day after celebrating Valentine’s Day with her boyfriend in Nigeria’s southwestern state of Ogun, Olanipekun Irenimofe was locked up by the police. Her crime? Buying a contraceptive without a doctor’s prescription.
At about 10 a.m. on 15 February, the 25-year-old dashed to a nearby pharmacy to buy an emergency contraceptive pill to prevent pregnancy. As she walked back home, a police officer stopped her and asked her about the contents of the black plastic bag she was carrying. When she told him it was a contraceptive, he shouted: “O fe lo se oyun (you want to abort a pregnancy). Why are you having sex?”
These words made Ms Olanipekun more confused than frightened.
“I didn’t know contraceptives are a crime,” she told PREMIUM TIMES over the phone.
Buying or using contraceptives is not a crime, but the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) identified emergency contraception as one of the most heavily restricted forms of modern contraceptives, due in part to misinformation about its safety, and misconceptions that it acts as an abortifacient, as seen in Ms Olanipekun’s case.
Dare Olagoke-Adaramoye, a sexual and reproductive health expert, said the use of contraceptives in Nigeria is legal. However, confrontations such as the one Ms Olanipekun had with the police are caused by negative perceptions about women using contraceptives.
“When a guy walks into a pharmacy to get a condom, everyone looks at him as a big boy. But if a woman tries such, she is [seen as] a prostitute,” he said of the gender stereotypes on the use of contraceptives.
The security officer, who Ms Olanipekun assumed to be in his 50s, further asked her why she could not remain a virgin for her husband and said even if she had to take the pill, she needed a doctor’s prescription.
Another police officer who was nearby approached his colleague, asked about the woman’s ‘crime’ and ordered that she be locked up.
This contravenes the agreement Nigeria committed to at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo, Egypt in 1994. Principle 7.3 of the ICPD Programme of Action states that everyone has the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.
“In the exercise of this right, they should take into account the needs of their living and future children and their responsibilities towards the community.”
This is also included in Nigeria’s National Reproductive Health Policy and strategy to achieve quality reproductive and sexual health.
Although she was later released by the police without charge, Ms Olanipekun’s case is just one of the many ways women’s bodily autonomy is constrained in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s bodily autonomy scorecard
defines bodily autonomy as giving one the power and agency to make choices over their bodies, lives and futures without violence or coercion and another’s input. The global sexual and reproductive health agency says that nearly half of the women in 57 developing countries are denied the right to decide whether to have sex with their partners, use contraception or seek health care.NFPA
UNFPA Director Natalia Kanem said the data should “outrage us all” because “hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their bodies” and “their lives are governed by others”.
Nigeria’s criminal law system has two codes that operate in different regions – the Criminal Code in the South and the Penal Code in the North. Christian Ededhor, a lawyer, explained that the codes were passed separately to conform with the peculiarities of each region.
The Penal Code was created for the North to suit their Islamic practices with provisions that allow the use of haddi lashing (caning) as a form of punishment for certain offences such as the criminalisation of drinking (alcohol). There are certain provisions, such as bigamy, that are similar to the Criminal Code for the South, and serve as constraints on women’s abortion rights. These restrictive provisions are found in Sections 228, 229 and 230 of the Criminal code.
Section 228 reads: “Any person who, with intent to procure the miscarriage of a woman whether she is or is not with child, unlawfully administers to her or causes her to take any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind, or uses any other means whatever, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for fourteen years.”
Section 229 reads: “Any woman who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, whether she is or is not with child, unlawfully administers to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or uses any force of any kind, or uses any other means whatever or permits any such thing or means to be administered or used to her, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for seven years.”
Section 230 reads: “Any person who unlawfully supplies to or procures for any person anything whatever, knowing it is intended to be unlawfully used to procure the miscarriage of a woman, whether she is or is not a with child, is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for three years.”
The same is found in the Penal Code in Section 232 where any person (including the mother), who is guilty of abortion, will be fined and will face imprisonment, but there is an exception where the aim is to save the mother’s life.
Section 232 reads: “Whoever voluntarily causes a woman with child to miscarry shall, if such miscarriage is not caused in good faith for the purpose of saving the life of the woman, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to fourteen years or with a fine or with both.”
These strict laws in Nigeria were identified by Reuters as one of the reasons that drive West African women to dangerous and illegal abortions. The Society of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians of Nigeria estimates that about 20,000 Nigerian women die from unsafe abortions every year.
Concerned about the effects of violations of women’s body choices, in 2021, Ulla Mueller, the Country Representative of UNFPA in Nigeria urged the federal government to implement laws and policies to empower women and girls with bodily autonomy.
‘Why them no go rape you, see wetin you wear’
hile Ms Olanipekun was locked up by law enforcement officers for buying contraceptives, Princess-Ekwi Ajide, the Executive Director of Balm for the Bruised Foundation, was verbally abused by a female police officer for her appearance.
In 2019, Ms Ajide took a rape survivor to the police headquarters in Awka, the state capital of Anambra in southeast Nigeria, to report a rape case.
Upon being told that it was a rape case, the female police officer assumed the humanitarian worker was the survivor, sized her up and said: “See wetin you wear, you come report rape. Why them no go rape you” (Look at what you are wearing to report a case. Why won’t they rape you?).
“I asked her if this was how she treats people when they come to the police station,” Ms Ajide said, recalling that she wore a knee-length gown.
She asked the officer why babies and old women are raped even when they do not wear short gowns or skirts.
Surprised at her response, the officer kept quiet, she recalled.
‘Tattoo, coloured hair’… other reasons women are violated
In other instances of violation of body autonomy, security officers have physically assaulted several Nigerian women.
The supposed indecent dressing was because the woman wore a dress with a hemline above the knee and had orange braided hair.
Later, the state government announced the arrest of the officers involved and said they had been taken in for disciplinary action.
Eyewitnesses narrated to Punch newspaper that the military officer violently pulled the girl’s braided hair, yanked off her blouse and tried ripping off her bra before passers-by intervened.
These actions by law enforcement officers violate the provisions of the Operational Code of Conduct for the Nigerian Armed Forces.
Section 4 (i) of the code states: “Women will be protected against any attack on their person, honour and in particular against rape or any form of indecent assault.”
Also, the Nigeria police spokesperson, Muyiwa Adejobi, told PREMIUM TIMES that the force frowns at extrajudicial violation because it “respects people’s rights in every situation and sanctions any erring officer who violates people’s rights unjustly and criminally.”
For instance, in August, the police dismissed Liyomo Okoi, an officer who flogged a civilian with a machete.
The police spokesperson said that sanctions could either be criminal or disciplinary, guided by the procedure indicated in the Police Act and other extant laws depending on the nature of the case.
However, he added that they have a “challenge of defining one’s right when it comes to enforcement of minimum force to discharge duties bearing in mind that no fundamental human right is absolute. That is, depending on the situation on the ground, not in all cases, one can claim violation of rights under the law.”
Responding to the conditional statement made by the police spokesperson, human rights lawyer, Omotosho Tosin, said a citizen’s rights are violated so long as they are included in the fundamental rights as listed in Chapter four of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“What issue are the police having with defining rights? Must they trespass on the fundamental rights of a person anyhow? We are citizens of this country; if our rights are violated, we speak up against such and seek redress,” she said.
Why bodily autonomy should be respected
he UNFPA in a document titled ‘The right to contraceptive information and services for women and adolescents’ noted that access to contraception is founded on international human rights. As a result, denying women autonomy in their contraceptive choices is a violation of fundamental human rights.
In the Programme of Action from the International Conference on Population and Development, state parties, including Nigeria, are committed to the promotion and protection of fundamental human rights to contraceptive information and services.
These information and services include: “the right to equality and non-discrimination; the right to privacy; the right to determine the number, spacing, and timing of one’s children; the right to life; the right to health; the right to information; the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress; and the right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”
States are obliged to “respect, protect, and fulfil” the right to contraceptive information and services and this can be done by making contraceptive information and services “available, accessible, acceptable, and of good quality.”
Some countries that have promoted these rights were cited in the paper. For instance, in 2010, Chile enacted a law that guarantees its citizens the right to decide freely and responsibly on the contraceptive method of their choice, Romania ensures access to contraceptives through subsidies and Pakistan promotes access to contraceptives through home delivery.
Speaking on the effects of the invasion of women and girls’ bodily autonomy as it relates to their sexual and reproductive health, Mr Olagoke-Adaramoye, an SRHR expert, said it puts them at great risk.
He said that such violations are one of the leading causes of child and mother deaths when spousal approval is required before seeking health care.
And in the case where the abuse comes from “the people who should protect your rights”, i.e. law enforcement officers, he noted that it leads to mistrust among women and promotes the culture of silence.
“The woman is endangered because she is on the receiving end,” he said as he called on women to come to an awareness of their rights and the laws applicable to them.
Nimisire Emitomo, an SRHR consultant, corroborated this assertion, saying: “If you feel a police officer will judge you based on how you are dressed, in a situation when you need their help, you will not feel confident or safe enough to report the case to these people who are supposed to protect you.”
Experts propose solutions
o promote respect for bodily autonomy, Mr Olagoke-Adaramoye called for the public prosecution of officers who violate the rights of women and girls just as happens with civilians.
“I know they have a rule of engagement and they have a martial court where people are tried, but what we are advocating is the public trial of these people,” he said.
Ms Emitomo, on the other hand, said the abuse from security officers could be reduced through the training they receive after recruitment. She proposed that the training be all-encompassing with topics like emotional intelligence and survivor-centred treatment.
This article was produced as part of the WA GBV Reporting Fellowship with support from the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and through the support of the Ford Foundation.
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