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Toyin Ojora-Saraki Headshot

Making Everyone Count

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In a country as large and diverse as Nigeria, data collection is fraught with difficulty. Nonetheless, whether this is in elections, censuses, or health surveys, data-based evidence is a vital component that must be committed to by the country as a whole. As demonstrated during the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) process, coherent data that can be used to set targets and benchmark efforts is crucial for success. Moving into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) era will require accurate data for setting accurate goals and measuring progress.

Data and records may not be the most newsworthy election topic. It may not even seem like the most newsworthy topic with regard to the SDGs, but there is an unassailable human aspect to record keeping. After all, at a time when Nigerians are striving to secure their right to vote in a free, fair, and transparent election, the right to bear witness is increasingly important. Bearing witness to the lives of Nigerians is important because it directly correlates to evidence-based action in policy, and plays a crucial role in human dignity, especially with respect to domestic violence and population indices.

Domestic violence is a global epidemic with statistics estimating that just under a third of all women who have been in a relationship have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner. The numbers are even starker in Nigeria. One in two Nigerian women are routinely abused by their husband, and more than two thirds of women are believed to have experienced physical, sexual and psychological abuse. This number may be even higher as our woefully weak reporting structures mean that many domestic violence crimes are unrecorded. Consequently, too many victims suffer in silence. This can be resolved through comprehensive legislation that enables victims to report their abusers within a safe and supportive environment.

As a board member of the Global Foundation for the Elimination of Domestic Violence (GFEDV) and a member of the Nigerian Legislative Advocacy Coalition on Violence Against Women (LACVAW), I have frequently called for Nigeria's National Assembly to pass the Violence Against Persons Prohibition (VAPP) bill. The bill was developed 13 years ago to put in place the legislative structures for reporting and recording domestic violence crimes, as well as enacting prevention strategies and justice mechanisms. On 14th March 2013, I was overjoyed that the Nigerian House of Representatives had finally passed the bill. This joy dissolved into disappointment as almost two years later, the VAPP bill has yet to be approved by the Senate.

Passing the VAPP Bill, and signing it into law, will enable Nigeria to improve reporting structures and criminalise abuse. Improved reporting structures will allow the definition of domestic abuse to be expanded and the stigmas facing survivors to be reduced. In the upcoming election, I urge politicians to commit to passing the VAPP Bill to empower victims, break down stigmas, and end cycles of domestic abuse that can destroy families for generations. Bearing witness to the lives of domestic violence survivors will provide them with the dignity and agency to take control of their futures.

The human dignity afforded by bearing witness to the lives of domestic violence survivors is echoed in how we register births and deaths in Nigeria. Birth registration is the very first act in recognising a child's inalienable rights as a human being. It is this inalienable right that is similarly recognised in death registration. Bearing witness at the beginning and end of each life provides that person with human dignity because it emphasises that their life matters, that their death was counted, and that their rights are officially recognised by their government. Despite existing legal provisions for birth and death registration, registration numbers are exceptionally low in Nigeria, with only a third of all newborns registered at birth. Death registration figures are even lower, with just under 12% of households surveyed registering deaths in the last 10 years.

The importance of registering births and deaths cannot be overstated. Without a birth certificate, children do not legally exist and consequently, their right to an identity, nationality, and basic government provisions could be threatened. Birth registration lays the foundation for school and health records, as well as effectively countering the problem of child marriage, as official birth certificates can definitively prove age. Similarly, death registration provides records related to causes of death, mortality rates, and accurate data for population estimates.

Tackling the barriers to birth and death registrations must be a priority in this pivotal year for development. Without accurate records, we cannot accelerate national progress towards the MDGs or have a meaningful understanding of how to efficiently implement the SDGs when they are set. In order to overcome the barriers to registration, we must urgently increase the number of registration centres, implement a nationwide sensitivity programme on the importance of birth and death registration, and strengthen institutional capacity for measuring our health and population indices.

Without this urgent action, our country's diligent work towards improving our social, economic and health indices will remain mired in darkness. We cannot improve our social indices without accurate data on domestic violence. We cannot improve our economic indices without accurate data on population growth. We cannot improve our health indices without accurate data on health records. Data may seem unnecessary but there are human lives, and human dignity at stake.

This is why I led the global call to bring back our girls following the kidnapping of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls in Chibok. For too long, a lack of records would have meant these girls would have been forgotten but standing up and bearing witness to the crime that had been committed gave these girls a global voice. It gave these girls dignity. It showed that they mattered. We must follow this through in our policies by standing up and bearing witness to every single Nigerian life - at the beginning, middle, and end. We must show our children that they matter and that they have inalienable rights. We must show our fellow brothers and sisters that they need not suffer violence in silence. We must show our friends and families that there is dignity in reporting death.

When we can do this, we will truly succeed in improving our social, economic, and health indices.

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