LAGOS, Nigeria – A dozen officers are squeezed into the dimly lit Lagos State Police Gender Unit between worn desks and witnesses writing statements, as the force struggles to cope with an increasing number of reports of sex abuse in Nigeria.
Recent figures are scarce but according to the United Nations, one in four women in the country experiences sexual abuse before they turn 18.
Lagos is the only one of the 36 states in Africa’s most populous nation with a force dedicated to tackling gender-based violence.
Conditions in the unit – one of 12 serving the chaotic megacity of 20 million – are basic.
It has no interrogation room, no dedicated vehicle and no computers.
Wedged in a corner behind mounds of loose files, officers point to a small plastic chair where alleged victims – most frequently children, with many aged around just 10 – are brought to give statements.
“You can see, we’re just managing,” Detective Inspector Alaba Munisola, the head of the unit, told AFP.
“The number of reported cases has been rising and rising.”
Greater numbers of women are speaking out against prevalent sexual violence in the country, with both NGOs and police saying the number of reported cases has increased rapidly in recent years.
But this has exposed victims to the failings of an underfunded, poorly trained criminal justice system – often exacerbating their trauma.
NGOs and campaign groups say those who report crimes suffer prejudice, extortion and a lack of social support at each stage between reporting crimes and court trials.
Investigations into sexual assault rarely result in convictions.
The launch of a new nationwide sex offenders register has been described as an important step in helping to crack down on the worst abusers.
But activists insist it is just the beginning of the fight to reform the system.
“How the police record cases, information sharing, it’s ridiculous. It’s all in paper,” said Ayodeji Osowobi, director of the non-profit organisation Stand to End Rape.
“The register will help agencies identify repeat offenders, police will have more information when they deal with suspects.”
Stand To End Rape, which has dealt with hundreds of cases this year, represents those who come forward and provides psychological support.
“For victims, when it comes to interfacing with the police, it’s one of the most dreaded experiences ever,” Osowobi said.
“What they do to survivors is not ask them questions but interrogate them.”
Osowobi said victims are often questioned in public or open spaces, or even in front of suspects they’ve accused.
Deepening their ordeal, officers regularly extort victims for money and delay the case if they are not paid.
“In most cases the police ask for a ‘mobilisation fee’, saying, ‘we need fuel, we need something to ginger us’,” Osowobi said.
Inspector Olakunle Orebe has worked in the Lagos Gender Unit since it was founded in 2015.
“Oftentimes there is not provision for basic needs, such as transportation, printing case files, visiting the scene to investigate,” he admitted, criticising police budgets.
He said suspects and victims have been transported by some police forces in the same vehicles and sometimes even in public transport.
“How will you now carry the survivor and the accused or the perpetrator inside one car?” he complains. “But it happens in places.”
“In this unit, we have so many challenges. We don’t want a situation where victims have to buy justice, so oftentimes, these costs come from our pocket.”