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Locked In Silence: The Implications of Shrinking Civic Space for Women Survivors of Violence


In recent years, the global landscape has borne witness to a deeply concerning trend: the gradual but persistent shrinking of civic space. This multifaceted phenomenon entails an array of restrictive measures imposed on civil society organizations (CSOs), activists, and human rights defenders, significantly curtailing their capacity to operate freely, voice dissent, and advocate for change. As this constriction intensifies worldwide, its reverberations are felt across the entire spectrum of society. However, it is crucial to recognize that the impact of shrinking civic space is not uniform; its consequences are experienced in unique ways within individual countries, including Nigeria, where the implications for women survivors of violence are particularly profound.

Nigeria, like many nations, grapples with its own distinct challenges regarding civic space. A country of immense diversity, both culturally and geographically, it has a vibrant civil society that has historically played a pivotal role in advocating for human rights, social justice, and gender equality. Nigerian CSOs have been at the forefront of the battle against gender-based violence, providing vital services to survivors and advocating for legal reforms and cultural shifts to eradicate such violence.

However, against this backdrop of robust civil society engagement, Nigeria has witnessed a troubling tightening of civic space in recent years. Restrictive laws, bureaucratic hurdles, and unwarranted surveillance have combined to hinder the work of NGOs and activists, limiting their ability to operate effectively. Such constraints have been exacerbated by security concerns and counterterrorism measures, which have often been used to justify stifling civil society voices.

In the context of Nigeria, the implications of shrinking civic space are acutely felt by women survivors of violence. This article seeks to illuminate the specific challenges faced by these survivors within a Nigerian context. It underscores how the narrowing civic space diminishes their access to critical support services, stifles advocacy to combat gender-based violence, isolates survivors, and perpetuates harmful gender norms. Moreover, the digital realm, which has become an essential arena for activism and advocacy, poses additional challenges, with women activists encountering cyberbullying, online harassment, and digital surveillance that further limit their capacity to effect change.

While the article acknowledges the country-specific manifestations of shrinking civic space in Nigeria, it also emphasizes the global implications. It underscores the pressing need for governments, international bodies, and Nigerian authorities to act decisively to protect and extend civic space, recognizing the pivotal role that civil society organizations play in addressing and redressing violence against women. Moreover, it advocates for heightened awareness about the consequences of shrinking civic space within Nigeria, urging not only the human rights community but also the general public to recognize the vital importance of safeguarding civic space as a sanctuary for survivors and a catalyst for change.

In traversing this terrain within Nigeria, this article advocates for breaking the silence surrounding the implications of shrinking civic space for women survivors of violence. Such a concerted effort can empower these survivors, amplify their voices, and facilitate the emergence of a more equitable and just Nigeria, where violence against women is not only acknowledged but eradicated, and where civic space remains open and vibrant—a sanctuary for survivors and a catalyst for change.

The Shrinking Civic Space: A Global and Nigerian Perspective

Global Implications of Shrinking Civic Space and its Impact on Women Survivors of Violence

In a rapidly changing world where information flows across boundaries and connectivity has become the norm, the shrinking of civic space has garnered international attention. Civil society organizations, activists, and human rights defenders have played pivotal roles in shaping societies and advocating for change. However, the space for their engagement is diminishing worldwide, and the implications are particularly severe for women survivors of violence.

For women who are survivors of violence, civil society organizations and activists have historically played a crucial role as lifelines, advocates, and agents of change. They have provided safe spaces, counseling, legal support, and avenues for survivors to share their experiences. Moreover, these organizations have been instrumental in advocating for policy changes, legal reforms, and societal awareness regarding gender-based violence. However, the global restrictions on civic space threaten these vital support networks and advocacy efforts:

  1. Restrictive Legislation: In many countries, governments have introduced or amended laws to curtail the activities of CSOs and activists. These laws often impose onerous registration requirements, funding restrictions, and harsh penalties for non-compliance. For organizations supporting women survivors of violence, compliance with such laws can become a burdensome task, diverting resources and attention away from their core mission.
  2. Bureaucratic Hurdles: Governments use administrative roadblocks to hamper the functioning of civil society. This includes delaying or denying permits for public gatherings, rallies, and protests. For advocates working with women survivors of violence, these hurdles can disrupt awareness campaigns, marches, and public events that are essential for challenging the culture of silence surrounding gender-based violence.
  3. Surveillance and Intimidation: Activists and organizations critical of governments are subjected to surveillance, harassment, and even violence. This not only inhibits their work but also creates a climate of fear. Women survivors of violence who seek assistance and support from these organizations may hesitate due to concerns about their privacy and security.
  4. Online Repression: The digital realm, which has become a vital space for activism and advocacy, is also subject to restrictions. Governments employ tactics such as internet shutdowns, censorship, and digital surveillance to curtail online dissent. This affects the ability of organizations to connect with survivors and provide online support, especially relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  5. Smear Campaigns: Activists and CSOs are often targets of disinformation and smear campaigns aimed at undermining their credibility and tarnishing their reputation. These tactics can erode public trust in organizations working with women survivors of violence, making it harder for survivors to seek help.

The cumulative effect of these global trends is a stifling of civil society voices and the erosion of democratic norms and values. For women survivors of violence, this means a reduction in available support services, a climate of fear and insecurity, and a decreased capacity of organizations to advocate for their rights.

Nigeria’s Experience of Shrinking Civic Space and Its Disproportionate Impact on Women Survivors of Violence

Nigeria, as Africa’s most populous country and one of its largest democracies, is not immune to the global trend of shrinking civic space. Its vibrant civil society has long been a beacon of advocacy, pushing for change in various spheres of society. However, in recent years, the Nigerian government has introduced measures that have curtailed the activities of CSOs and activists, and the implications for women survivors of violence are particularly concerning.

  1. Legislative Barriers: The Nigerian government has enacted laws that impede the work of NGOs, particularly those receiving foreign funding. These laws create a complex web of regulations that can be used to target and stifle organizations critical of government policies. For organizations providing critical services to women survivors of violence, these legal barriers can be insurmountable, limiting their ability to operate effectively.
  2. Security Concerns: Nigeria’s struggle with terrorism and insurgency has led to heightened security measures, which have sometimes been employed to justify clamping down on civil society. Counterterrorism efforts have been used as a pretext to suppress dissent. This affects the ability of organizations to operate in conflict-affected areas where violence against women is prevalent.
  3. Digital Challenges: The digital space, which has offered new avenues for activism, is not exempt from restrictions. The government has, at times, restricted access to social media platforms, hampering online advocacy efforts. This hinders organizations’ ability to connect with survivors and raise awareness of gender-based violence.
  4. Harassment and Intimidation: Activists and CSOs face harassment, threats, and intimidation, both online and offline. This has a chilling effect on their work and discourages many from speaking out. For organizations supporting women survivors of violence, such harassment can deter them from seeking assistance.
  5. Economic Pressures: The government has also employed economic pressure by freezing the accounts of organizations critical of its policies. This has a crippling effect on their ability to operate effectively, including providing essential services and support to survivors.

The implications of these restrictions on civic space in Nigeria are far-reaching, affecting various segments of society. However, for women survivors of violence, these challenges intersect with their existing vulnerabilities, making it exceedingly difficult for them to access critical support services and for advocates to push for systemic change. Women survivors of violence in Nigeria face not only the immediate physical and psychological consequences of abuse but also the additional barriers created by the shrinking civic space, further compounding their suffering and hindering their path to justice and recovery.

In light of the global and Nigerian experiences of shrinking civic space and its disproportionate impact on women survivors of violence, it is imperative that concerted efforts be made to address this critical issue. While the challenges are formidable, there are concrete steps that governments, civil society, and the international community can take to mitigate the negative consequences and safeguard the rights and well-being of women survivors of violence.


  1. Review and Reform Restrictive Laws: Governments should review and reform laws and regulations that restrict the operation of civil society organizations, particularly those addressing gender-based violence. These reforms should simplify registration processes, eliminate onerous restrictions, and ensure compliance with international human rights standards.
  2. Ensure Security for Activists: Governments must take measures to guarantee the safety and security of activists and CSO staff working on gender-based violence issues. This includes investigating and prosecuting those responsible for threats, harassment, and attacks on activists.
  3. Support Digital Freedom: Protecting digital spaces is crucial. Governments should refrain from imposing unnecessary restrictions on the internet and social media platforms. Online advocacy and support services for women survivors of violence must be allowed to function without interference.
  4. Promote Gender Sensitivity: Both government institutions and civil society organizations should invest in gender sensitivity training for law enforcement, judicial personnel, and service providers. This will ensure that survivors are treated with respect, and their complaints are taken seriously.
  5. Financial Independence for CSOs: CSOs should be supported in diversifying their funding sources to reduce dependency on foreign funding, which can be weaponized against them. Local philanthropy and sustainable funding mechanisms should be explored.
  6. Establish Safe Reporting Mechanisms: Governments and CSOs should create and promote confidential and secure reporting mechanisms for survivors of gender-based violence. These mechanisms should be accessible and well-publicized to encourage survivors to seek help without fear of retaliation.
  7. Advocate for Accountability: Civil society organizations should continue to advocate for accountability and transparency in government actions. They should document and report instances of civic space restrictions and gender-based violence, raising awareness both domestically and internationally.
  8. International Support: The international community should monitor and speak out against shrinking civic space, providing support to activists and organizations at risk. International pressure can be an effective tool in urging governments to respect human rights.
  9. Intersectional Approach: Recognize the intersectionality of gender-based violence by considering the specific challenges faced by marginalized groups. Ensure that policies and services are inclusive and address the unique needs of women from diverse backgrounds.
  10. Amplify Survivor Voices: Encourage and amplify the voices of women survivors of violence. Their experiences and testimonies are powerful tools for raising awareness, changing societal attitudes, and influencing policy changes.

In conclusion, safeguarding civic space and protecting the rights of women survivors of violence are not mutually exclusive objectives; they are interconnected and interdependent. The ability of civil society to operate freely and advocate for change is essential for addressing gender-based violence effectively. When civic space shrinks, women survivors of violence face additional barriers to justice, support, and recovery. By implementing these recommendations and upholding the principles of human rights, governments and civil society can work together to ensure that women survivors of violence receive the support and justice they deserve, regardless of the prevailing civic space conditions. It is a collective responsibility to protect and empower the most vulnerable among us, and it is through collective action that lasting change can be achieved.

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