I grew up in a police barracks in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In my community then, wife battering and the abuse of women were rife. Men/boys had little or no regard for women and girls. Religious tolerance as in the case of many other parts of the country was great. Both Christians and Muslims lived in harmony, but the women also shared the common pain of physical, emotional and psychological abuse by their husbands, partners and fathers. My mum lost few of her friends who died from internal bleeding sustained from some of the physical abuse by their husbands.
The women in my community worked really hard to make ends meet for their families. Most were house wives who indulged in petty trading and sometimes illegal businesses just to make their families happy. Some had what we called ‘pepe markit’; selling pepper, onion, fish, garri, and other vegetables, others sold bread and butter or bread and mayonnaise, some involved in the illegal sale of smuggled fuel or smuggled cigarettes from neighbouring Guinea. Some sold fresh vegetable from their back gardens while others do fresh fish from the nearby Congo town wharf. They were also responsible for taking the children to and from school, making sure children had clean uniform, attend parents and teachers association meetings. They also had the onus of making sure our community is clean as they championed the every Saturday cleaning exercise. They were in charge of making sure that the ‘sunakati’ (food for breaking fast in Ramadan) was also available every day of Ramadan and on time. They were also responsible for cleaning the church and making sure that activities of the church are well organized and came out as planned.
The men in my community did not recognize the virtues of the mummies and grannies in my community. They were not allowed in meetings that decide the fate of people in the community. They were meant to obey orders made by the men even though some of these decisions did not in any way favoured the progress of the community. Oftentimes, women and young girls are beaten and dragged naked in the eyes of the public. It was common for a husband to beat his wife and strip her naked in front of her children and neighbours. Nobody dare stood to challenge these nefarious acts. In most cases people will trivialize the issue by saying ‘it’s a Misses and Master matter; they will soon resolve it.’ This was a show of manliness, power and control over women. Neither the Reverend nor the Imam thought it necessary to intervene on behalf of these suffering women and girls. It was just a norm.
Amidst all this, poverty was rife and as a result some women had to prostitute themselves or send their daughters to prostitute in order for them to gather money to cater for their families. Some girls became breadwinners of their families at the early stage of adolescent. Some dropped out of school for the sole purpose of becoming a bread winner. Some families were so poor that some parents will warn their children not to have any business with children from very poor families. I remember a woman came to my mother one day and asked her to warn me not to walk with or make friend with a certain girl. Her statement was ‘she will not finish school. Have you seen any child from that family finishing school?’ she had asked and indeed the girl got pregnant while in JSS3. But was it her fault that she was born in an excruciatingly poor family and an abusive community wherein she had to use her body to help her family? No, but so was the plight of many other girls including those we attended primary and secondary schools together with.
Women had no control over the number of children they had; when to have kids or whether at all it was necessary to have kids was a solely male decision and which women got severe punishments for in the form of beating if they dare question family planning or if the man noticed his wife had been secretly using birth control pills. Apparently, the husband would return the wife to her parents for disobedience of using a pill and then asked the parents for a return of the bride price. Parents on their parts will return their daughter to the ‘camp death’ called marital home wherein she will be flogged as a warning to never try it again. Boys grew feeling the same absurd manliness and it was common to see young boys beating their girlfriends in public too.
Most husbands preferred to share the little salary they earned with their girlfriends rather than their families. It was also common for husbands to bring their girlfriends home to meet their wives knowing very well that the other woman was having an affair with their husbands.
I know a few families wherein husbands left their wives and stayed with girlfriends whom they felt are of better class and status than their wives. Occasionally, some of these girlfriends would send gifts to the poor wives and kids who would accept the gifts with smiles on their faces. Polygamy was also a widespread phenomenon among both Christian and Muslim families.
The emotional and psychological torture some women went through in that barracks lead to some running mad, others die and a few walked away but there were lots who stayed and endured for the sake of their children. Because families fell apart after the mothers left the marriage. Fathers brought in new wives who sent the children of the previous wife away. These children got out of school and were left to fend for themselves at the mercy of other men. Did these women deserve the treatments meted out to them? No, they don’t. And as I write this I know somewhere in the four corners of this world some women are going through similar abuse. It is the responsibility of us all to keep talking about these issues. Only words backed by action can make the change.