Credit: GIN photo

Is it a welcome development? Or legislative sadism?

Those are the two sides of a debate roiling Nigeria following passage of an amendment to a law that orders convicted rapists to be surgically castrated if a man, or have their fallopian tubes removed, if a woman.

If the victim is under 14, the rapist will have his testicles surgically removed before being executed, under the legislation signed by the governor of Kaduna state last week.

“Drastic sanctions are needed to help further protect children from serious crime,” insisted the governor, Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai. 

The dimensions of the rape problem in Nigeria are disturbing to say the least. Last December, the minister for women’s affairs testified that 2 million women and girls were raped in the country each year. Then in June she said that the number of rapes had spiked to three times the typical rate, because women and girls were locked down with their abusers during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Yet under a federal law passed in 2015 which supposedly tightened the scope for prosecuting sex offenders, only 40 rape suspects have been charged in a country of some 200 million people, according to the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (Naptip). 

On social media, men expressed fears of “false convicts” and what would happen to victims of unlawful persecution. Interviewed on a TV news show, gender rights activist and rape survivor Dorothy Njemanze disagreed. 

“It’s a welcome development,” she declared. “If all those who raped me suffered this [surgical castration], others whom they also allegedly raped would have been spared the calamity.” 

Nigerian lawyer and activist Chidi Odinkalu countered that the law might make it even harder to reduce sexual assault in his country. “What’s wrong with life imprisonment?” he asked, calling the new law “legislative sadism.” 

Meanwhile in the U.S., Randall Marshall of the Alabama American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) disputed the value of castration, enacted last year in that state. “They really misunderstand what sexual assault is all about. It’s not about sexual gratification. It’s about power. It’s about control.” 

Both chemical and surgical castration is currently practiced in seven U.S. states. They are: Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Montana, Texas and Wisconsin. In most of these, the treatment is a reversible chemical procedure or an optional process for which offenders can volunteer to win or speed up their parole.