I recently saw the movie adaptation of Alice Walker’s book ‘The Color Purple’ directed by Spike Lee and Starring Whoppi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover among others. In the movie Whoppi Goldberg’s character Celie Harris has been a victim of abuse all of her life, by the time she was fourteen she already had two children by her father and they were taken away from her at birth, she is forced against her will to marry a rich local widower Albert who beats her when he thinks she falters, turns her into a maid for his house and a nanny for his over-pampered children, in the long run Celie becomes submissive, silent and accepting of her fate at the hands of Mister Albert. On the other hand Sophia who marries Albert’s son Harpo is a spitfire who refuses to take violence from the men in her lives. When Harpo asks Celie what he should do to make Sofia more submissive and respectful of him she tells Harpo, ‘Beat her’. Sofia finds out that Celie gave Harpo this wrong advice and has this to say to Celie: “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of mens, but I ain’t never thought I had to fight in my own house! I love Harpo, God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead ’fore I let him beat me. Now, you want a dead son-in-law, Miss Celie? You keep on advising him like you doin’”.
Celie represents the higher populace of Nigerian women who see domestic violence as a part of life, the type of norm that I preach against, while Sofia represents the strong, independent, self-evolving black woman who refuses to take abuse and stands up against her partner to protect herself, Sofia is the type of woman that I propagate in this piece.
Nneoma and Aloy are a young married couple of six months. Nneoma’s family wanted her to marry a young man who had a promising future and would be willing to support with the upkeep of Nneoma’s family. Two months after they got married, Alloy slapped Nneoma over a minor argument; she let it pass with the thoughts of it being a onetime action. A month later, Aloy beat her up so bad her injuries could not be covered up. The fifth month into their marriage, Aloy beat Nneoma again, only this time she had to be rushed to the Intensive Care Unit of a nearby hospital. Her brothers beat Aloy, got the police to arrest him and he was locked up for two nights before he was released. When Nneoma got better, she went home with her parents to recuperate but only after a week her father told her she would have to return to her husband’s home. She begged her father to let her stay because she was afraid of Aloy and what he could do to her. Her father replied by telling her that no one forced her into marriage so anything she had to face in her marriage was entirely her cross. With fear, trepidation and resigned to her faith of misery until death, Nneoma returned to her husband.
Keere is a 300 level student in a Nigerian University in the middle-belt region of Nigeria. She has been dating her boyfriend Lawrence for seven months. No one knew Lawrence had a mean streak of violence in him until Keere moved in with him; that is when the violence began. Lawrence would come home from lectures to an already prepared meal of Semo and Egusi soup with large chunks of meat, he would stare at the food in anger, throw it all away, lock the doors and beat Keere up for reasons that are still unknown to me. I remember one time when I heard Keere screaming; Lawrence had locked the doors and was hitting her with everything he could find in sight, her friends were crying outside the door begging Lawrence to let Keere go. When Keere emerged, she looked bloodied, scared worse than a chicken at Christmas and emotionally stripped of her dignity. I found a way to speak to Keere the next day and I pleaded with her to leave Lawrence, she told me “Chima, he will change, he is just acting out in the spirit of his youth”. Three months later, when Lawrence grauduated, he took Keere home to his family and introduced her as the girl he wanted to marry.
Ifunaya works with one of the branches of First Bank in Lagos, she was a victim of domestic violence for more than 10 years, and nobody knew what was happening because she always covered her bruises well. She stayed in an abusive relationship for so long in the hope that her husband would ‘snap’ out of his violent character and become the man she had married. When she realized that was never going to happen, she wrote a letter to her husband, dropped it on the coffee table took her children and left. She got a new flat, changed her children’s school and got sole custody of her kids, Her husband can only see the kids several times a month and the visits must be supervised because Ifunanya insists that a man who hit her for 10 years in front of their children will not be left alone to interact with them until he gets counseling for his problems.
My mother told me about a friend of hers Chizoba who got married at the age of 22 to a young man who was extremely jealous and incredulously possessive. He would lock her up in the house when he was going to work and would only open the doors for her to step out when he came home; he beat her up if his meals were late and apologized with six yards of hollandis wrapper. Chizoba ran away two years later from a marriage that had become a prison. She had no University degree, no job, no vocation, no money, but she had her life.
The Nigerian constitution is a huge joke and a shameful fallacy, that much is a fact. The constitution guarantees equality in its fundamental human rights provision in Chapter IV of the 1999 constitution embedded in the constitutional guarantee for all persons. I cannot over-emphasize how little lives are valued in Nigeria, the nonchalant attitude of government to critical matters and the blind eye of the public to problems that stare us in the face. A key social problem that occurs every day in Nigeria but seems to be without government attention nor public apathy is the discrimination for justice and violation of women in Nigeria. The law says one thing but another practice exists in reality. Women rights are not regarded as important and are infringed upon all the time. The problem is further compounded by a patriarchal legal system that governs the country and a Sharia system in the north that places women as subordinates whose rights are not properly defined in laid out regulations. My focus here is on domestic violence suffered by Nigerian women at the hands of those who are supposed to love and cherish them and the betrayal from the people who should protect them.
According to a research carried out by Think Africa Press two-third of Nigerian women are victims of domestic violence in their homes; this type of abuse can be physical, sexual or psychological and although men can be victims of domestic violence women suffer disproportionately. Questions seeking answers for this issue include: Why is domestic violence on the increase in Nigeria? How effectively are the police in attending to cases of domestic violence? What framework has the government put in place to criminalize domestic violence? Why do a large mass of the Nigerian public turn a blind eye to this issue? How can women seek justice as victims of domestic violence? What do women who have been abused need to do to move on from the tag ‘victim’?
The first problem with domestic violence is that it is seen as a private matter to be dealt with on the home front. In poor neighbourhoods of Lagos where I live, nobody interferes when a man is beating his partner because it is accepted as a normal means of punishment for an offense which the wife/girlfriend has committed, thus the need for physical discipline. The motivation for this write up came to me when my neighbor locked the doors to his flat so he could properly ‘discipline’ his girlfriend who was seven months pregnant, she had the nerve to ask him to sell his small generator so she could use the money to buy clothes for the unborn baby. I saw him when he emerged, walking with his shoulders taller, a look of pride for his actions on his face and I wondered why this short 5ft 5 inches guy did not look for someone his own size to pick on!
If the woman is brave enough to go to the police, she is looked at with scorn and told to go home and solve her problems. Unless she is affiliated with a civil rights group or comes from a family of affluence, the husband is in this case arrested, locked up for a couple of days, beaten an inch within his life and released.
The constitution is not clear on punishments for domestic violence, so men with a penchant for beating women can do so without fear of arrest or jail term. The Nigerian police do not have specialized institutional framework that can deal with cases as sensitive as women suffering abuse in their homes. You put a police officer whose highest qualification is a secondary school leaving certificate behind the counter of a police station and expect him to have the intellect and psychological capacity to deal with a woman who is hysterical, wounded and emotionally broken.
According to Amnesty International, many believe that a woman is expected to endure whatever she meets in her matrimonial home, to provide sex and be obedient to her husband who has the right to violate and batter her if she fails to meet her marital duties. The penal code in Northern states allows the correction of child, pupil, servant or wife as long as it does not amount to grievous harm (Section 55). Furthermore, marital rape is excluded from the definition of rape under state-level Sharia penal code in Northern states and under the criminal code in Southern states. Specifically, section 295 of the criminal code recognizes “the resort to some degree of violence for correctional purposes” (Think Africa Press). The Muslim Family Safety Project contradicts the above with this statement “Forcing a wife to have sex without her consent is a crime called sexual assault and a person charged with a crime cannot use religion or culture as an excuse or legal defense”. The reason I stated the above is because the Sharia law which is supposed to be a guideline for the way of life for Muslims in the north, while also executing punishment to erring members has no clear cut defined laws on domestic violence. It does not associate rape in marital home as violence or abuse neither does it state clear punishment for men who abuse their wives. The masses are also guilty for turning a blind eye every time an incidence of domestic violence happens around us. The government has not been firm enough in its bid to institutionalize legal framework that criminalize domestic violence or protect women from abuse in their homes.
Most women in Nigeria cannot escape violence in homes because of their poor economic status. A large number of women who are victims are those who have no jobs and are fully housewives. Thus they put up with the fear of loss of financial support offered by the male and the constant threat of threat of eviction from their marital homes; this is not limited to uneducated or poor women because a Global Press Institute study shows that 65% of educated women have been beaten by their husbands or boyfriend.
Another reason why domestic violence is on the increase is because victims do not speak out due to the fact that those who do receive poor treatment regarding their cases. The real figure of Nigerian women who are victims of domestic violence is unknown because there is a low number of women who report domestic violence. This is not Europe or America where government rises up to socio-political issues regarding safety of its citizens. Sadly, this is Africa; to be more precise, this is Nigeria Where Anything Goes. A country where the government is blind to the needs of the masses except those of its own, where bills take five years to become laws, where archaic practices detrimental to human lives are still in effect because they refuse to accept that change is the only reality that must occur for pro-creative development to be achieved.
So while we wait for the government to save us, why don’t we find ways to survive and redeem ourselves like we envision we should be? The most important factor that Nigerian women need to let go of is the victim life. The life of a victim is a woman who is beaten all the time by her partner; she takes it in stride without seeking redress and accepting abuse as a part of her life. The woman who lives as a victim lives a life of fear, anger, hate, frustration, discontentment and an unfulfilled life that ends in misery. We need to be stronger than we perceive ourselves to be because we are not minor, we are major. By taking abuse in silence we grease the engine of sadistic men who feel that the only way they are in charge is when they use violence to solve problems with their wives. We must achieve economic empowerment before we tie the knot with a partner. Insist on getting an education before marriage so that you have something to fall back on when you need a way out. If you cannot get an education, find ways to start a trade or get a job even when you are married so that you are not completely redundant and dependent on your partner on all your needs. A man will treat a woman with a measure of respect if he knows she can leave and sustain herself without his help. The days of divorce not being an option are far gone. If your partner refuses to change, leave him and rebuild your life elsewhere especially if you have children. If you let your children see you live the victim life, your sons will think it is okay for them to hit women and your daughters will believe it is a part of marriage for a woman to be physically abused.
Damola almost lost her life and that of her unborn baby at the hands of her boyfriend who took out his frustrations on her, Celie was a victim of circumstance who saw domestic violence as a part of her life, Nneoma married the wrong man but was unable to escape thus she lives in misery and fear, Keere hopes that her abusive boyfriend who batters her when the mood strikes will change when they get married. Chizoba a prisoner in her own home and a puppet to her husband ran away with nothing, Ify got away and has moved on with her life accepting her mistakes as what they are while forging a pathway for her children’s future in the comfort of her new home. Most of these women have been my neighbours at some point in my life, I have watched them suffer, watched them cry, and seen the fear in their eyes, the regret etched on their brows, trapped in a constant state of unhappiness. You are not a victim; you are a woman with a life to live and a purpose to serve. If anyone who is supposed to love you and cherish you makes your life a living hell you have every right to seek happiness where you can find it. The choices we make are ours but the decisions to adjust our lives when we make mistakes are what make us greater. I aspire to be like Sofia, a woman strong in the face of despair, unbroken in a society where women are supposed to be submissive and to fight for the ideas I believe in, though not with violence. SPEAK OUT AGAINST DOMESTIC VIOLENCE NOW!!!