March 8, 2023

Sexual Abuse of Women and Girls in Nigeria: Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic

The battle to eradicate the sexual abuse of women and girls has always been heavily reliant on non-governmental organisations (NGOs). However, the evidence indicates that progress has been slow in achieving targets in Nigeria, necessitating a multifaceted approach. Covid-19 reveals the vast gap in the effort toward eradicating Sexual abuse in Nigeria through the widespread cases reported during the period.  Education, legal reforms, community engagement, gender mainstreaming, and humanitarian interventions should all play a crucial role in the fight against the menace. A successful strategy will involve collaboration between all stakeholders to create a society where women are no longer victims of sexual discrimination, abuse, and violence. By implementing these various strategies, we can pave the way toward a future where women can thrive without fear of exploitation, abuse, and harassment.


In Nigeria, the unequal power dynamics between men and women foster a society where men may feel entitled to sexually abuse women and girls. This inequality explains why gender disparity perpetuates the sexual abuse of women and girls. The issue has received considerable attention on a global scale, particularly during the Covid-19 epidemic. The issue has been labelled “the shadow pandemic” to indicate a neglected epidemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a considerable increase in global reports of violence and sexual assault against women and girls. A study of 13 nations revealed that nearly half of all women reported experiencing gender-based violence during the pandemic, with Sub-Saharan Africa having the highest prevalence.

According to a survey conducted by the UN Refugee Agency, some NGOs began to support this category of women and girls in Nigeria since the government was overburdened with Covid-19 cases and lacked the man power  to tackle the sexual abuse during the pandemic simultaneously. This raises the question of whether prevention measures are accorded the same priority as treatment efforts. The increase in sexual abuse cases during Covid-19 indicates that Nigeria’s preventative strategies for sexual abuse remain inadequate.

Consequently, these beg the following questions, (1) How has Covid-19 altered our knowledge of the problem of sexual abuse among Nigerian women and girls? (2) Are the strategies NGOs deploy to address the problem sustainable? (3) What culturally entrenched local remedies can also aid in solving the issue? (4) What lessons may be drawn from the Covid-19 Pandemic experiences of women and girls? This paper examines these concerns at length. It suggests sustainable routes to adequately address the problem.

Sexual Abuse of women and girls in Nigeria before and during Covid-19

One in three women worldwide experiences physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime. A survey conducted by Positive Action for Treatment Access revealed that over 31.4 per cent of girls had their first sexual encounter through rape or forced sex. This figure is close to the case of Nigeria, where 30% of Nigerian women aged 15-49 have experienced some form of sexual abuse. However, due to the culture of stigmatisation, this data might have been underreported. Gender-based violence against women in Nigeria highlights factors from early marriages to mental, sexual, and physical violence. Several women and girls have been abused or harassed while trading on the streets, in churches and mosques by religious leaders, in schools by teachers,  at home, by household members or close family friends and online. The Federal Ministry of Women Affairs in Nigeria and the UNFP commissioned a study that identified sexual harassment, physical violence, harmful traditional practices, emotional and psychological abuse, and socio-economic violence as the prevalent acts of gender-based violence in Nigeria. Furthermore, socio-cultural beliefs and religious organisations have inured these violent acts towards women and girls. For instance, some religious belief exerts the perception of women being inferior to men and total submissiveness as being features of a virtuous woman, which have thus been used to manipulate and trap women in abusive relationships.

In theory, these factors are captured in Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of human development in synthesising the causes of violence and sexual abuse against women. The framework categorises several risk factors into four categories: Societal, Community, Relationships, and Individual. These fit well within the identified causes highlighted above.

Nevertheless, the Covid-19 pandemic has meant more variables are now at play. Three new factors worsening the sexual abuse against women and girls during the covid-19 pandemic include Isolation with abusers, movement restrictions, and disserted public spaces. These factors are absent from the ecological framework and thus provide new insight into this subject.

The Lagos State Domestic and Gender Violence response team reported that during the lockdown,  Covid 19 control measures increased Domestic violence in Nigeria by 60%, Sexual violence by 30%, and Physical Child abuse by 10%. Also, statistics show a heightened negative impact of the pandemic on the safety and well-being of women and girls in high-conflict regions in Nigeria. Areas grappling with record levels of violence and insecurity, such as the North-East and North-West regions, where terrorism and banditry have displaced millions of people, making women and girls more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, Abuse, and Harassment.

Are the Strategies Deployed by NGOs Sustainable?

The high rate of sexual violence and abuse of women and girls in Nigeria has attracted the attention of both international and local NGOs in the commitment to curbing the menace from humanitarian funding received through foreign aid donors. The United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency leads and coordinates the sexual and reproductive health sub-sectors in Northeast Nigeria. In 2018, the agency drafted three strategic objectives for sexual abuse prevention strategies for the Northeast. Two of these are  (1) Increasing access to comprehensive and well-coordinated GBV response services, including livelihood support (2) Increasing awareness and enhancing systems for the prevention of GBV, including SEA, through mitigating risk factors and strengthening community protection strategies. These objectives translate to targets for partnering NGOs, which span livelihood support, education/training, awareness, physical and mental healthcare services, and security.

Nonetheless, by the time the pandemic peaked in 2021, sexual abuse had increased by nearly 391%. (NBS 2017 data compared to Amnesty International 2021 data). This then questions the efficacy of the strategies being deployed by the NGOs. Perhaps the solution to the problem should be localised.  

The data released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) intended for  the impact assessment of Covid-19 on sexual exploitation and abuse in Nigeria reveals some critical insights on this issue. The data placed in table 1 shows that about 59% of women and girls experiencing sexual abuse did not  receive any form of assistance from NGOs, and 37% did not receive it from the government, highlighting the gaps in the support mechanisms available for women in this category

Table 1. Assistance given to Victims of Sexual Abuse During Covid-19

 Assistance from governmentDid not receive assistance governmentAssistance from humanitarian actorsDid not receive assistance humanitarian actors
Non-Food Items23%10%14%19%

  Source: UNHCR Survey  (2021)

Among those that received support, cash and shelter were the highest, indicating that women who experienced sexual abuse had no homes or means of survival which highlights the lack of viable means of livelihood. This lack of means of livelihood can be attributed to the level of gender inequality that is perpetrated by socio-cultural factors in Nigeria, which limits women’s economic empowerment.  Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that as long as the core reasons are not adequately addressed, livelihood interventions will always fall short, as resources may be insufficient to care for all sexual abuse victims. Consequently, these lessons from Covid-19 should take us on the path of prioritising preventative measures deeply rooted in our society’s sociocultural factors.

Charting the course toward Prevention of sexual abuse through Local and culturally Entrenched Solutions

While foreign aid has been an essential funding source for developing nations like Nigeria, its usage in resolving local issues has been under criticism over the past decade as a result of the fact that NGOs frequently overlook culturally aligned solutions.

 It is recognised that culture may influence the acceptance or non-recognition of sexual abuse in many populations.

The widely used confluence model of sexual aggression confirms that masculine ideology may be at the heart of sexual assault perpetration.  This implies that solutions to the problem may lie deep in men’s hearts. This can be explained in Hemingway’s iceberg theory, where most times, the ideologies and mental models that shape perpetrators actions are submerged in the water (invisible), leaving the minor factors afloat for all to see.

Hence the need for a more socially inclusive effort to address the issue as most gender-based violence is embedded in societal attitudes and religious beliefs. Efforts to eradicate sexual violence against women must be rooted in a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach that addresses the root causes of the problem, which are gender inequality, discrimination, and societal stereotypes. Education is a critical tool for eradicating gender-based violence as it teaches young people of both sexes the importance of consent, respect, and healthy relationships. It also gives women the tools and knowledge to protect themselves and others from sexual violence.

Community engagement can promote positive attitudes towards women by creating safe spaces for victims to seek support, challenge harmful gender stereotypes, and hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable. Gender mainstreaming could also ensure that all aspects of policy development and implementation are gender equal and that policies and programs are responsive to the needs and experiences of women and girls.

A recent positive step by the Nigerian government in this fight is the increased funding for survivors’ support services through the senate approval of the bill on sexual harassment of students in tertiary institutions in 2020 in furtherance of the legislative agenda to protect women’s rights. The bill with 25 clauses proposes up to 14 years jail term for offenders and seeks to promote ethical standards in tertiary institutions.

Nevertheless, this is still more of a cure than prevention.  Preventive approaches would entail diving below the iceberg to address the root causes culturally embedded in ideologies, values and perceptions towards women.


Sexual abuse in Nigeria requires comprehensive, multi-faceted, and inclusive solutions. Efforts to eradicate the sexual abuse of women and girls must be rooted in education, community engagement, gender mainstreaming, and humanitarian interventions. Moreover, these efforts must be collaborative, involving all stakeholders to create a society where women are free from sexual discrimination and violence.