Lead Writer: Assim-ita, Bernard Otu

April marks the 23rd anniversary of Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) and the 25th anniversary of Denim Day.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, along with numerous other organisations, worked together in 2001 to officially recognise April as SAAM to bring awareness to the frequency of sexual violence in society and what communities can do to prevent it.

Denim Day traces its origins not to America but to a harrowing incident in Italy in 1992, where a young woman was raped by her driving instructor. At that time, Italy’s laws on rape, formulated in 1936 under the regime of Benito Mussolini, viewed rape not as a violent crime but as a matter of public morality and decency. It wasn’t until February 1996, after six decades, that these laws were finally revised.

Following the arrest of the driving instructor, the case took a disturbing turn. In 1999, upon appealing the verdict, the court shockingly overturned the ruling, citing the victim’s attire—tight jeans—as a contributing factor. The Supreme Court of Appeals in Rome rationalised that jeans were too tricky to remove without the wearer’s assistance, implying that the act must have been consensual. This reasoning sparked outrage among female Italian politicians, including Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the notorious dictator.

Photo credit: BBC, MPs say they will protest until the ruling is overturned

Alessandra Mussolini, along with other women politicians, protested the court’s decision by wearing jeans on the steps of Parliament. In a 1999 New York Times article, she condemned the verdict as archaic and lacking empathy for the psychological trauma endured by victims.

The outcry from this case resonated across oceans, reaching Los Angeles. Patti Occhiuzzo Giggans, the executive director of Peace Over Violence, was pivotal in organising the inaugural Denim Day. This initiative aimed to challenge myths surrounding rape, such as attributing it to a victim’s wardrobe or behaviour. Since its inception, Denim Day has transcended borders, becoming an international movement that includes participation from Italy and beyond.

Photo Credit: 23WIFR Newsroom

Millions of women across the world, and particularly in Nigeria, have been victims of some sort of sexual assault. According to the United Nations, there were 11,200 reported rape cases in Nigeria in 2020. The Lagos police have also confirmed that they recorded 111 sexual assault cases between April and June 2023.

Photo Credit: Kemi Ajumobi, BusinessDayNG

Furthermore, the Women at Risk International Foundation, in collaboration with the United States Consulate General, Lagos, has said that 33 per cent of women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have experienced physical and or sexual abuse in their lifetime. However, this number does not total the cases that were left unreported. Victims of rape and sexual assault are often crippled by fear of their assailants, societal stigma and a lack of confidence in the system, which prevents them from pursuing justice. This reaction is not unwarranted. Under the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015, the minimum punishment for rape is 12 years imprisonment without a fine, and the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

photo credit: Blessing Oghuamba, Education as a Vaccine (Building connected communities)

While individuals and organisations continue to de-campaign sexual assault and harassment issues, Education as a Vaccine, a women-led, youth-focused organisation that champions the rights and empowerment of women in Nigeria, continues to plan out programs that align with her goals.

This year, for Denim Day, Education as a Vaccine team members held an activity aimed at sharing knowledge amongst staff and building their capacity to advocate against sexual assault. We created contents that emphasise support, collaboration and intentionality to end sexual assault in our communities. 

photo credit: Blessing Oghuamba, Education as a Vaccine

Beyond Denim Day, we have had a great lineup of activities to commemorate the sexual assault awareness month, which included a dialogue held at the Federal University of Lafia against sexual harassment in light of the #SexForGrades campaign and recent whistle-blowings ongoing in tertiary institutions, this dialogue aimed at providing a safe space for students to discuss and ask about sensitive issues regarding sexual harassment and their bodily rights. At the end of the two-day dialogue, the 155 engaged female students became visibly more empowered to fight against sexual harassment.

Throughout Sexual Assault Awareness Month this year, we have leveraged our social media to foster connected communities and advance our mission through carefully crafted media posts sent out daily that not only showcase unwavering support for survivors but also raise awareness and advocate for policies combating sexual assault and harassment. 

Additionally, our social media efforts amplified an updated list of sexual assault referral centres within Nigeria, providing vital resources to those in need. Through our online presence, we’ve built solidarity, spread crucial information, and taken meaningful steps towards creating a safer, more supportive environment for all.