the implementation of legislation. However, factors such as weak organizational structures and the lack of political support from international organizations prohibit the international media attention needed to pressure governments for legislative implementation (Andrews, 2001; Meddie, 2013; Anyidoho, Crawford & Medie, 2020). Beyond this, the Nigerian case showcases many difficulties behind the proper implementation of legislation on gender-based violence. Factors such as social divisions in civil society and institutional constraints make it challenging to implement legislation on gender-based violence (Weldon, 2006; Weldon, 2012; Sharma, Unnikrishnan, & Sharma, 2015). Specifically, this paper contends that the federal structure in Nigeria makes legislation on gender-based violence difficult to strengthen and implement, even with the impact of widespread civilian protests. Nigerian religious and political diversity are the main obstacles to a successful movement achieving interstate cooperation.

This paper finds that it is difficult to change and implement new legislation on gender-based violence in a decentralized country such as Nigeria. The federal government of Nigeria also has difficulty coming up with a unified, tangible response to protests against gender-based violence. Even with the passage of national legislation, every Nigerian state has a different way of responding to protests against gender-based violence. Protests have not been found to be an effective means to influence legislative change and implementation in Nigeria. This paper adds to existing literature by highlighting how the success of protesting for the issue of gender-based violence is dependent on the socio-political context of a country. In doing so, the paper demonstrates the relevance of a country’s structure of political opportunities for successful protests.

In the rest of the paper, I will first analyze gender-based violence in Nigeria using the history of Nigeria and describing gender-based violence more broadly. Second, I will review the literature on the outcome of protests against gender-based violence and examine my argument. Third, I will walk through my methodology and state my research findings. Finally, I will evaluate my research findings and assess the effectiveness of protests for legislative change and implementation on the issue of gender-based violence in Nigeria.


2.1     Gender-Based Violence 

According to the World Health Organization’s (2013) report on Global and regional estimates of violence against women, gender-based violence[2] is broken down into two categories. The first category is intimate partner violence where it is the “self-reported experience of one or more acts of physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former partner since the age of 15 years old” (World Health Organization, 2013, p. 6). The other category of gender-based violence is non-partner sexual violence where it is the “experience of being forced to perform any sexual act that you did not want to by someone other than your husband/partner at age 15 or over” (World Health Organization, 2013, p. 6). Some examples of physical violence include being pushed, choked, or threatened with a weapon. Other examples of sexual violence include having forced sexual intercourse when you did not want to or due to fear of your partner. Health impacts of gender-based violence include injury, mental health problems, substance use, HIV, unwanted pregnancy and abortion, and suicide (World Health Organization, 2013, p. 8). 

The WHO’s report (2013) specifies that globally about “35.6% of women have ever experienced either non-partner sexual violence or physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, or both” (p. 20). Gender-based violence is also a frequent occurrence and varies across different regions of the world, but it has a larger incidence in Africa as 45.6% of women report it in their lifetime (World Health Organization, 2013).

Palermo & Peterman (2014) defend, however, that statistics of gender-based violence found by formal sources such as police and health officials underestimate the true prevalence. According to their multivariate logistic regressions, about 40% of women who experience gender-based violence actually disclose it to someone. However, only 7% of women reported gender-based violence to a formal authority (Palermo & Peterson, 2014, p. 609). Specifically, Palermo & Peterson (2014) found the rates of reporting to formal authorities to be 2.29% in India and East Asia and 6.20% in Africa (p. 605). This analysis shows that gender-based violence is severely underreported and underestimated in developing countries.

2.2     Overview of Nigeria

Focusing on Nigeria will be useful for examining the larger picture of the effectiveness of protests on the issue of gender-based violence in Africa. Nigeria is the largest country in Africa by population and one of the most diverse countries in Africa by ethnicity and religion (Central Intelligence Agency, 2018). Nigeria also has a large number of unreported cases of gender-based violence (Orjinmo, 2020). 

In this section, I will provide an overview of the history of religious and political structures in Nigeria as well as international attention to #BringBackOurGirls, a movement supporting the release of schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. This chapter also includes a section on gender-based violence in Nigeria.

History of Nigeria

In Nigeria, there is a population of 200.9 million people (The World Bank, 2019). There are also about 250 ethnic groups, but the three largest groups are the Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa-Fulani. The Hausa-Fulani group (primarily found in northern Nigeria) makes up about 29% of the population while the Yoruba (primarily found in southwestern Nigeria) makes up about 21% of the population. The Igbo also makes up about 18% of the population while primarily residing in southeastern Nigeria (Odukoya, 2020). The official language of Nigeria is English and the national languages are Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa. However, there are over 500 additional indigenous languages (Central Intelligence Agency, 2018).

The main religions in Nigeria are Islam, Christianity, and traditional religions. Muslims reside mainly in the northern region of the country and comprise half the population. On the other hand, Christians reside mainly in the southern region of the country and account for 40% of the population. The last 10% belongs to traditional religions. This diverse makeup of Nigerian people has led to various political structures found in the country (Odukoya, 2020).

The main political structure present in Nigeria is federalism. Various Nigerian states are able to have some autonomy and power in how state politics are run (Shehu, 2017). The three legislative systems also present in Nigeria are common, customary, and sharia law. Out of the thirty-six states in Nigeria, sharia law[3] is a part of civil and criminal law in nine Muslim-majority states while it is seen in some parts of three Muslim-plurality states (Magbadelo, 2003). The federal government of Nigeria currently considers the adoption of sharia law a state right. This gives autonomy to Muslims, especially in the Northern region of Nigeria, to govern and flexibly interpret legislation on gender-based violence.


#BringBackOurGirls characterized the passage of gender-based violence legislation in Nigeria. On April 14, 2014, there was a kidnapping of schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State. Boko Haram, a terrorist organization based in northeastern Nigeria, abducted 276 girls while they were taking their final exams. Boko Haram militants disguised themselves as the Nigerian military and forced these girls into the back of trucks (Karimi & Duthiers, 2014). This case of kidnapping soon gained international media attention that put pressure on Nigerian government officials. More awareness to this case started through a social media campaign called #BringBackOurGirls. This hashtag also led to massive protests in Nigeria by civilians calling for the Nigerian government to aid in the return of these girls to their parents (Gibson, 2014). Six years later, Boko Haram released many girls, but 112 girls still remain unaccounted for. Many of these abducted girls have fallen victim to forced child marriage and other acts of gender-based violence (Duncan, 2020).

Overview of Gender-Based Violence in Nigeria

Gender-based violence, especially domestic violence, is prevalent in Nigeria. Over the past decade, cases of gender-based violence have been increasing. According to Nigeria’s Demographic and Health Survey (2018), “33% of women and aged 15-49 have experienced physical or sexual violence” (p. 430). Gender-based violence in Nigeria is the result of many factors such as cultural norms. These factors have emphasized patriarchy within Nigerian society. Women fulfill a subordinate position and are taught to be submissive to men. In various areas of Nigeria, men have power over women in familial life, places of employment, and everyday life. This domination causes increased levels of gender-based violence because women do not have a lot of authority in the social, economic, and political contexts of Nigeria (Abayomi & Olabode, 2013).

The main national legislation passed against gender-based violence in Nigeria is the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act of 2015. This legislation bans all types of violence against women and promotes justice for these crimes. However, only thirteen out of thirty-six states have adopted and signed the law, while the other twenty-three have no laws that protect women against gender-based violence (Egwu, 2020). As mentioned earlier, the passage of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act of 2015 was influenced by the #BringBackOurGirls movement in 2014. However, civil society activists have accused the legislation of having a limited impact on decreasing the cases of gender-based violence. The federal government is not effective when imposing the national legislation and forcing Nigerian states to enforce it. Federal ministries such as the Ministries of Health and Women Affairs also do not effectively implement the legislation (Onyemelukwe, 2015).

Umar (2018) also conducted a qualitative study where he found that Nigeria must reform current legislation through amendment and enactment in order to create a more enforceable legal framework for fighting against gender-based violence. Umar (2018) also found that there is a need for a government agency that focuses on issues on gender-based violence after conducting interviews with judges, policymakers, legislators, and victims of gender-based violence. This analysis is important in showing that many individuals from diverse backgrounds within and outside of the Nigerian legal system believe that it is important to reform the way Nigeria deals with gender-based violence.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in cases of gender-based violence.

For example, Lagos state has almost five times the number of cases in April compared to March 2020 (Federal and State Ministries of Women Affairs (Nigeria), 2020). This can be explained by Lagos being the first state to issue a stay at home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The upward trend of reported cases of gender-based violence continued throughout the pandemic. 

Protests Against Gender-Based Violence (2020)

During June 2020, the cases of twenty-two-year old Vera Uwalia Omosuwa and an unnamed twelve-year old girl sparked a series of protests in cities such as Lagos, Jos, and Ibadan (Ewang, 2020). 

The poor implementation of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act of 2015 shaped the motivation behind the 2020 protests. Protests organized by civil society and human rights organizations addressed the lack of legal protection for women and girls. The protests were mostly led by women from various socioeconomic classes (Shaban, 2020). Many women’s groups and gender activists also planned protests to push authorities to investigate more instances of gender-based violence (Al Jazeera, 2020). Many civil society and human rights organizations leading the fight against gender-based violence include Girl Child Africa, Enough is Enough Nigeria, Stand to End Rape, Yiaga Africa, and the Dorothy Njemanze Foundation (Kulkarni, 2020). Mostly non-violent protests have occurred as protestors have simply marched in the streets and outside government buildings (Adebayo, 2020).

Additionally, social media aided in mobilizing these protests. The main hashtags on Twitter and Instagram were #WeAreTired[4], #StopRapingWomen, and #JusticeForUwa. They helped spread awareness about the astounding number of cases of gender-based violence that take place in Nigeria. Social media mobilized protestors to learn more about what they are protesting for and sign petitions advocating against gender-based violence. For example, Amnesty International created a petition that demanded justice for the rape and death of Vera Uwalia Omosuwa and the unnamed twelve-year old girl. Social media also led people to call out the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, for his lack of action against gender-based violence (Adebayo, 2020).


In this section, I review the literature that explains how political movements can develop and influence the implementation of legislation on gender-based violence. 

Feminist mobilization in civil society led to a variation in policy development around the world (Htun & Weldon, 2012). Using a dataset that tracked social movements and legislation on gender-based violence in 70 countries for four decades, they show that autonomous social movements are important to encouraging political change for more progressive legislation. The mobilization of civil society is therefore necessary for successful legislative change.

Building on Htun & Weldon’s argument, Medie (2013) shows that women’s movements can influence a state’s implementation of rape legislation. Focusing on the Liberian post-conflict period, she theorizes the linkage between women’s socio-political movements and the enactment of rape legislation. Medie (2013) finds that the Liberian women’s movement was able to increase the referral of rape cases to court through two conditions: an open political environment and political and material support from international organizations. Thus, Meddie’s argument shows that protests do have the ability to influence legislative implementation, especially in the area of women’s rights.

Anyidoho, Crawford & Medie (2020) take a more nuanced approach to legislative implementation and explore the difficulties that political movements face in the legislative implementation process. They focus on a case study of Ghana’s Domestic Violence Coalition, a coalition of women’s rights organizations crucial to the passage of Ghana’s Domestic Violence Act in 2007. Anyidoho, Crawford & Medie utilize a framework of three internal factors (strategies, movement infrastructure, and framing) and two external factors (political context and support of allies) that guide how movements are able to influence implementation. Anyidoho, Crawford & Medie (2020) argue that changes in movement infrastructure are the biggest explanatory factor for the failed attempt of Ghana’s Domestic Violence Coalition to influence the implementation of legislation. This analysis of the “movement infrastructure” model is found in earlier work. Andrews (2001) focuses on how the organizational structure, resources, and leadership of a social movement influences how it impacts policy implementation. Strong movement infrastructures have a diverse and complex leadership structure, multiple organizations, informal ties that cross geographic and social boundaries, and member resources for both labor and money. Andrews (2001) finds that these characteristics of movements provide “greater flexibility that allows them to influence the policy process through multiple mechanisms” (p. 85). Therefore, literature shows how the internal factors of protests determine the influence it can actually have on the implementation process.

Sharma, Unnikrishnan, & Sharma (2015) also discuss solutions to the problem of gender-based violence in India that may address gaps in the failed implementation of amended Criminal Laws related to gender-based violence. They focus on protests that occurred in response to a high-profile rape on December 16, 2012, in India and conclude that the Indian government has inadequate resources to implement legislation. The authors advocate for the creation of task forces and crisis centers to examine victims, provide legal counsel, and encourage more reporting of gender-based violence crimes.

However, political movements also suffer from other problems when pushing for the implementation of policies against gender-based violence. Weldon (2006) argues that movements that advocate against gender-based violence only succeed if activists cooperate. Inclusivity is important for movements to have a real impact on the change and implementation of legislation. Otherwise, as Weldon (2012) explains, social divisions within movements can foster a deeper understanding of the nuances of gender-based violence for various social groups.

After conducting background research on Nigeria and examining the gap in relevant literature, I contend that the federal structure of Nigeria and the religious diversity of the country make it very difficult to implement unique and coherent legislation within the entire country. Feminist mobilization and protests after #BringBackOurGirls contributed to the passing of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act of 2015. However, legislation has been difficult to enforce. Even with the impact of widespread civilian protests, interstate cooperation on the implementation of legislation on gender-based violence is difficult to achieve in a decentralized country like Nigeria. 


For this research, I have conducted a qualitative media analysis to examine the impact of protests on legislation reform and implementation for gender-based violence in Nigeria. I focus on two time periods: 2013 to 2015 to cover the outcomes of the #BringBackOurGirls movement in 2014, and 2019 to 2020[5] to examine the outcome of the June 2020 protests. With a focus on these time periods,[6] I want to survey and examine the protests and government responses that have occurred before and after the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act was passed in 2015. These time periods can tell us the most about the effectiveness of legislative change and implementation on gender-based violence in Nigeria.

The sources I have used to evaluate the news media are Nexis Uni and Factiva. These sources contain the best access to the international media outlets that I wanted to focus on. The media outlets covered by these two databases are: The Punch, The Nation (Nigeria), The Sun (Nigeria), Africa News, Sahara Reporters, Impact News Service, Africa Newswire, Naija 247 News, African Arguments, Weekly Trust, PM News, Nigerian Tribune, This Day, The Guardian (Nigeria, Daily Independent (Nigeria), Premium Times and AllAfrica.

For both NexisUni and Factiva[7],  I looked specifically for news that discussed protests occurring in Nigeria against gender-based violence. I also looked for news articles that discussed the outcome of protests against gender-based violence that have occurred. The search results for both NexisUni and Factiva show that the media has reported many cases in 2020 compared to previous years. Many factors can explain this phenomenon such as more rapes occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic leading to more protests. These protests against gender-based violence consequently led to more media attention and legislation.

Finally, in my research, I also used the Legal Information Institute[8] (LII) to analyze the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015). I needed the actual bill to examine whether the motivation of the legislation passed contained any information about protests. 


In this section, I introduce my research findings. Section 5.1 focuses on #BringBackOurGirls. This is important to the timeline since it occurred a year before the passage of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015). For section 5.2, it is important to know that Nigeria has thirty-six states. Using both NexisUni and Factiva, I used articles that discussed five of the thirty-six states. Two states (Ekiti and Lagos) are located in the southern region of the country, while the other three states (Plateau, Kaduna, and Sokoto) are located in the northern region. As mentioned above in the historical overview of Nigeria, northern Nigeria is predominantly Muslim. Section 5.3 focuses on the national government response to protests against gender-based violence, and it explores political officials’ views and initiatives offered by Nigerian federal agencies. Section 5.4 examines the legislation passed on gender-based violence. Section 5.5 examines the motivation behind the passage of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act.

5.1     Impact of #BringBackOurGirls Protests (2014)

As mentioned above in the overview of Nigeria, in April 2014, there was a kidnapping in Chibok, Borno State by Boko Haram. This kidnapping sparked protests against gender-based violence in cities such as Abuja, Lagos, Kano, Port Harcourt, and Jos.[9] The protests pushed Deputy Governor Adejoke Orelope-Adefulire to show how Lagos State is trying to promote gender equality and reduce cases. She mentioned that many women are now in key political positions due to increased amounts of equal opportunities for women.[10] The increased attention also led the national government to develop guidelines on gender-based violence such as counseling and mental health services. This is also because there have been numerous attempts to pass national laws since 2003.[11] The British High Commission in Nigeria also developed a forum to discuss #BringBackOurGirls. The chief panelist, Itoro Eze-Anaba emphasized how it is important to create awareness for the issue of gender-based violence in Nigeria. Another forum panelist, Yemisi Ransome Kuti, also discussed that the release of the Chibok girls succeeded not because of the government or organizations, but rather because the international community stepped in. Feminist mobilization pushed international attention to #BringBackOurGirls. Kuti and other panel members are advocating that the National Assembly and every State’s House of Assembly must work together to implement human rights legislation.[12]

5.2     State/Regional Response to Protests Against Gender-Based Violence (2019-2020)

The response by five states will show how fragmented reactions to the issue of gender-based violence are within Nigeria. Even with the passage of national legislation on gender-based violence, states are at their own discretion in how they choose to respond as seen in this section. 

Plateau State

In Plateau State, specifically in the city of Jos, about 75% of cases of gender-based violence were found to go unreported. In 2017[13], women from Jos expressed public concern over the failure of national laws on gender-based violence being implemented. Civic leaders met with political officials and created an initiative that included forums discussing gender-based violence. Over many months, these forums served as a space for victims to explain how their stories were ignored or they were blamed for the act. This forum highlighted that in a third of the cases in Jos the perpetrators were a close relative or friend working on the city’s police force. In May 2019, police in Jos opened the city’s first unit for investigating sexual and gender-based crimes.[14]

Kaduna State

In Kaduna State, during the month of June 2020, women’s groups protested and discussed an increase in the number of rape cases that have occurred during the pandemic. A state of emergency was declared in Kaduna. The Governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai signed stricter rape laws on September 17, 2020. It specifies that any man who rapes someone over 14 years old, they will have their penis surgically castrated and receive a life sentence. Men will be executed for raping a child under the age of 14 years old. For women, their fallopian tubes will be removed for raping a child and receive a life sentence for raping someone over 14 years old. The old national law that Kaduna followed set the maximum sentence for rape in Nigeria to be 21 years and a life sentence for raping a child.[15] [16]

Ekiti State

In Ekiti State, Governor Kayode Fayemi signed a new law from the Ekiti State House of Assembly called, “Compulsory Treatment and Care of Child Victims of Sexual Abuse Law 2020.” The new state law in Ekiti mentions that no sexual offender will be granted bail. This portion of the state law is in violation of Sections 35(1), 36(5) of the Nigerian Constitution. Both the Governor and State House of Assembly believe that there should be zero tolerance for sexual violence. The Governor also believes that there should a national consensus on the issue of rape within Nigeria. The former Lagos State Governor (Babatunde Raji Fashola) also expressed similar thoughts when he established a sexual violence agency in Lagos State. Governor Fayemi created a Sexual Offenders Register and publicizes the register on his social media account. However, this register does not include wealthy perpetrators who have been accused of gender-based violence in the past.[17] [18]

Lagos State

In Lagos State, during June 2020, there was a protest at the police command station in Lagos. Various groups such as Girl Child Africa[19], Stand To End Rape[20], and Connected Development organized protests.[21] The demands of the groups were for all Nigerian states to adopt the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act and Child Rights Act and every state to establish Sexual Assault Referral Centers (SARC). These groups also called for the prompt state-led prosecution of gender-based violence cases and the implementation of functional Family Support/Force Gender Unites at the state level to address cases of gender-based violence. Deputy Commissioner Etim said that the police force would look into the demands when addressing the crowd of protestors.[22] [23] [24]

Additionally, during June 2020, a group of all-male protestors showed up at Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu’s office to pledge support for laws on gender-based violence. The Lagos State Domestic and Sexual Violence Response Team (DSVRT) organized the march. The governor’s wife, Dr. Ibijoke Sanwo-Olu, said that the state is prepared to do what it takes to end rape and gender-based violence. She also mentioned that men coming out to protest against gender-based violence was commendable since the normal protestor demographics have mainly been women.[25] Moreover, the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA)[26] protested against the increasing cases of gender-based violence in Lagos. They called for the federal government to declare capital punishment as the main form of punishment for rapists.[27] [28]

Sokoto State

In Sokoto State, the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, is one of Nigeria’s most influential Islamic leaders. During December 2019, he banned the #ArewaMeToo[29] movement. The ban by Sultan Abubakar intimidated people to come out and protest due to fears of arrests and beatings by police officers. The Sultan’s ban on this feminist movement was not a surprise to many civilians since Sokoto State operates under sharia law. The Sultan is also socially conservative due to his role as a traditional leader in Islam.[30] [31] [32]

5.3     National Government Response to Protests Against Gender-Based Violence (2020)

In June 2020, the Nigerian federal government responded to a mix of media pressure and protests of more than 200 people outside the Nigerian Police Force Headquarters in Abuja (federal capital of Nigeria).[33] It is difficult to isolate the effects of protests here in their response. There is no cohesive pattern in the national government response to protests against gender-based violence.

Attorney General of Nigeria and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami also said that the national government was trying to establish specialized courts for speedy and seamless trials of rape and gender-based violence. The Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative[34] urged the national government to speed up the prosecution process for perpetrators. Malami claimed that his office had started to review all existing laws relating to rape, child molestation, and gender-based violence. The National Human Rights Commission urged the government at all levels to put in place laws and policies that eradicate gender-based violence in the country. The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohamed, said that the government would launch a national campaign against rape and gender-based violence in the country.[35] Here, there is no communication between various divisions of the national government. It appears that each division is taking a different approach to how to respond to the issue of protests against gender-based violence.

Additionally, in June 2020, the Nigerian government approved stricter penalties against rapists and child abusers as mentioned by the Ministry of Women Affairs. The Minister of Women Affairs, Pauline Tallen described the spike of gender-based violence cases during the pandemic as alarming. Nigeria’s Federal Executive Council pushed for the adoption of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act in all Nigerian states. Protestors have demanded a state of emergency to be declared all over the country.[36] In response to protests, the Nigerian Governors Forum soon declared a state of emergency.[37]

In September 2020, there are still 23 states out of Nigeria’s 36 states that have not adopted the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015). This comes three months after the main protests against gender-based violence in June 2020. The state governors of these 23 states have not yet signed the national legislation into state law.[38]

5.4     National Legislation Change For Gender-Based Violence in Nigeria

Legislative change in Nigeria has come with some difficult drawbacks. Under the Nigerian Criminal Code, the punishment for rape is life imprisonment (Section 358). Section 283 of the Penal Code means life imprisonment or for any lesser term and liable to a fine. Incest is punishable with 6 to 7 years imprisonment and a fine (Section 390 of Penal Code).[39] However, current rape laws have caused difficulty in amending child rights laws for protection against gender-based violence. Since 2008, every attempt to review child rights laws have been unsuccessful. It keeps on getting pushed off because there is no consensus for the definition of rape, punishment for committing rape, and the burden of proof. For example, the Child Rights Act (2003) has been ratified by almost every state in Southern Nigeria, but most of Northern Nigeria has not chosen to ratify it. The Child Rights Act violates sharia law since sharia law permits child marriages. The religious diversity across the country accounts for the different political views toward gender-based violence on young girls and women.[40]

Also, the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act was passed in 2015 as the main national legislation explicitly addressing gender-based violence. The definition of rape in this law falls under the Criminal Code, Section 357 defines rape as “a man having forceful carnal knowledge of women.” However, this definition fails to include women who rape women or men who rape men. At the same time, the law also asserts that a married man cannot rape his wife.[41] More recently in 2019, there was a bill created to amend the Criminal Code on Rape, but it made it to second reading and disappeared. Similarly, in 2020, Senator Ovie Omo-Agege and others have expressed concerns to amend rape laws due to the current protests.[42] There is no collective push by the legislative branch of Nigeria to find effective ways to enforce gender-based violence legislation.

5.5     Motivation of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015)

The motivation of the main legislation created to combat gender-based violence within Nigeria is below:

Screen Shot 2021 06 07 at 8.58.47 PM

The explanatory memorandum[43] accounts for what the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015) intends to do. It aims to protect against all forms of violence, including gender-based violence, for any gender. It also aims to support victims of violence and punish offenders for the crimes that they commit. There is no preamble to the law that highlights the urgency of this legislation and the pressing concern of the population through protests.


6.1     Fragmented Responses to Protests Against Gender-Based Violence by State

There have been varying responses to protests in different Nigerian states. The most common response out of the five states examined were vague commitments to check the development of legislation and initiatives that address gender-based violence. For example, Lagos state had media articles that quoted government officials declaring that they were ready to act and make a change. 

The only state legislative change that was seen came from protests in Ekiti and Kaduna. The Governor of Ekiti signed a new piece of legislation called the “Compulsory Treatment and Care of Child Victims of Sexual Abuse Law 2020.” It was passed in order to prevent sexual offenders and suspects of gender-based violence from obtaining any sort of bail in the judicial process. The new state law in Ekiti mentions that no sexual offender will be granted bail. On the other hand, Kaduna developed stricter laws in response to protests. In addition to a life sentence in prison, these newer laws show that a man will have his penis surgically castrated or a woman will have her fallopian tubes removed for raping a child over the age of 14. Men convicted of the rape of a child under the age of 14 will be executed.

Also, some states in the northern region of Nigeria are trying to adopt national legislation on gender-based violence. The Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act of 2015 provides protection to victims of any type of violence, including gender-based violence, and punishes offenders. These states are reluctant to adopt this legislation because it prohibits child marriage. In the northern region, many predominantly Muslim states use Sharia law which allows child marriages. Hence, adopting the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act would outlaw child marriage in these states and reduce children’s exposure to gender-based violence in marital relationships. This case is important because it highlights how religion, via Sharia law, can influence the political structure of a state.

These differences are attributed to the federal structure of Nigeria which grants states the right to adopt or refuse to adopt national legislation. Therefore, it is difficult to evaluate the success of protests on legislative change and implementation on the issue of gender-based violence in Nigeria. The political and religious diversity in Nigeria provides different ways of enforcing legislation on gender-based violence.

6.2     Fragmented Response to Protests Against Gender-Based Violence by Nigerian National Government

There has also been an inconsistent response to protests by the federal government. Government officials are displaying very different reactions rather than having one centralized response. For example, Attorney General and Minister of Justice Malami mentioned that the national government is trying to establish specialized courts for speedy and seamless trials for cases of rape and gender-based violence. Malami also said that his office has been reviewing all existing policies related to gender-based violence. This differs from the Minister of Women Affairs who says that the federal government has already approved stricter penalties against rapists and child abusers that are convicted. On the other hand, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohamed, proposed a national campaign against rape and gender-based violence in the country. 

These governmental bodies within the federal government, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Women Affairs and Ministry of Information and Culture are discussing stronger implementation of policies and possibly changing current policies. They agree that current legislation must be amended or strengthened to address the root issues of unsuccessful policy implementation. However, these governmental bodies and agencies differ in the approach to take in response to protests against gender-based violence in Nigeria. The fragmented responses by governmental bodies and agencies highlight that the Nigerian government has failed to take appropriate action because every governmental body is trying different things. The lack of a unified, strategic approach shows that the federal government is not strong in the implementation of legislation on gender-based violence.

Similar to the state response to protests against gender-based violence, it is difficult to assess if protests are actually having an impact on legislative implementation at a country-wide level. Section 6.1 shows how the three states of Ekiti and Kaduna reformed their legislation on a state level in June 2020. However, according to media articles from September 2020, there are still twenty-three states out of Nigeria’s thirty-six states that still have not formally adopted the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015).  I did not find any evidence that the federal government is taking steps to follow up on Nigeria’s Federal Executive Council’s plan to make all Nigerian states adopt the main national law against gender-based violence.

6.3     Ambiguity in the Motivation Behind Passage of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015)

The explanatory memorandum in the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015) explains how this piece of legislation mainly is working to provide full protection for those who are victims of violence. The memorandum also explains its intention to provide effective solutions for victims and punish the offenders. The explanatory memorandum does not clearly state anything about protests or public concern being its motivating factor. Even though it does not clearly mention any particular protest, it is assumed that the 2014 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping and the subsequent protests caused international pressure for Nigeria to pass this national legislation.

This kidnapping case was publicized globally where many were concerned with issues such as child marriage and genital mutilation in the country. This major case also highlighted how there have been attempts to pass national laws since 2003. This case created awareness for how human rights issues such as gender-based violence need to be discussed and have a tangible piece of legislation passed in Nigeria. The passage of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015) took a step in the right direction to create a law that declared gender-based violence a crime. However, it fails to address the Child Rights Act (2003) in gender-based violence also applying to child brides. The motivation to reform the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015) has been inconsistent because there is no consensus on how rape and punishment should be defined in the country, especially with many current national child rights laws violating the regulations of sharia law. It can be assumed that the main motivation behind the passage of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015) is due to international media attention’s pressure to have national laws on gender-based violence.


I have argued that the federal structure of Nigeria makes it difficult to implement legislation on gender-based violence. Unlike most explanations of gender-based violence in Africa, I focus on the dynamic factor of Nigeria’s religious and political structures for being the reasons that protests do not work as intended. 

It is clear that the federal structure of Nigeria has caused a decentralized response to protests against gender-based violence in the country. Even with the passage of national legislation like the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act (2015), civilian protests have not been able to influence the implementation of legislation on gender-based violence in various Nigerian states. Protests must receive international support in order to pressure the government to immediately respond to the issue of gender-based violence. In addition, we must examine ways to reform the legislative system for more effective implementation of gender-based violence in Nigeria. The customary, common, and sharia law systems must work effectively together in order to have real political change on the issue of gender-based violence. The federal government must also develop a cohesive way to respond to protests against gender-based violence.

Future research on gender-based violence should look more systematically at the consequences of protests in Nigeria. A quantitative analysis would help to track the changes or lack of changes that follow every protest. The ability to track every protest in the past decade would aid in coming up with a conclusive answer to whether protests can take on the federal structure in Nigeria and influence real legislative change and implementation. To this goal, archival research of Nigerian newspapers should be carried out to fully understand the nature of protests in the country. Here, it is important to note that the use of online media by newspapers has changed in the past decade and online databases might be incomplete. Field research and interviews with civil society organizations and legislators would also contribute to having a firsthand account of protests, and the way in which the federal system in Nigeria constrains its success.


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[1] The National Assembly of Nigeria is the bicameral legislature made of the Nigerian Senate and Nigerian House of Representatives.

[2] Gender-based violence is also known interchangeably as sexual violence in discourse around the world.

[3] Sharia law is one of the three legal systems found in Nigeria. Sharia law is considered much stricter in comparison to common and customary law in Nigeria. It operates under Islam.

[4] #WeAreTired is a hashtag used on social media during these protests to highlight the frustration by Nigerian civilians on the frequent occurrence of gender-based violence cases in the country.

[5] Note: In my analysis, I used the timeline January 1, 2019, to October 31, 2020, for the 2019 to 2020 time period.

[6] Note: I was originally going to analyze the entire decade (2010 to 2020) and analyze changes in reporting for gender-based violence in Nigeria, however, attention to this issue has varied before and after the passage of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act of 2015. Due to a lack of media articles on NexisUni and Factiva, I have decided to focus on these specific time periods (2013 to 2015; 2019 to 2020).

[7] Note: NexisUni and Factiva had some overlap in the media articles displayed. I kept track of the title and/or author of every news article relevant to my research findings. Thus, if there were overlapping articles, I cited the media article from the NexisUni database instead of Factiva.

[8] The Legal Information Institute is a research group based at Cornell Law School. This institute collaborates with publishers, legal scholars, computer scientists, and government agencies to provide free access to various laws.

[9] Nagarajan, C. (2015, April 14). #Bringbackourgirls hasn’t brought back Chibok’s girls, but it has changed Nigeria’s politics; Women fighting Boko Haram – and working for peace, human rights, and the abducted girls – are having an unexpected impact on national politics. The Guardian (Nigeria).

[10] (2014, April 28). Nigeria; Taking On Gender Violence. Africa News.

[11] Nagarajan, C. (2015, April 14). #Bringbackourgirls hasn’t brought back Chibok’s girls, but it has changed Nigeria’s politics; Women fighting Boko Haram – and working for peace, human rights and the abducted girls – are having an unexpected impact on national politics. The Guardian.

[12] (2014, June 20). Nigeria; Towards Ending Violence Against Women. Africa News.

[13] This information about protests from 2017 is from a news article written in 2019.

[14]Media articles will be cited in footnotes. See for example, (2019, August 9). As Africa Battles Sexual Violence, a Nigerian City Shows How. Impact News Service.

[15] Wilkes, J. (2020, September 17). Rapists will be castrated and child rapists executed in new law in Nigerian state; In Kaduna, in north-western Nigeria, where a state of emergency was declared as cases of rape soared during lockdown, harsh new laws have been brought in.

[16] Parker, E. (2020, September 17). Child rapists face death and others surgical castration in country’s new laws; The change in legislation in Kaduna, Nigeria, follows months of civil unrest as rape figures soared across the region, prompting Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai to declare a state of emergency. Daily Star Online.

[17] Abati, R. (2020, June 9). The Rape Pandemic: #No By Reuben Abati. Sahara Reporters – Online.

[18] (2020, June 14). The next pandemic. The Nation (Nigeria).

[19] Girl Child Africa is an organization that promotes Nigerian girls’ access to quality education in rural communities.

[20] Stand To End Rape is a youth-led social enterprise advocating against gender-based violence.

[21] Connected Development is an organization that empowers marginalized communities in Nigeria to hold the Nigerian government accountable.

[22] (2020, June 5). Protests rock Lagos, Abuja over rising rape cases, sexual assault against women. The Nation (Nigeria).

[23] (2020, June 6). Group holds protest against gender-based violence. Premium Times.

[24] Anigbogu, J. (2020, June 5). Rape: Coalition Of CSO Takes Protest To Lagos Police Area Command. Daily Independent (Nigeria).

[25] (2020, June 12). ‘No man with conscience keeps mute against rape’. The Nation (Nigeria).

[26] The Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) of Nigeria is an organization consisting of young women that advocate for peace and human rights. See more: Young Women’s Christian Association of Nigeria. (2020). About Us

[27] Umeha, C. (2020, June 17). Young Women Christian Association Seeks Capital Punishment For Rapists. Daily Independent (Nigeria).

[28] Rapheal. (2020, June 11). YWCA seeks capital punishment for rapists. The Sun (Nigeria).

[29] #ArewaMeToo is northern Nigeria’s version of the #MeToo movement that is well known in the United States.

[30] (2019, December 10). Nigeria’s Sultan of Sokoto Bans #MeToo Movement. Naija 247 News.

[31] (2019, November 2019). #ArewaMeToo: Sultan Of Sokoto Bans Protest Against Gender-based Violence In Sokoto. Sahara Reporters – Online.

[32] Collyer, R. ( 2019, December 3). Nigeria’s Sultan of Sokoto bans #ArewaMeToo campaign. RFI (English).

[33] (2020, June 5). Protests rock Lagos, Abuja over rising rape cases, sexual assault against women. The Nation (Nigeria).

[34] The Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative (WRAPA) is an organization dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights of Nigerian women with three legal systems: customary, common, and Sharia law. See more: MacArthur Foundation. (2014). Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative.


[36] (2020, June 10). Nigeria backs stiffer penalties for rapists, child abusers. PM News.

[37] Sanni, K. (2020, June 11). Nigerian governors declare ‘state of emergency’ on sexual violence. Premium Times. Retrieved from Factiva database.

[38] (2020, September 12). 3 Months After, States Yet to Domesticate Anti-Rape Law. AllAfrica. Retrieved from Factiva database.

[39] (2013, February 19). Nigeria; Rape! Incest! Violence! Women! Children!. Africa News.

[40] Abati, R. (2020, June 9). The Rape Pandemic: #No By Reuben Abati. Sahara Reporters – Online.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Legal Information Institute. (2015). Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act