I was locked in an invisible cell for too long; for 26 years, I dwelled in darkness and bondage. I was blinded and it never even occurred to me that I was a prisoner. I was an unconscious criminal guilty of no crime, however, judged and sentenced. No one truly saw my chains, no one came to my rescue, my sympathizers simply worsened my situation. They said I sounded ‘impossible’, and breaking out of the dungeon was a deviation from the norm. Naïve and ignorant, I thought it was safe for me to stay in my own echo chamber.
As a young girl, I was inexperienced and didn’t perceive that lessons such as; ‘women’s place is in the kitchen’ and the orientation on the need for me to stay in the ‘private space’ were meant to limit my dreams and stop me from accessing lifetime opportunities. I spent over two decades, trying to prove my worth as a ‘virtuous woman’. I had to engage in all sorts of energy sapping and time-consuming domestic activities. While I was made to understand that it was my place to do household chores, I envied boy children around me who were left to do the math. I felt my life had no value and I was heading nowhere. There were times I sacrificed school days to perform household duties in a male-dominated family. Ignorantly, I languished through the rough path of relegation simply because of my sex.
Later in life, I read literature about female convicts and came to the realization that I was no better than them. The only difference was that I was not behind bars. I learned that some female convicts typically wake up at 6 am, 5 am and sometimes even at 3:30 am. I was no different from them because waking up very early to carry out assorted chores was a routine for me. I would wake up at 5 am to cook for my brothers while they simply slept till dawn. I prepared breakfast, heated water, cleaned dishes and tidied the compound before going to school, while my brothers only had to shower and have their breakfast. During big family events like weddings and funerals, I worked all night preparing food for people. I was judged and sentenced, with my crime, unfortunately, being the fact that ‘I was a girl’.
Literature also says female convicts are coerced into sex in return for favours, exposed to the risk of abuse/rape, and used as objects of entertainment for men. I grew up watching half-naked female models on TV parading in front of decently dressed men and I inadvertently made to understand that women are sex objects and should dress to attract men. While at University, many of my mates were forced into sex in exchange for ‘good grades”, others raped. My case was not any different. I remember being approached by two lecturers to have sex with them in exchange for good grades. My mates and I weren’t different from convicts. We were simply considered as ‘sex objects’, meant for men’s pleasure.
Through reading, I also learned that female inmates were checked and counted during the day and at night. My father checked his female children during the day and especially during the nights. We were not supposed to keep late hours but my brothers could. We were not even allowed to wear trousers, it was ’unchristian’, they said. I wore tight loins covering my feet, sometimes finding it extremely difficult to walk. My crime was that I was a ‘weaker sex’ vulnerable to abuse and should be protected.
As a woman, I had no opportunity to obtain a loan from micro finance institutions to start up my own business. This is the challenge still faced by many girls/women today. Since I could not inherit property due to traditional barriers, I had no collateral to secure loans. My dreams to start a business at a young age were shattered, I remained dependent for a very long time. At some point, I felt that some female inmates had more access and rights to family resources than I did. I was declared ‘another man’s property’ and could not inherit my father’s property reserved strictly for his male children.
At 26 years I was engaged for marriage. When I visited my husband-to-be, I remember him telling me that to qualify to finally marry him, I needed to cut interactions with neighbours and rather concentrate on house chores. His reason for locking me out from the rest of the world was that I will be ‘intoxicated’. As if this was not enough, he insisted that I must change my denomination and join his. He said because he was rich, when we get married I will stay at home and take care of the children while he works. He undermined my many years of hard work and study in University, equating my master degree to routine domestic work with no opportunity for growth. It did not matter to him how I felt. Another suitor told me that to qualify to marry him, I had to prove my fertility and be 4 months pregnant before he takes me to the ‘alter’ for our church wedding. I refused attempts by the two suitors to talk me down from living my own dreams and simply become a housewife. Therefore, at age 26, I was considered as a desperate single lady, with limited opportunities to marry and be a ‘Mrs’, a title some single ladies are said to be desperate for.
My experiences made me build a wall of resistance around me. But more importantly, I was convicted of the idea that I wasn’t here on earth to be tossed around because of my femaleness. The more I pondered on my purpose, the more I became aware of the fact I had been born a convict and made to live in chains. No longer was I to listen to the voices without, ‘be submissive’, ‘you must know how to cook, it is the way to a man’s heart’, ’you cannot inherit any family property’ ‘your place is in the kitchen’ ‘watch your weight because men love thin girls’, ‘you must marry and have children’, ‘the man is the bread winner,’ ‘you are some one’s property,’ and ‘to be respected, you must be a ‘Mrs’. These voices stirred anger in me. But I decided to convert the anger into positive action. It was time to break loose my chains.
As I became more aware of my own ordeal, I became a solution seeker for the problems I faced because I was a woman. I created a group of 15 empowered ladies, devoted to advocating for gender equality in my community. Like female inmates, the similarity of the various hardships we had gone through, had built a strong sense of female solidarity in us. Our objective was clearly defined, ‘to break into female cells and free all the captives’.
Though subtle in our approach, we were steadfast. We made use of every opportunity to raise awareness on women’s right, building self-esteem and exposing women to career opportunities. We were surprised with how many sisters were in bondage. Many willing to come out of bondage, yet others were not bold enough to challenge the status quo, rather calling us ‘radicals’. Although we met with strong resistance, we knew there was no victory in giving up.
Along the years, we met many women’s rights activist nationally and internationally, negotiated partnerships with organizations involved in women’s empowerment which facilitated identification, referrals, and intervention in abused cases. We succeeded because we were devoted, commitment, determined, steadfast, relentless, and unstoppable. Now, we are spread across the world and still steadfast in our fight.
Today I celebrate my new status, ‘I am an ‘ex-convict’, never to be a prisoner of society’s perception of women again. Although memories of my past periodically float my mind, they give me a reason to advocate for others without losing faith in the change I dream for. Ex-convicts neither sleep nor slumber. They are intentionally helping to free others at all times.