Marital Rape in Africa

by Eniola Oni

Islamiat was my neighbour. We were also friends. She had poor parents and they could barely make ends meet. When Islamiat was fifteen, her parents agreed that she should be married off to Suraju, the son of the Chief Imam in our neighbourhood. Islamiat told me that her father charged Suraju half a million naira for her bride price.

She never wanted that marriage but she was the only way for her family to get out of penury. I remember vividly on the traditional wedding day, her father said to Suraju ”she is yours now, she no longer has a place in this house” and everyone laughed.

…her husband doesn’t seek her consent before having sex with her

Three months after her wedding, Islamiat came to visit her mother and I went to their home to greet her. She broke the news of her pregnancy to us. She also complained that more often than not, her husband doesn’t seek her consent before having sex with her. Her mother told her she had to endure it all, that it is only natural for men to be domineering, even in bed, as that is their behaviour. So, Islamiat joined the league of the 47% of women who, according to the World Health Organisation on violence against women, are raped by their husbands.

When her mother left the sitting room for a little while, Islamiat confided in me that the marriage was a nightmare to her. I just sat in silence, observing how lean and unhappy she looked. That was the last time I saw Islamiat because six months later, she died. Rumour had it he beat her when she refused sex because her pregnancy was at its peak and he still had his way with her. She died while being raped by Suraju.

Marital rape is defined as sexual activity, usually sexual intercourse, carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against the will of, usually, the female in a marriage.

Though already criminalised in some countries,  it remains a frequent occurrence in African society. As of 2018, marital rape is yet to be considered a crime in Nigeria and the reasons for this are palpable.

Many African countries do have laws against rape but the aspect of marital rape is omitted because women are seen as properties and rape laws are only established to protect the property interest of the men in the women and not for the protection of the women themselves. So, the man is seen as the “owner of the woman” and her self-will is just a part of the property he purchased that he alone has the right to control and does not need to care about how she feels or what she wants.

In addition, marital rape is largely tolerated because of the lack of understanding of the concept of consent and coercion, due to lack of sex education, especially among females. According to a national health survey, as of 2017, only 29% of females between the ages of 15-24 had the right knowledge about sex. Public discussions about sexuality are often cited as reasons for sexual abuse. So, societal opinion is that one shouldn’t talk about it, so that it won’t happen. Well, we do not talk about it, but it doesn’t seem to stop, it has only thrived in our silence.

One thing stands, marriage is never an excuse for rape. The effects of rape are grievous, but research has shown that marital rape can be more emotionally and physically damaging than rape by a stranger. Rape that occurs once causes pain, regrets, shame and reduction in self-esteem. Once is traumatic enough to the victim, how much more when it happens continually? And marital rape is rarely a one-time event. It can also cause post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSDs) such as major depression, social phobia, sexual dysfunction, nightmares, terrible flashbacks and difficulty in falling asleep.

The victims of marital rape often do not have enough courage to voice it out because they think no one will believe them or they might be looked upon with scorn, so they suffer in silence.

We can go on and on about the awful effects of marital rape. However, more than knowing the problem, it’s expedient to know the way forward.

Girls need to understand that they are human beings, not properties, and should be entitled to the same opportunities as boys – that what a man can do, a woman can do as well. So, if a man can have sex when he wants to, a woman should also have sex with her husband when she wants to, too. If marital rape is to stop, ensuring that women have a right to decide what they want to do with their bodies is the first crucial step.

It’s time for marital rape to become criminalised in Africa. A woman should be able to get justice for being raped, even if the perpetrator is her husband. Married or not, rape is rape!

Research has shown that the majority of women who are raped in marriage are either illiterate, poorly educated or married off at a young age. As of 2005, 45% of women in Africa had been married at age 15, so these women depend on their husbands almost their entire lives and have no say, even with sexual intercourse. The girl child deserves a good education and a right to independence. She needs to know she can reach a peak in various spheres in the world and achieve great things too, without the help of a man who is not her father.

Parents, stop selling off your daughters!

Finally, parents should stop giving out their daughters in marriage in a bid to come out of penury and as such, charge the suitor exorbitantly because that makes the husband assume full ownership of the wife as the material he purchased that must be used to his satisfaction.

All hands must urgently be on deck to save girls like Islamiat because when a woman is raped by a stranger, she has to live with a frightening memory but when she’s raped by her husband, she is living with the rapist.

I am Eniola Oni, a public speaker, marketing strategist intern and social impact worker. I am passionate about helping girls, especially in Nigeria, to see the need to work on and become better versions of themselves. I study Marine Biology at the University of Lagos.

Image credits: Teenage girl wearing a yellow headscarf (; Girl resting forehead on her arms and knee (; Schoolgirl holding up a poster with the words: I am a GIRL CHILD and I say NO to RAPE (